Entertainment

Rhianne Baretto: No, She's Not Rihanna — But She Understands That Mistake

Rhianne Baretto

There's no easy way to define a generation (trust us, because we've really tried with millennials), but who wants to do that anyway? Rather than trying to put a whole cohort of people born within the same 15-year span into some kind of box, let's just celebrate them, in all their distinctiveness.

More specifically, let's celebrate Gen Z, a generation who refuse any attempts to be seen en masse, and instead can best be understood through their individuality, their unique hopes and dreams, desires and demands. They are idealistic and unafraid, motivated and headstrong; they are icons and iconoclasts, and they make us excited for the future.

Last year, we took a look at 25 Gen Z'ers changing the world, a group that included activists, musicians, and actors. This year, we narrowed our focus to Hollywood, and are excited to share with you five young actors who are all primed to be the next big thing. Get to know them, below, and get ready to see them everywhere, soon.

The coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto isn't that she went to the same performing arts school as Amy Winehouse. The coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto isn't even that she only mentions this very cool fact in an offhand way when she's giving me all the details of her life, as we hang out after she shoots the video portraits for this story. No, the coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto is that she has the kind of chill confidence that can't be learned; it has to be a part of who you are. And it's definitely a part of Barreto. She's so in possession of it that, when I mentioned how many times my computer and phone autocorrected her name to "Rihanna," she simply smiled and said that made her "deeply sad," because she's constantly reminded that she'll never be the Bad Gal. And while that's true—there's only one Rihanna—it's pretty clear that there's also only one Rhianne Barreto.

Barreto was born and raised in London and is the second oldest of nine children—all of whom have names that begin with the letter R. Her acting career began, unofficially, when she was still in grade school. Her older sister was tapped to play a part in the school play and, when one of the other actors backed out, Barreto volunteered to play the part. She had learned all of the lines in her free time and stepped right up to the plate. "None of the boys wanted to do the play, all the girls wanted to wear dresses, and I was playing a man—wearing my brother's holy communion suit and putting dirt on my face as an orphan," she said. And the positive response to her performance led Barreto's mom and dad to "keep an eye" on their daughter's interest in acting, which resulted in her eventual transition to a performing arts school (yes, the one Winehouse attended). And it was a showcase put on by that school that led to Barreto getting noticed by agents and booking her first two roles.

Currently, you can catch Barreto playing Sophie, the titular character's BFF in the Amazon Prime Video original series Hanna. But up next, she'll front and center in Share, a feature film directed by Pippa Bianco and set to be released on HBO later this year. It's a conversation-starter of a movie, and opens on Barreto's character, 16-year-old Mandy, waking up on her front lawn after a night out, with no memory of how she got there; the film follows Mandy as she goes on an emotional journey to figure out what happened that night, and it grapples with issues related to sexual assault, retribution, young women's agency, and so much more. Barreto describes the film as an "elastic band [of anxiety] that is being pulled from the beginning, and you're just waiting for that thing to snap." Share powerfully complicates the onscreen narrative of sexual assault, due in no small part to Barreto's compelling performance.

Barreto told me that she was drawn to the role because of the openness of the film's message—or lack of any specific one. She told me, "If you want to be a survivor and speak out for these things, fucking do that. That takes bravery. But it also takes bravery not to do those things and to not speak out. We need to have the same amount of compassion for victims that [do both]." This is what Barreto wants people to take away from Share. When it comes to sexual assault, there is a real lack of clarity, and that's important to acknowledge. She told me, "[Consent is] not a pancake. It's a whole layered tiered cake of confusion, and it's not just one-sided. It's much fuller, and it takes a lot of teaching."

Another revolutionary aspect of Share is that it doesn't do what so many mainstream narratives do: center a white woman as a victim, as a "perfect" victim. Barreto—whose mother is, she joked, "just a white lady from England," and whose father was born in Iraq, and is Indian and Portuguese—cites director Bianco as the reason for this; she said, "It takes a certain kind of creative to champion people who got the job because of the ability and not because of the color. It would have been easier for her to hire a white girl from America."

And Bianco's support of Barreto extends to other things, too: Barreto had to deal with hostile American immigration policies when the time came to film Share. She explained to me that, after her application for a work visa had been approved, she was told she would just need to visit the U.S. embassy and get the final stamp of approval from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). It was supposed to be easy; she said everyone told her, "Just go in and be nice and normal and you'll be fine."

"If you want to be a survivor and speak out for these things, fucking do that. That takes bravery."

Instead, when Barreto got to the embassy, she was hit with a barrage of questions like: "Where are you from?" "Where are your parents from?" "Do you speak Arabic?" She was then even told: "You don't look British." So even though Barreto was twice approved for a visa, she was also twice denied once immigration representatives saw her in person. And so, with only a few weeks before filming was supposed to take place in New York, Bianco made the decision to move the entire shoot to Canada.

The difficulties didn't end there, though: When it was time for Barreto to attend the premiere of Share at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it took calls to the embassy from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Grace Meng to finally get approval for Barreto to enter the U.S. Barreto still can't quite believe it, and said, "They had senators fighting my case to get me to go to my premiere. If I have that and I still can't get an 0-1B visa [classified as a nonimmigrant visa for individuals with "an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry"], then what about people who don't have money and need to get in for safety?"

This kind of questioning of a larger cultural context is typical for Barreto; she might identify her own experiences as being problematic, but she quickly links them to the bigger problems that people face all over the world. Whether related to immigration, sexual assault, or the media's representations of people of color, the important issues of today are ones with which Barreto is acutely engaged, and actively looking for answers to the world's most persistent questions. If she's at all representative of Gen Z, there might just be hope for the future after all.

Credits:

Director: Dani Okon

Co-Producers: Charlotte Prager & Alexandra Hsie

Production Manager: Alison Yardley