Melissa Barrera survives on screen, thrives in Hollywood
Since her breakthrough role as Vanessa in the film adaptation of “In the Heights,” Melissa Barrera has been working nonstop on the big and small screen. This year, she has appeared in “Scream 5” and is filming a sequel, and stars in the upcoming Benjamin Millepied re-imagining of the opera “Carmen” and Lori Evans Taylor’s “Bed Rest,” which she also produced.
Now the Mexican actor also can be seen in “Keep Breathing,” a Netflix miniseries that recently premiered about the lone survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
Barrera — along with Ana de Armas — is among the few Hispanic female actors given a wide variety of roles, far beyond the characters Latinas have been allowed to play, while the discussion about the lack of representation continues in Hollywood.
“It’s so easy for the industry to just keep us in the corner and keep us on a side lane and just give us these certain opportunities that they have designated are for us,” Barrera said in a recent interview. “If we don’t fight to come to the center lanes, they’re going to keep us on the sidelines the entire time.”
In “Keep Breathing,” Barrera, 32, plays New York lawyer Liv, a cold, work-oriented woman who has to battle an unforgiving wilderness and past personal traumas to survive.
This interview with Barrera has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: It looks like a very demanding role, both physically and emotionally. Was it as hard as it seems? A: It was harder. (Laughs.)
I knew going into it, because of the nature of the show — you’re outside, I’m alone most of the time, it’s very physical and also the emotional arc is so intense. I feel like it’s actually a survival show about surviving your mind, surviving your insecurities, your childhood traumas. It’s all about mental survival, and I knew that it was going to be hard, so I prepared myself emotionally, mentally.
That normally works in every single thing that I do: I don’t get tired, I can do the whole shoot, and then, at the end, I need to be in bed for a week. This time, two weeks into the shoot, I couldn’t get up from bed. I was like, “What did I get myself into? How am I going to survive another two and a half months of this?” And then you just do it! You use the exhaustion and you put it into the character and let it fuel the frustration and the anxiety and the panic and all of that.
Q: Liv is a lawyer, you are an artist. Did you find any common ground between the two of you? A:
A lot! I found that we were similar in a lot of ways. We’re both very work-oriented, we like to keep ourselves busy. I used to be more like Liv in that I have trouble communicating
feelings. I’d rather just keep moving and stay distracted so I don’t have to deal with emotional stuff, so it was easy for me to revert to how I used to be and put that into her.
Q: What made you change in real life? A:
My husband (Mexican singer and entrepreneur Paco Zazueta) … taught me a lot about communicating and letting people in and trusting and being expressive and all of that. He’s changed me a lot in the time that we’ve been together.
Q: By the amount of work you’ve been doing since “In the Heights,” it seems like it opened many doors for you. How do you feel about your career at this point? A:
I feel good. I feel like every single thing is a step up the ladder. Definitely, “In the Heights” opened a lot of doors for me — that was my first big movie, so that was the first time that a lot of people saw me. I love being able to show different sides of me with different characters. I strive to always move to a project that’s going to be completely different, or very different from what I just did. And I feel like I have been lucky that I’ve been able to do that so far. But I still feel like I’m just starting.