Monica Barbaro is Hollywood’s Renaissance woman.
She learned how to fly F-18 fighter jets to star alongside Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.” In 2021, she played a mother in Ricky D’Ambrose’s autobiographical film “The Cathedral.” Currently, she’s taking vocal and guitar lessons to prepare for her role as Joan Baez alongside Timothée Chalamet in the upcoming Bob Dylan biopic, “A Complete Unknown.” And before she even began working as an actor, she was a ballerina studying dance at Tisch School of the Arts.
Now, the 32-year-old is reflecting on her most recent endeavor, starring alongside terminating action-legend Arnold Schwarzenegger in their new Netflix series “Fubar,” in which she plays his hard-hitting CIA agent daughter Emma.
Barbaro spoke with Variety about what it was like making the show, working with the Austrian muscleman and how acting, like ballet, is keeping her on her toes.
You started as a ballerina, and then found yourself in action films. How did you make that leap between those two worlds?
I think there are actually more similarities than you would think. In ballet, there’s such an attention to detail in literally every limb of your body and how it moves exactly. I think learning stunts and choreography and a character’s physicality requires that same attention to detail.
It’s also this thing of, like, a duck or a swan on water. You’re paddling underneath, but you look very graceful on top. In spite of the athletic feat, you’re supposed to look very poised and relaxed. But in “Top Gun,” we actually had to make it not look easy. So I learned that you train to the point of comfortability, but you still want to show the audience that a lot of effort is being expended.
I took that with me into “Fubar.” And still, I’ll sort of watch the show and see little things here and there about my physicality where I’m like, ‘Oh, that could look that could look a little bit more muscular,’ whereas in dance, the interest is in being as graceful as possible. So there are a lot of similarities, a lot of differences, but overall, a lot of attention to the body and visual aspect of it.
Your pivot from dance sort of reminded me of Arnold’s pivot from bodybuilding. How do you feel about that kind of comparison?
I think that’s valid. I think he was the greatest in the world at what he did, and I can’t say that about my own ballet background, but, I think to get to a certain level of accomplishment in anything like there is just a certain kind of attention to detail. You have to be very observant of the world around you and the standards of a particular space that you’re trying to excel in. I think whatever he was destined to do after his success level in bodybuilding, he was going to succeed. But he also just has this very special, hilarious, charismatic vocal quality and energy that I think just works very well for him, and slid right into this industry in a nice way.
And what was that like playing off of those qualities while you were shooting with him?
It was fun. He really likes a lot of jokes and pranks, and giving his friends a hard time. And so it was kind of perfect that we had this father-daughter dynamic, because we would just give each other shit all day. I think that helped us a lot to find that sort of familial chemistry. He was also kind enough to let me ask him anything about his experience and all of that, so it felt comfortable for the most part.
How did that sort of father-daughter dynamic translate off-screen for you two?
Arnold would, like, toss chunks of schnitzel at my dog. And I’d be like, ‘You can’t give my dog schnitzel.’ We’d argue with smiles on our faces. That was kind of our father-daughter dynamic that I think spun itself really nicely into these two characters.
Could you kind of compare working with someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger to working with someone like Tom Cruise?
It’s funny, they could not be more opposite. Tom asks a lot of questions, and wants to understand every single piece of what’s going on. Arnold, if I started asking questions, he’d be like, “Better not to know.” And that’s very trusting. It’s not to say that one approach is better than the other, but it’s just night and day. Arnold is smoking cigars between takes, and Tom is working on the next seven scenes or doing push-ups or something.
They are complete opposites in their energy and how they approach the work, but they both show up knowing their lines, work really hard and do not let the crew waste any time on their behalf. Still, Arnold loves a good chess game, and he will not stop it for anything — literally anything. We even went into his trailer one day to sing him happy birthday, and he was like, “I have to finish this chess game.” And we’re like, “OK, and we’ll be outside,” and marched out with our candles.
But they’re both very professional. And I think when people really care about the work, they can be No. 1 but not act like they can push people around. So I’ve been lucky in that respect that I’ve not encountered much diva energy. We were able to go toe-to-toe and work because ultimately everyone was there to get things done.
What was shooting like for you?
We shot in Toronto over the summer, very much around the “Top Gun” premiere, so I kind of had a lot going on then. But it was also fun because Arnold went and saw the movie in theaters with his friends , or maybe had his own private screening — I don’t know if Arnold can go into theaters, I should have asked. But a lot of the crew was seeing the movie and getting excited. It broke the ice for me in a big way.
And our crew was incredible in Toronto; we had a really good time. It was like five months. When I had the time I really enjoyed some outings with some of the other cast members. Everyone in the cast is really kind and warm and welcoming, and just chill.
Do you have any favorite stories from set?
It was such a whirlwind, because we shot such intense hours and wild conditions, like extreme heat. We did this one day of shooting, literally and figuratively shooting, this wild action sequence that takes place in the warehouse. It was one of those days where you’re so exhausted every muscle in your body is cramping and everyone’s telling you to drink water and you are and you’re drinking electrolyte water and you’re not peeing, you’re just absorbing all this and like sweating. As exhausting as that day was, it was so immensely satisfying. It actually was one of the most fun days in the end, because I think we really felt like we earned our money on that.
Do you think that was one of the toughest parts — the physicality and stunts?
I have done a lot of action. In the context of “Top Gun,” those were isolated days, but because a TV schedule is so tight, shooting 43 minutes of an episode in eight days as opposed to “Top Gun” which was 10 months, you don’t have the same amount of time to give meticulous attention to detail. This was like, new-week, new-trick, like you’re flipping over the back of somebody, and you’re parkouring off the side of a car. There was always something new, and there really was not a lot of time to rehearse it. We would find 15 minutes in my lunch break, or between setups we’d shoot in the office, and they would be like, “Hey, between those two scenes, can you just, like, run over here and try to flip over someone’s body, then go back to set and sit down in the CIA office?” That constant pivoting was something. I’m not sure I ever totally rested.
It was a lot more intense and violent than I had expected. But it was also a lot funnier than I expected, too. How did you manage to keep it lighthearted while doing these insane stunts and killing people?
A lot of our crew had worked in horror, and so I think I put it in that place in my mind — that there is definitely a gratuitous violence piece to this show, intentionally, to pinpoint the ridiculousness of it, and really embrace that dark humor the way so many of the most violent horror films do.
Has there been discussion of Season 2?
I mean, they’re very enthusiastic about it. Right now, of course, I’m in full support of the writers strike and everything that they’re advocating for. So we’ll see how it all shakes out.
So, you as Joan Baez?
It’s real! I’m singing and playing guitar and in coaching for all of that right now really intensely. She has some pretty major shoes to fill. So I’m excited about it.
It just seems it’s become your MO to learn a completely new life skill for every project.
I mean, that’s part of why I became an actor. One of the most exciting things about being an actor is all these worlds and lives you get to jump into, and skills you get to learn. I think that is just one of my favorite things about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.