NEW YORK – Since her breakthrough role as Vanessa in the film adaptation of “In The Heights,” Melissa Barrera has been working non-stop on the big and small screen. Only this year, she appeared in “Scream 5” and is filming a sequel, and stars in the upcoming Benjamin Millepied's reimagining of the opera “Carmen” and Lori Evans Taylor's “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 in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
Barrera — along with Ana de Armas — is among the few Hispanic actresses 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 with The Associated Press from Montreal, where she is shooting “Scream 6.” “If we don’t fight to come to the center lanes, they’re going to keep us on the sidelines the entire time."
“I crave the kind of representation where my identity is not the center and the most important part about the story that we’re telling," she added. “I know it’s necessary, and we do need the Latino and Latina stories to be getting 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 has to battle an unforgiving wilderness and past personal traumas to survive. It was a very demanding role that got her to the point of exhaustion fast, but the actress says she pushed through and used that in her performance, which she also fueled with traits of her younger self.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: The series starts with the plane crash. Have you ever had a nerve-racking experience in the air?
BARRERA: I’m pretty chill in planes. Literally, do not have a care in the world. I have never had bad turbulence. I’ve never had an air pocket where the plane drops. I’ve never had an experience where the plane like touches and goes back, you know, like those kinds of things that would make your stomach drop. Never had that! So, I’m not scared of planes at all.
AP: How did you handle that scene then?
BARRERA: I mean, I’ve had dreams of plane crashes. I have this recurring dream where I’m on a plane and I look out the window and there’s another plane that’s coming straight towards us, and right before they’re going to crash into us, I wake up, every time. It’s terrifying. I don’t know, you just channel some other fear. I channel the idea of dying and not getting to see my family ever again, and my loved ones. That’s usually what I go to. And also it helped that they built this incredible rig, and they put a plane on it. It was like a Disneyland ride. The plane would move and shake, and that helps also.
AP: It looks like a very demanding role, both physically and emotionally. Was it as hard as it seems?
BARRERA: 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.
AP: Liv is a lawyer, you are an artist. Did you find any common ground between the two of you?
BARRERA: 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.
AP: What made you change in real life?
BARRERA: My husband (Mexican singer and entrepreneur Paco Zazueta.) My husband 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, I’ve learned a lot from him.
AP: 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?
BARRERA: 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.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.