Barrett Doss is dancing. We’re at the restaurant Battery Harris in Williamsburg, and while at this particular moment, we’ve asked her to shake it for a Boomerang, she’s been twirling her way through the photoshoot.
She’s wearing a back-less romper—a summer staple style for her—and from behind the garment’s cut-out, one of her tattoos peeks out. It’s a reproduction of something her younger sister used to sign, and Doss had the tattoo artist trace just how her sibling wrote the words: Just love.
That phrase could also describe Doss, the breakout star of the Tony-nominated Groundhog Day. She bounds into stylist Kayla Foster’s Brooklyn apartment, all smiles and effusing excitement, wearing a hot pink spaghetti-strap sundress. It’s a departure, at least in wardrobe, from the character she plays onstage: Rita Hanson, the associate producer tasked with wrangling the ornery weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) who repeats the titular day (almost) endlessly. Onstage, Doss sports many layers for the winter-set musical, and the heat has gotten a little overwhelming this summer—stage management even has ice to give the actors when they come offstage.
“I think I’ve actually sold some of those coats!” Doss jokes, noting that a few women have asked her where to purchase one on Twitter. But you won’t hear Doss complaining: leading a Broadway musical has been a dream of hers since she was young—a dream that almost didn’t happen.
She auditioned for the part of Nancy initially but was called back for Rita, and she was excited about going in for a lead role. However, before her callback, she booked a small part Netflix’s Iron Fist and learned her filming schedule would conflict with the West End run of the show.
“You don’t want to commit to a callback if you can’t take the job,” she says. “So I withdrew myself. And it was really hard because I was so excited! Being a theater person and growing up loving musical theater, it was really difficult to justify that I was going to take a small TV role over even just the possibility of playing a lead in a Broadway show.” But when the show was coming to Broadway, they brought her in for final callbacks for the role, and she had one chance to prove herself. Spoiler alert: She did.
Her love of musical theater came along in middle school. She was an athlete, swimming and playing basketball, and her mom was a professional basketball player playing for the Minnesota Stars (Doss was born in Minneapolis) and a golfer competing in the U.S. Open three times. So when Doss started to show a proclivity toward theater, her mom encouraged her to pursue it. “She never does anything half-assed and she wouldn’t let me do that either,” Doss says.
She spent her middle-school and high-school years in Chicago, and moved to New York after sophomore year. She studied musical theater for one year at New York University and then moved into the school’s Gallatin program, where students design their own major. While Doss still wanted to pursue acting, she got very discouraged after college and didn’t think it was going to work out.
“I was in a weird age bracket for what I thought my type was,” she says. “And so I sort of feel like as an actor, I’ve been growing into myself as I’ve gotten older. It’s taken this long for me to sort of find my niche or understand what my niche is. But I was ready to throw into the towel.”
So she planned to move to San Francisco with her college boyfriend and become a cheesemonger. Her plane ticket was booked. She was three interviews into landing a job in the cheese section of a gourmet supermarket. And then she received a call from playwright Thomas Bradshaw, asking if she wanted to meet with a director for what would be her Off-Broadway debut, Burning.
Her first TV job was playing Eliza Lemon in the 30 Rock series finale, Liz Lemon’s great-granddaughter, and she’s drawn a few parallels between Tina Fey’s TV alterego and Rita in Groundhog Day. “A lot of Liz Lemon has seeped into Rita,” she explains. “She’s also kind of off-beat and trying really hard to keep things under control and have it all, and there’s a little bit of that in Rita too.”
And Doss also brings her own experiences to the character: “For me, Rita is a 36-year-old black woman, and that is a huge part of the character. It doesn’t need to read that way from the audience, but part of the reason that she doesn’t put up with shit from Phil is because there is not a 36-year-old black woman in the world who would put up with some of the shit that he does. There’s just a certain reality that people of color exist within that adds a level of depth to characters that can really benefit them and benefit the show in a way that doesn’t have to be obvious from the audience.”
Doss looks up to Audra McDonald and says she totally lost it when McDonald used Doss’s performance as an example of the type of casting Broadway needs. “She mentioned our show and my character and said, ‘There’s this idea that there is a best actor or actress for the part and you don’t need to make a point or mention that this person is black or any race,'” Doss says. “This year is one of the first years you’re seeing actors and actresses of color playing characters that have nothing to do with being of color,” she continues, and examples include Denee Benton in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Condola Rashad in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and Kristolyn Lloyd in Dear Evan Hansen.
And for Doss the most rewarding aspect is hearing the stories from audiences after the show. “Meeting younger people at the stage door, especially young women of color, there was one girl who was crying because she was just really excited to see someone who looked like her playing a role that didn’t require a person of color,” she says. “It’s been really exciting to feel a little bit of that.”
Who knows? Maybe she is Audra McDonald to some teenager out there, hoping to be on Broadway one day.