A simple but powerful through line is found in Melissa Barrera’s most recent roles: a commitment to showing fearless vulnerability and openness in the face of turmoil.
In her latest role, the “Scream” and “In the Heights” star portrays Liv, a high-powered New York City attorney who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, in “Keep Breathing,” a six-episode, limited Netflix series starting July 28.
“It was very daunting for me to go to certain places with this character,” Barrera, 32, said, “because it felt very vulnerable — laying myself bare and letting people see parts of me that I normally don’t let anyone see. She’s most like me in some ways I don’t feel comfortable sharing, but it would be a disservice not to give that role all of me.”
Barrera has fully established herself in the Hollywood sphere following the release of “Vida,” Starz’s three-season series about two estranged Mexican American sisters forced to return to the Eastside of Los Angeles; she played one of the siblings, Lyn. She then netted the role of Vanessa in the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical “In the Heights” released last year. Her debut in the “Scream” cinematic universe premiered earlier this year.
“I’m grateful to have played such rich and complex women, since flawed women are rarely depicted on screen, especially Latinas, and my whole point has been to subvert categorization,” Barrera said. “This has caused me to lose a lot of opportunities and has slowed my career down a little bit because I’ve said no to many things because I actively haven’t wanted to be pigeonholed, and it’s very easy for this industry to do that.”
Having gracefully emerged in the Mexican television landscape after a stint in the talent reality show “La Academia” and New York University before that, the Mexican actor cut her teeth in her home country in telenovelas (soap operas). “I had small roles, playing characters that were in every four to five episodes,” she said.
Insisting that her early career days were how she became strategic about the roles she goes after, “I learned to say no early on and wait for something better, regardless of how scared I was of the executives’ snide remarks,” Barrera said. Those instincts paid off: She eventually booked her first lead role in the telenovela “Siempre Tuya Acapulco.”
When she decided to move from Monterrey, Mexico, to New York City to pursue an acting career, she knew it would be one of the toughest things she would ever do.
“What I didn’t know,” Barrera said, “was that I’d be confronted with culture shock and the fact that I was surrounded by people who were more talented than me. I was not the best actress or singer in the group. The space that existed for me at school and in the industry, a Latina, was rather narrow.”
Barrera’s emotional clarity comes across in conversation. She said it took some time and learning to forge ahead and embrace her emotional and physical strength while accepting the feeling at times that “your dreams wouldn’t come true.”
‘Tough and intense experience’
Barrera said she empathizes with her character Liv in “Keep Breathing,” perhaps because of how independent she is and because she too has some fraught family dynamics.
“Even though I’m married, the nature of this job requires you to be alone a lot of the time. I’ve also lived a very independent life, and most of the things I do for myself are for myself and by myself,” she said. “I don’t have a close relationship with my father, so living through that healing journey for Liv was very therapeutic for me.”
Luckily for Barrera, and unlike Liv, she’s happy with where her choices have led her because they’ve made her a “less precious” actor.
“This tough and intense experience forced me to stretch in ways that I normally don’t, and it changed me as both an artist and person outside work,” she said. “The Melissa I was coming into ‘Keep Breathing’ and the Melissa that left after those three months was very different, and I’m a stronger woman because of it.”
The thematic power of women is a thread woven throughout Barrera’s work. When she takes on a new role, she said she fleshes out the crevices of her character’s inner life, ensuring the character doesn’t become flat or archetypal, adding that she likes to come up with “specific details like her birthday or if she would eat a certain snack that somehow translates onto the screen.”
With each new project, the multifaceted artist said, she’s checked in with herself and re-evaluated her next steps.
“I’ve achieved many goals, had some full-circle moments,” she said, as she explained that the first Broadway show she saw was “In the Heights” — and she later starred in the movie adaptation.
But she’s clear that she wants to, in her words, do more.
“I want to do a little bit of everything, like Catherine Zeta-Jones or Hugh Jackman,” Barrera said. “I know it will be more challenging because I’m not white, but I know I can do it.”
It’s this confidence that has helped Barrera convince casting directors, brand executives and any skeptics that she can play parts as varied as Liv or Lyn in “Vida” — and become one of makeup giant Clinique’s global ambassadors.
Barrera said her family and closest friends are who inspire her to “go there” despite the fear of setbacks.
“Every person you’ve been in contact with in your life has made you who you are, whether they see the wholeness of what you can do or be,” she said. “We see that clearly in Liv, too, because everything comes to fruition when she rediscovers her strength and doesn’t wait for death and becomes the best, strongest version of herself.” She paused and added, “It goes to show that you must trust yourself and your choices.”
She finds comfort in thinking about the days when she dreamed about where she is now, saying it’s ultimately about one thing: “because you believe in yourself.”
Therein lies the thrill of Barrera’s craft: Making her art ignites her imagination, starts much-needed discourse and hopefully inspires cultural change, not only around casting but also what it means to connect, mourn, strengthen resolve and be alive.
“‘Keep Breathing’ isn’t solely about tragedy and skewed familiar relationships,” Barrera said. Instead, it’s “about strength, self-reliance and ultimately healing.”
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