It’s hard to remember a time before Nicole Haught peeled off Waverly Earp’s beer-soaked shirt in one of the most simultaneously funny, sweet, and iconic meet-cute scenes of WLW television to date. Katherine “Kat” Barrell, who plays Nicole, brought humor and sweetness to that scene, and it’s fair to say she’s become iconic herself. But Barrell’s multifaceted presence in culture and media is not down to Wynonna Earp alone.
The Canadian actress is involved in all kinds of aspects of the film and television industry. As an actor, her other current projects include Alicia on Catherine Reitman’s comedy Workin’ Moms and Joy on Hallmark’s The Good Witch, which is headed into its seventh season this summer. She runs a production company called Blue Eyed Bandit, through which she has taken on the roles of script development and directing. And her creativity expands to other art media like painting, leatherwork, and haberdashery. With such a strong creative drive, it’s no wonder Barrell is making waves. And one of the biggest waves is that of queer representation.
As an only child in her home city of Burlington, outside of Toronto, Barrell spent a lot of time in her own imagination as a kid. “I spent a lot of time on my own, which I think made me be more into make-believe because I didn’t have anyone to play with. It sounds really sad but it’s actually lovely, and I’m very lucky for all the time I got to spend just imagining and in my own head,” she explains.
Barrell describes early memories of getting up early, putting on movies and doing puzzles before her parents got up. It was on one such morning, watching Beauty and the Beast, that she first understood what an actor was. “At the end of the VHS there were special features, and I remember watching Angela Lansbury in the recording booth voicing Mrs. Potts. I had this ‘aha!’ moment. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be the voice of the Disney characters,” says Barrell.
Though she always loved performance, she describes herself as a shy kid. “The reason I love acting so much is because I like the freedom that the characters give me to try new things and to be brave,” she says. “They give me permission to be bold, or do things that don’t come naturally to me, or feel strong or brave. It gives you permission to step out of your comfort zone.”
Barrell studied musical theater before transferring schools to study acting and filmmaking, and later studied comedy with The Groundlings comedy school in Los Angeles. Her journey through different forms of performance informed her approach to creativity in general.
“My theater school was very strict in certain ways and I didn’t think it helped creativity very much because there were so many rules,” says Barrell. “But one of the things I realized is that the more pressure we have on ourselves, the worse our creativity gets. Because we feel stuck and stifled and scared. Fear is the opposite of creativity and freedom. It’s such a challenge to feel free enough to get the muse going and to get the creative spirit flowing. I think as artists, that is the journey.”
Creativity is something Barrell has been thinking about throughout the pandemic. “I don’t work very well at a desk. I find when I’m up and moving and doing things, my creativity flows a lot better,” she explains. “I’ve been trying to explore other creative avenues, because I find that they all feed each other. Like when I was feeling really stunted with my directing work, I worked on more design stuff. I would do more painting or I would occasionally go back to my leather-working business. I had this little stint where I was working with hats and re-imagining hats. It’s not for any end goal of producing a product per se.”
“The film industry is more my job,” so that’s an area of creativity that has an end product, Barrell says. “But I think it’s really important no matter what kind of creative person you are, that you have multiple creative outlets, because sometimes the muse just gets stuck. I find the best way to get unstuck, for me, can be doing something else that’s still creative, but it just unlocks those blocks a little bit. So as soon as I feel stagnant in one area, I like to go and do a creative project that’s a different kind of discipline.”
In terms of what she’s learned from her work in the business so far, Barrell says she’s loved working on longer- form projects like series, which allow for the opportunity to sink into a character, bond with a cast, and build her skills. Over time, she says, “it’s been really amazing to watch myself improve.”
“I have been lucky to work with two incredible, strong female showrunners” she continues. “And I’ve learned, especially from Emily [Andras, showrunner for Wynonna Earp], so much about how to lead a team. I think one of the things that Emily does so well is she trusts her people to do a great job, and she gives them the freedom to be creative. That is a huge strength in her character and it really elevates the people around her to do their best work because they know that they’re being given the freedom to do so.”
In her role as Joy on The Good Witch Barrell embodies another complex character in an ensemble show. Now in its seventh season, there is a newcomer to town that sparks a connection with Barrell’s character, Joy. “Her name is Zoe,” Barrell says. “She’s played by a wonderful actress named Kyana Teresa, and they definitely have an instant connection. But Joy’s been alone for a really long time. She’s a bit of a lone wolf.”
On the show, Joy lost her mother very young, and is a bit of a drifter, never settling anywhere for too long. As she starts to put down roots in Middleton and connect with her family there, Barrell says, “That’s what opens her heart up to meeting Zoe and makes her ready for having that person in her life.” Both characters “come with a lot of insecurities and baggage and fears… Joy’s struggling with some family trauma from her past and Zoe really helps her work through it.”
One of the biggest joys for Barrell, though, is being a part of increasing queer representation at Hallmark. “It was really important to me when they told me that this is where they wanted to take my character,” she says. “I’ve been so pleased with the network, how open they’ve been to my feedback and my thoughts on the story, and how collaborative it’s felt. I’m really excited to be a part of that for this network because these shows are seen by a very large audience. I think to keep that torch of increasing representation and conversation around queer identity in our media is huge. The more audiences we can reach and the more conversations we can have the better.”
Speaking of Wynonna Earp, Barrell notes how profoundly being such an important part of the show has changed her life. “This time six years ago, we were all auditioning for the show,” she says. “So much has changed in all of our lives. We’ve all been on such a journey with each other, but I see how media has changed and how queer representation has improved over the years, and I do like to think that Wynonna Earp played a part in that. I’m really proud of the stories that we told and the team that we had together and just how powerful the show was for so many people. I’m really, really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
“This whole journey has been so beyond my wildest imagination,” she says. “I think the thing that has surprised me the most is just the fan interaction and how rewarding it’s been to be able to get to know the fans, hear their stories, and learn more about myself and have a better understanding of my own sexuality through talking with them and being in community. I know for sure that’s been one of the biggest highlights of this whole experience.”
As for what she’ll take away from the show, Barrell says that she will bring this experience into future projects. “Hopefully in the future from a writing or a producing or directing standpoint, I just have so much keener of an eye for better representation, and much more of an opinion on how I think we can do it well. It’s just a shift within myself, an increased knowledge and awareness, a sense of duty to continue moving those types of stories forward to the best of my ability.”
Queer representation is still extremely lacking, despite improvements in recent years. Asked what her dream project involving queer representation would be, Barrell said she doesn’t have one. “My dream is actually just to make lots of it,” she says. “There are so many different ways to explore queerness and to talk about queer identity. There’s such a huge spectrum of what it means to be queer. I wouldn’t want to stick to just one way.”
As for her own pride month celebration, Barrell plans to keep an eye on the status of Covid-19 but probably lay low, since Toronto’s lockdown orders continue into June. “For me, it’s about gathering,” she says. “I really just like to gather with people that I love, especially queer people that I love, and just celebrate being alive, being free and happy and together.”
Nothing tops that, no matter what time of year.
Click here to get your copy of Tagg Magazine’s Pride issue featuring Kat Barrell.