NEW YORK – Since her breakthrough role as Vanessa in the film adaptation of “In The Heights”, Melissa Barrera has worked non-stop on the big and small screen. This year alone, she appeared in “Scream 5” and is filming a sequel, and stars in Benjamin Millepied’s upcoming reimagining of Lori Evans Taylor’s opera “Carmen” and “Bed Rest,” which she also produced.
Starting Thursday, the Mexican actress can be seen in “Keep Breathing,” a Netflix miniseries about the lone survivor of a plane crash amid the Canadian wilderness.
Barrera – along with Ana de Armas – is among the few Hispanic actresses to have a wide variety of roles, far beyond the characters Latinas have been allowed to play, while talk of lack of representation continues in Hollywood.
“It’s so easy for the industry to keep us in the corner and keep us in a side lane and give us these certain opportunities that they’ve designated as being for us,” Barrera said in a recent interview with the ‘Associated Press of Montreal, where she shoots “Scream 6”. “If we don’t fight to come to the halls of the center, they will keep us on the sidelines all the time.”
“I crave the kind of representation where my identity isn’t the center and most important part of the story we’re telling,” she added. “I know it’s needed, and we need Latino and Latina stories to get told, and I want to do that. But I also just want to tell stories.
In “Keep Breathing,” Barrera, 32, plays New York lawyer Liv, a cold, work-oriented woman who must battle an unforgiving wilderness and past personal trauma to survive. It was a very demanding role that brought her to the point of rapid exhaustion, but the actress says she pushed it and used it in her performance, which she also fueled with traits of her youth.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: The series begins with the plane crash. Have you ever had a harrowing experience in the air?
BARRERA: I’m pretty cool on planes. Literally don’t care about the world. I’ve never had any major turbulence. I’ve never had an air pocket where the plane drops. I’ve never had an experience where the plane touches down and rolls back, you know, like that kind of stuff that would make your stomach drop. Never had that! So I’m not afraid of planes at all.
AP: How did you handle that scene then?
BARRERA: I mean, I dreamed of plane crashes. I have this recurring dream where I’m on a plane and I’m looking out the window and there’s another plane coming straight at us, and just before they hit us, I wake up, every time. It’s terrifying. I don’t know, you’re just channeling another fear. I channel the idea of dying and never seeing my family and loved ones again. That’s usually where I go. And it also helped that they built this incredible platform and put an airplane on it. It was like a Disneyland ride. The plane would shake and shake, and that helps too.
AP: It sounds like a very demanding role, both physically and emotionally. Was it as hard as it looks?
BARRERA: It was more difficult. (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, your insecurities, your childhood traumas. It’s about mental survival, and I knew it was going to be tough, so I prepared myself emotionally, mentally. It normally works in everything I do: I don’t get tired, I can do all the shooting and then, at the end, I have to stay in bed for a week. This time, two weeks into filming, I couldn’t get out of 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 do! You use exhaustion and you put it in character and let it fuel frustration and anxiety and panic and all that.
AP: Liv is a lawyer, you are an artist. Have you found common ground between the two of you?
BARRERA: A lot! I found that we were similar in many ways. We are both very work oriented, we like to keep busy. Before, I was more like Liv in that I had trouble communicating my feelings. I preferred to just keep moving and stay distracted so I didn’t have to deal with emotional things, so it was easy for me to come back to who I was and put that into her.
AP: What made you change in real life?
BARRERA: My husband (Mexican singer and entrepreneur Paco Zazueta.) My husband taught me a lot about communication and being able to let people in and trusting and being expressive and all that. He has changed me a lot since we’ve been together, I’ve learned a lot from him.
AP: By the amount of work you’ve done since “In the Heights,” it seems like it’s opened a lot of doors for you. How do you feel about your career at this point?
BARRERA: I feel good. I feel like everything is a rung on the ladder. Definitely, “In the Heights” opened a lot of doors for me – it was my first big movie, so it was the first time a lot of people saw me. I like being able to show different sides of me with different characters. I try to always move on to a project that is going to be completely different, or very different from what I just did. And I feel like I’ve been lucky to have been able to do that so far. But I still feel like I’m just getting started.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.