Why Do Stories Matter: An Interview With Kat Barrell

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Kat Barrell Discusses Clexacon, Fandom, the Power of Storytelling, and Diverse Representation in Media

“At The Fandomentals, we’ve got you covered for all the most exciting ClexaCon news. We had a VIP pass giveaway as well as posts on the Spashley Reunion and what an awesome array of panelists and guests will be there. I’m excited to announce another exclusive: an interview with the one and only Kat Barrell. Known primarily for her role as Officer Nicole Haught on Syfy’s/CHCH-DT’s Wynonna Earp (which we’ve reviewed and discussed, check it out!), Kat Barrell is also an up and coming director. With her production company, Kit Media, she has produced several short films and hopes to get work started on her first feature as a director 2017. She is starring in the upcoming feature film “My Ex-Ex”, which will have a limited release in the United States and a special premiere event this Sunday in Santa Monica, CA.

Last week, Gretchen sat down with her to discuss ClexaCon and being involved in the LGBT and WayHaught fandoms. What emerged was a discussion of the importance of representation and diversity in media including women, people of color, and LGBT+ persons. Given the power that stories and storytellers have over their audiences, Kat Barrell urges diversity in writers rooms and true collaboration between writers, producers, directors and actors to tell the stories of marginalized communities.”

Gretchen: What made you decide that you wanted to be a part of ClexaCon and what are you most excited for?

Kat Barrell: “What makes me want to take part is how wonderful the fans have been to me. Finding this community of people who love the show and love Nicole specifically, support what we’re doing and feel passionate about it—I wanted an opportunity to meet everybody, to put faces to names and spread the love. The fanbase has done so much for the show and for me. The support has been overwhelmingly positive and I want to give back. I’ve been so embraced by this beautiful community and I felt like it was a way for me to say thank you and participate more. I’m so excited to meet not only the fans but also other people in the entertainment industry, other actors portraying queer characters, and other writers. I’m going to meet so many amazing thinkers, and I’m excited about the ideas and conversations. One of my favorite things about everything that’s happened with Wynonna is that I now get to talk to people all over the world about media, storytelling, and the importance of women in film. I’ll be able to make more friends who share these passions with me. On top of that, I’ll get to expand my own worldview and knowledge base. It’s just a huge opportunity to learn.”

G: Has interacting with the WayHaught fandom changed how you approach or understand how you portray Officer Haught?

KB: “From where I sit now, there is know way for me to “un-know” everything that has happened with the Wynonna fandom and how popular Nicole and WayHaught have become. One of the beautiful gifts I had in Season 1 was that I was so ignorant as to any of this ever happening. I thought I was only going to do a couple of episodes, and that’s how I played Nicole. It will be a bigger challenge in Season 2 because I really don’t want to be thinking ‘how is this going to be perceived?’ or ‘how are people going to react?’. I think it’s inevitable; it’s so hard to not think about it, but I’m going to try and have it not factor into my acting choices as much as I can.

“One of the great things with Nicole in Season 1 for me was that I played her as this badass awesome cop with a super strong moral compass and who also happened to be gay. No part of my portrayal would have changed given that she’s queer. I’m going to try really, really hard to get back into that headspace. Obviously now I know that everything we do is going to get back onto the internet; every moment of every scene is going to be scrutinized and taken apart and analyzed and hunted for clues and all these amazing fun things that fandoms do. As an actor, it can cause a lot of anxiety, the pressure of living up to the expectations. I want to keep doing a good job but I also want to keep playing the character in the original way that I saw her. I’m going to be working really hard just to get away. I’ll still be engaged on social media while we’re shooting, but I’m going to try to shut it off so that I can focus on my work, which is doing the best portrayal that I can. I don’t want to get too in my head about how the fans and viewers are going to react to it. It’s going to be a tricky balance; it’s a challenge I’ve never had to deal with before in my career.

“And I’m really just the skin and body of Nicole; the writers are the heart. It’s a true collaboration. My job is to bring to life the story that Emily and the writers create, and I have no idea what’s going to be happening for Season 2. On top of that, there’s working with new directors on the show who might not know as much about what happened with Wynonna and with the WayHaught relationship. It will need to be a balance because you’re getting the words from the writer, then the shaping of the scene is between you, the other actors, the director, and the producer. It’s a group effort as to how all this comes across. And then you do five takes; you don’t know which moments they choose. So much of it is out of my control.

“That’s also scary because Nicole has become so precious to me and I’ve become so protective of how she’s perceived. I have to let that control go and remind myself that there’s a big team behind the show. It’s not just me, it’s just my face. We’ll see, but I do think it’s going to be a challenge. There’s no way that if I’m shooting certain scenes, I’m not going to be thinking about ‘how is this going to be perceived by the fans?’. I can’t un-know everything that I know. At the same time though, I have to let it go to be able to do my job properly.”

G: You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you like to go into the WayHaught tag on Tumblr and look at fanart. Do you have any favorite pieces or types of fanart?

KB: “I like it all! I like to see the passion that people have for the show. The fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, and other ways that people engage with the show—it takes a lot of work and time. All the love and passion that people put into these characters makes me really happy. I believe we’ve become very apathetic as a general society, so when I see people getting fired up about something it renews my faith in humanity. It’s a really broad statement to make, but I love to see passion and community; it makes me feel better as a human being, like I’m living in a world where people with passion who want to make art still exist.

“It’s the engagement as a whole, seeing people get excited about something and spending time. The videos that people edit, the songs people write, I love it all! It’s self expression and it’s beautiful. It’s why I’m an artist, because I believe in the power of storytelling. We can struggle so much in the arts to get people to watch something or engage with it and when so many people are doing it, it’s such a blessing. It’s a sigh of relief to know that there are still people out there that need these stories, a reminder that storytelling is so important in our culture and our very saturated media market. The tradition of storytelling goes back to the beginnings of mankind and I can’t really think of too many other jobs that have been around for that long and still have that much power. Looking into the future, I like to believe that storytelling is going to be something that humans will always do. It gives me a boost.”

G: Would you say that you feel like you are as much an inspiration to other artists as you are an artist yourself?

JB: “That’s a beautiful sentiment. I would never have thought of it on my own but I would love for that to be true! That would be really special.”

G: What are the most meaningful fan interaction(s) or gift(s) that you’ve received?

KB: “They’re all so meaningful, especially the letters. I love it when people send me pictures of themselves because I like to put a face to a name.

“There was this one letter I received from a pediatric doctor who had a particular patient she was having a hard time getting through to. She was a teenager and she was really shut down and wouldn’t really talk to anyone. One night, the doctor saw her patient watching an episode of Wynnona Earp, so she sat down and watched it with her. They now have this common thing that they can talk about together, and it completely opened the teenager up. It’s something that’s stuck with me: the power of creating a dialogue that allowed her to get through to the girl. It’s pretty phenomenal that it was through Wynonna Earp. That the show was a way for her to communicate with this kid who was really struggling and having a hard time with life right now. I think that’s really beautiful.”

G: What does it mean to you to be accepted and loved by the LGBT fandom?

KB: “”It’s amazing! I’m so lucky and grateful and feel like I have such a community here. I can’t say enough good things about it. I’m so blessed to be in such a strong and powerful and vocal community of people. It’s very rare that we find these groups of people that are passionate. I feel super lucky and supported, that I can be myself and reach out to people if I find something I’m passionate about.

“The other day I shared a post from my local Animal shelter about a contest they are in to help them get new office equipment. All they needed was for people to vote for them. I shared the post and hundreds of fans voted with me; there was this incredible ripple of goodwill within hours. That’s a perfect example of the power I have been afforded through social media and this community. That’s the power of being able to get people on board with something. A lot of my fans are also animal lovers, so we have that in common; I love being able to share that with people. I’ve never really been much of an online user; I never really used Twitter and Instagram a lot before Wynonna because I didn’t see the purpose. For me right now, the purpose is to connect with other people. I love that we can come together over our shared love for the show (I’m just as much of a fan as everyone else is); it’s pretty awesome.”

G: I have to ask about the bullet proof vest scene in “I Walk The Line”. Given that fans had warned you to wear a bullet proof vest now that you were playing a lesbian on TV, what did you think when you got the script saying you would be shot wearing a bullet proof vest?

KB: “I didn’t think anything when I got the script because we shot that scene in February and the show didn’t air until the spring. I didn’t get any messages from fans at all until we aired and we’d already shot the whole season. I started getting messages around episode 2—when Nicole was first introduced—messages like “make sure you’re wearing a bullet proof vest”. I thought “How do they know?” I had no clue! I didn’t know about the Bury Your Gays trope. In my head, we shot a scene where I, a cop, was wearing a vest. It didn’t mean anything to me other than ‘of course she’s going to have a bullet proof vest on, she’s a cop’. Slowly, as we moved on through the series and I learned more about what had gone on in other shows and became more educated, then I realized what a big deal that scene was going to be when it finally came up at the end of the season.”

G: Now that you have a different context for understanding that scene and what it meant to fans to have Nicole and the WayHaught relationship survive, what does it mean to you to be playing a wlw character who has survived the ‘Spring Slaughter’ when so many other female LGBT characters were killed off of other shows?

KB: “It’s an immense sense of pride and responsibility, which seems to be a word that I’ve been using a lot recently when talking about playing Nicole. I feel like you have two different choices when you work in the media: you are either an actor who who has people following you but does not use your following to do anything good and continues to post only for narcissistic reasons. Or, you can realize that you’ve been given an opportunity, a platform to make a positive change in the world. So, what am I going to do with my precious chance? For me, [playing Nicole] reinforced how much of an opportunity I’ve been given in my life to bring some goodness into the world and make a positive impact on people’s lives. To be a positive role model and someone who wants to add goodness and spread a community atmosphere. There’s a sense of responsibility, because of this amazing opportunity. I feel like we are given a few precious chances in life to make a difference. It’s all in how you use it.

“I’ve always been aware that everything is temporary—good things and bad things—so seizing the moment while it’s here and enjoying every minute of it and using it to propel as much goodness into the world as I can is my goal, whether it’s for the queer community or for women in film. That’s is a huge thing for me as well; I’m really involved in women activist groups in the actors union I’m a part of, like getting women in the directors chair, etc. So above and beyond Nicole being a gay woman, the fact that she’s a cop and she’s a woman is important too. Playing a powerful female character in and of itself is what attracted me to Nicole. The fact that she was queer wasn’t the first thing I noticed about her. For me, I was so happy that I got to play a strong female cop, who was an awesome character, and also gay.

“So the passion is twofold: the passion for the queer community that I’ve learned so much more about over this past year and about how Nicole has such a positive impact on it. And the next level for me is that she’s a powerful woman and I’m on a show with other powerful women run by another powerful woman. It’s very, very rare in the industry and it’s super special. I love it. I’m so fortunate I’m on another show called Workin Moms where there’s also a beautiful queer relationship. It’s all about women and dealing with having young children and balancing act we face trying to ‘do it all’. That show also does a good job of showing all different kinds of relationships and I am really excited to see that too. It’s so nice to be on another show with positive queer representation and positive female representation.

“I am so excited for all the things coming down the pipe, and I feel like the industry is starting to change a little bit, for women and for how we’re represented in all our different forms. I hope, at least! I’m cautiously optimistic, and I do feel like things are starting to change. Jessica Jones for example, just mandated that every single episode in second season is going to be directed by a woman. I’m so excited for that! And it’s not like it’s women against the men, but I think we can’t effectively tell stories without a lot of different opinions. It comes from the top down, the writers, the directors, the producers, those are the big decision makers. We need equality in those rooms, like having an equal number of men and women and an equal number of people who identify as LGBT+ and people of diverse cultural backgrounds. We need diversity in those rooms because that’s where the stories come from. Before the actors are hired, major story decisions are already made. We need more education about the issue as well as more opportunities for diverse people to come to the table where the decisions are made.”

G: So, has playing Officer Haught and being a part of the WayHaught and LGBT fandoms impacted your perspective on being an aspiring director?

KB: “100%. Absolutely. Even with some of the writing I’ve done with my producing and writing partners, I’m so much more aware of what is needed and where the holes are in representation in our media. It’s the educational bit. There are issues that I wasn’t aware of and now I’m able to write characters that I feel are going to fill those gaps. My writing partners are both amazing women and we’re ethnically diverse, which is another important issue that the media needs to work on. We’re writing a new television show right now and I made sure that there was queer representation in the show because I knew how important it was.

“I feel like absolutely it’s changed the types of stories I want to tell because I want to tell stories where there’s a hunger and a need for that story. It’s definitely changed things for the better for me. As a creator, as a director, the more life experience you have and the more diverse that experience is, the better. It’s my responsibility [as a director] to be learning all the time and getting different points of view. It’s why I love riding public transit because I love to watch people and interactions. As a director, my job is observing the world and portray a little slice of it. I’ve learned so much this year and I’m taking it forward into my work in the future. I have this amazing community that’s supported me, it’s part of my responsibility to stand up for that community when I make decisions, and I can’t stress enough how seriously I take it.”

G: That’s all I have; thank you so much, for talking with me!

KB: “It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, too!”

In Closing

I was thrilled when Kat Barrell agreed to be interviewed for our site and for ClexaCon. Now? The prospect of having her and other guests and panelists at ClexaCon makes me so hopeful for the future of LGBT representation in the media. I, too, am cautiously optimistic that the industry is changing for the better in the wake of the tragedy that was this spring’s slaughter of female LGBT characters. These are not ‘mere stories’. Stories have power, resonance, significance. They can build bridges between a doctor and her patient, an actress and a blogger, and within an entire community. More than ever, I can’t wait for ClexaCon because these are powerful conversations to have, and ones that we all hope will have a lasting effect on the stories we tell.

Thanks again to Kat Barrell, her publicist Amira de Vera, and to ClexaCon for making this interview possible.

Images courtesy of Jordan Probst Photography

This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Gretchen on The Fandomentals.