As is the case for many of us, the past year was a whirlwind for actress Ariela Barer. Before going into the pandemic lockdown we’ve all been living in for over a year, she was busy appearing on acclaimed Netflix sitcoms like Atypical and One Day at a Time, while starring as a nerdy superhero on Hulu’s Marvel series, Runaways. Now, Barer’s next act involves playing a recovering teen addict on ABC’s primetime drama, Rebel.
“She strays from a lot of older, angsty teen tropes of network days past,” Barer explained of her character, Ziggie, when she called W from Los Angeles ahead of the show’s premiere. “Instead, she takes after her mother—she internalizes that she cares a lot and it affects her, but her arc is about channeling it productively and being there for the fight.”
Rebel, which was created by Grey’s Anatomy show runner Krista Vernoff and stars Katey Sagal as the titular legal advocate sans law degree and Barer’s character’s mom, was inspired by Erin Brockovich. And according to Barer, the show has a deeper connection to her personal journey toward incorporating activism into her own life. In between filming episodes of the new television series, the 22-year-old actress has spent the majority of the past year reading and using her platform to share what she’s learned about restorative justice. Below, the actress shares her perspective on growing up on Tumblr, learning to engage with heavy political concepts on social media as an adult, and why she’s wary of celebrity activism.
You’ve gone from starring on a Marvel show to a series grounded in realism. Rebel is a weekly legal drama that started filming during Covid-19. Did the writers work some of the real issues the world was facing then into the script?
One of the beautiful things about a show like this and why it was really smart to return to an Erin Brockovich hero type in this day and age is because she's very much “of the people.” We tell these stories about race and social injustice, not just in one plot line. We have a whole arc about corporate injustice, which is very important, in my honest opinion. We get this first-person look into what these people have gone through, to empathize and feel it for ourselves, which is one of the most effective ways of storytelling, beyond being didactic.
What do you think makes Rebel so accessible to its audience?
People can be put off by buzzwords, so I think by making some problems in the show problems of the people, it becomes more accessible. It's really smart that their slogan was “Not a cop, not a lawyer, just a rebel.” I was like, yeah, this is a show for the people. You don't need the systems of injustice that are oppressing you to then step in and protect you.
You’re very active on social media and share a lot of resources to support families seeking asylum at the border, protecting the rights of transgender youth, and academic texts about solidarity among oppressed groups. What is your approach in terms of tweeting or posting on Instagram, or just using social media in general, to engage with some of those heavier political concepts?
I'm re-evaluating all of that constantly, especially with a lot of the stuff that's come out recently about performative celebrity activists who make money off it. I'm now immediately suspicious of any celebrity who profits off of a movement. I remember in the summer being so mad at my friends with platforms for not posting. But I've gone to protests since I was 16 and I grew up on Tumblr. I learned how to disseminate information from Tumblr because I wasn't someone with a big platform—it was just sharing information to get it out there so people show up, and that was the goal. It wasn't about saying the perfect thing necessarily, but it was about sharing information that you can act on. That became my rule over the summer. I was only sharing direct actions you could take, or new information that I legitimately didn't know before, or something that I knew someone could benefit from learning. Instead of just sharing generic slogans that don’t mean anything, where you’re just posting so people don’t get mad at you.
Did you go to the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer?
I did, but I didn't post whatever protests I was going to because I didn't want it to be about, “Look, I'm at a protest!” I wanted it to be about, “Here's the information, or this is the place you can go to.” I'm distrustful of the celebrity narrative around movements, while also being like, but how do I engage with this platform that I have at this point? When it's about issues that are more personal to me, it's hard to not trauma dump online. It’s so human and a natural instinct. But you also have to ask, what are the actual repercussions for the movement?
Do you have a preference for sharing this type of information on certain platforms, like Twitter versus Instagram?
I do have this theory on the people being radicalized from Twitter versus the people who were radicalized on Tumblr. Both have tremendous faults, but there is a very clear and distinct difference in the type of “activism.” As regretful as I am of a lot of my old Tumblr posts, I’m still grateful that that’s where I learned, and that it happened when I was 14. [Laughs.]
Now that you have a bigger, public platform with a lot of followers, do you feel the anxiety of messing up or making a mistake, and having it be under more of a microscope than it did before you became a public figure?
I still don’t have a huge platform. In my personal experience, I have slipped up on the internet before, spreading a piece of information that I didn’t find out until later was false. I’ve always been careful about things like that, but I say sorry. Over the summer, I was reading a lot about restorative justice and how we have to practice that in our day to day lives and what rehabilitation looks like in every part of our lives.
What do you do when someone posts something that you don’t agree with, or that is false?
Over the summer, there was someone in my life who was posting stuff I did not agree with, and I knew from past political conversations that he and I did not get along. I just unfollowed him after I saw his posts. He ended up texting me asking if he upset me, and because I was doing all of that reading on restorative justice, I was like, you know what, we are going to try one more time. We are going to talk, I’m not going to hold anything back, and I will say what he did wrong and provide resources on how to correct it. I sent him all this stuff and didn’t hear back for a few days, and I thought he just didn’t care. A few days later, I got a text and he had read everything, and said he had talked about it with his friends. He was like, “You changed my perspective on everything, I legitimately didn't know,” and started asking me about all this stuff he was posting and asking what was okay to post. That's where I told him the rule of either sharing factual information that you didn't know before or sharing direct action. That's the rule I stick to. And he legitimately changed.
That’s great, though of course the onus shouldn’t have to fall on people in oppressed positions to educate their oppressors. How do you work in that type of allyship to your approach to educating people on social media?
Right, and I wouldn't put that on a Black person this summer during the Black Lives Matter protests to educate others. I was in a position where I felt I should be uncomfortable and have these tough conversations. When I talk about border stuff, I get really upset and it's a more emotional conversation, and that's probably on someone else to take over for me. It's also on us as allies, even for each other within POC communities to be like, “I will help out when you can't handle this one.”
You mentioned you’ve been going to protests since you were 16 years old. What was the first protest you attended?
When I was really young, I went to a lot of climate protests with my parents. That is something I'm reading more about now. I'm engaging a lot with climate activist theory and nonviolent resistance versus destructive action. I was very much engaged in nonviolent resistance, going to marches and peace protests. But the first real protest I went to on my own was for Mike Brown. I was 15 or 16. My parents wanted me to go, but they were nervous because the news had been really scary. I took a train by myself to meet up with friends there and I didn't really tell my parents. It shaped my activism forever because I saw the way the cops engaged. I saw the way well-meaning white allies took over and put everyone in danger, and that's actually when the cops started attacking. It’s a very complicated situation where they meant well, and they knew that they were putting their bodies on the line for what they wanted to do, but then they put other people in danger. It was this really complicated, messy situation and the cops wouldn't let us out. We were fenced in and in over our heads. We ended up running through a park in downtown L.A. in the middle of the night to get out. That was just a taste of it. We didn't get it nearly as bad as anyone else. And it continues to drive me because it's pretty awful out there.
You grew up in Los Angeles?
Yes, and I’m very lucky to have grown up being exposed to lots of cultures. When people misstep online, it can be very easy to be like, “How did you not know this already?” But sometimes you have to realize if you’ve grown up in a bubble where that was common knowledge.
How do you want to incorporate some of these tools you’ve learned to use in the past few years into your work in the future?
We have to just treat each other right. I'm trying to figure out a legal way to do this, but I've been directing and writing more, so I want to see if there's a way to pay everyone equally on the back-end of a project. I want it to be so that PAs can make money. I tried to bring it up to a production I was working on and they were like, “Here’s the legal reasons why that would bankrupt us.” [Laughs.] But one day that would be the goal! I love the idea of artists coming together to make something, because if everyone cares equally about it, it’s going to be that much better. I heard some rumor when I was first starting out where someone was like “Actually, the worst, most toxic sets make the best projects.” I have found that to be completely untrue every time. It is a myth. If anyone tells you that, they're aligned because they are toxic or they've been lied to by a toxic person.