Chic Beats Leading Lady On & Offscreen TEXT BY ZEE CHANG PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD REINSDORF Monica Barbaro Smart, beautiful, with a strong sense of justice. These qualities seem to describe the roles that fit Monica Barbaro seamlessly. Whether it’s cross-examining a witness with hard-hitting questions in the courtroom, or an undercover journalist seek-ing the truth behind a murder, Monica embodies these strong, intelligent women. Born a San Francisco native, Monica loved storytelling and performance from the time she was a child. She grew up studying classical ballet and originally attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for her dance, but when she started taking her first acting classes, her career goals took a sharp left turn. Instead of limiting her storytelling to the movement of her body, she now uses her body, mind, and her powerful, resounding voice to represent well-rounded women in the media. Since dipping her toes into the indie film scene in San Francisco, Monica has been refining her craft and working her way up into some significant roles in television. One of her more popular characters is her recurring role as “Yael” in Lifetime’s critically acclaimed drama series, “Unreal,” where she plays an undercover reporter disguised as a reality show contestant. Her most recent significant career breakthrough is her lead role as Anna in NBC’s “Chicago Justice,” where she plays a passionate, dedicated lawyer. As Monica embarks on this new transitional period as a leading lady, she spoke about how fortunate she is to be present during a pinnacle time when television is writing more realistic roles for women. As Monica finds herself right at the epicenter of the empowering shift, she, herself, has been transforming into the driving force behind her story on and off the screen. What was your first significant role? Honestly, my very first experience with that is right about when I started acting. It was a short film called “The Tinker.” These guys were great, they built this entire set in this big apartment warehouse that they had. They just poured all their money and love and time into this period piece. It’s so collaborative among people of so many different trades that it feels like you’re explor-ing every different facet of the story as you go along. So that’s one of the cool things about indie filmmaking is that you become 80 more immersed in that process. I couldn’t have been more for-tunate to start off that way. Do you prefer smaller, indie sets to bigger ones? I think it depends. The benefit of working on “Chicago Justice” was getting to watch actors like Philip Winchester, Carl Weathers, Joelle Carter, and Jon Seda. Getting to work with people who are at that level and watching how that goes can feel like a mas-ter class. Each project yields something new. I haven’t stopped learning since the day I started acting. Would you ever want to be involved behind the scenes? Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been told number of times that I seem like I’m going to direct one day. I love directing, even when I’m working with friends on audition tapes. Without having to go through the emotional experience yourself, sometimes it’s easy to see where the story goes and where the pieces fall. I love that experience, it teaches me so much more about my own acting, and what I can do when it’s my turn to express the emotional life of the character. With your character, Yael, you played an undercover reporter with a superficial guise. In reality, have you ever been underestimated based on your appearance? Yeah, that happens a lot. I’ve had a number of people tell me, maybe months into knowing me, that I was such a surprise to them. The beauty behind training really hard for something that you love and getting really good at it is that, in the end, it doesn’t always matter what they first thought. I feel that all the training and all the work that I’ve put forward allows me to know for myself that I am much more than what I present externally. It’s sort of a trend right now to write good female characters, so I’m very lucky to be working at a time where that is a priority to a lot of filmmakers. And it’s not just a priority on its own, it’s because women are fighting everywhere for equal rights. I feel very fortunate to be coming into the industry during this time and I just hope to honor everything that they’re fighting for in portraying these characters.