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Melissa Barrera discusses Netflix’s new thriller “Keep breathing” and the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood

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Despite her starring roles in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and the fifth installment of Scream, Melissa Barrera is adamant that Keep Breathing is the biggest challenge of her career so far. “I think every role that I take on, I do it with all my heart and soul,” Barrera explains. “But this one specifically took a lot out of me. I left my heart in that forest.”

Created by Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, the Netflix series revolves around Barrera’s character Liv Rivera, a New York lawyer, and the only survivor of a plane crash in the Canadian frontier. In order to survive, Liv must battle life in the wilderness while dealing with the demons from her past.

Instead of the dance routines she was used to, after studying musical theatre at New York’s Tisch performing arts school, Barrera had to learn brand-new physical skills for her scenes in the great outdoors. There was scuba certification, cold water immersion to prepare her body for icy temperatures, and breath holding training to expand her lung capacity for underwater shots. When they shot in a glacier lake that was frozen the week before, Barrera found herself unable to breathe.

“The water was so cold that I couldn’t take in enough air,” Barrera says. “I was a bit dizzy, but I used what I was feeling, the nerves and shallow breathing, for the character and transformed them into Liv’s panic.”

Barrera, 32, was born and raised in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. Her career began when she competed in La Academia, a singing reality show, and from then starred in  several Mexican soap operas. In 2017, she joined Netflix’s comedy drama Club de Cuervos, and in the following year she landed the lead role as Lyn in Starz’s Vida. Her breakthrough role in Hollywood came when she was cast as Vanessa for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

Despite the negative criticism of In the Heights and the film’s low box office numbers, Barrera says she appreciates her experience with the film and the impact it had on people and her career. This year, she starred in the fifth installment of Scream as Sam Carpenter. “The hustle never stops,” Barrera says. “I never stop knocking on doors. I never stop auditioning.” Her latest series Keep Breathing premiered on July 28th on Netflix. Her upcoming films this year are a thriller Bed Rest and a musical drama, Carmen.

When it comes to preparing for her role as Liv in Keep Breathing, Barrera had to do a lot of figuring out on her own. She says the directors would tell her “okay now you have to build a shelter, go,” and the cameras would roll, and she would have to try to figure it out.

“A lot of the frustration you see on screen is very real because I didn’t do any research about surviving because Liv doesn’t have those skills,” Barrera explains. “I wanted to be as truthful as I could to the character because in reality she’s a city girl. She doesn’t know how to build a shelter and make a fire.”

As Liv battles the wilderness on her own, she is also struggling to find healing and peace from her past traumas, which we learn about via a series of flashbacks, many of which deal with her fractious childhood.

“Something that I took away from the show is the idea of breaking generational patterns in families,” Barrera explains. “Just because your parents are a certain way doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. Even though a lot of times without even realising it, we become like our parents, we do have the strength and the power to break those chains.”

(© 2022 Netflix, Inc.)

Like Liv, Barrera considers herself a survivor and fighter. While Liv learns to survive in the wilderness, Barrera can relate with her as she survives in Hollywood and advocates for Latino representation in film and television.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming upstream and going against the current fighting for my life,” Barrera says.

Barrera explains that Keep Breathing was not written for a Latina lead, but hopes it can be used as an example to give opportunities to more Latinos to star in projects where their characters are not solely based around their identities. “Yes, I am a Latina. But it’s not what the show is about at all,” Barrera said. “It’s rare that you get a show with Latinos at the forefront that doesn’t constantly talk about them being Latinos, or like forcing them to speak in Spanglish or talk about where they come from.”

Growing up, Barrera remembers that the pioneering Latina actresses in Hollywood could be counted with one hand. “Before we only had Salma Hayek and that was it,” Barrera said. Now, she takes her status as a role model for Latina actresses as a blessing. “I’m writing, producing, acting and fighting for more roles that are not written for a Latina,” Barrera continues. “I keep fighting because I know that eventually one of us is going to be able to kick open that door and change someone’s mind. And then that’s how we start changing everybody’s mind about us being leads. And not just in like in shows that are categorised as Latino or Latinx or whatever, in like mainstream media and shows that are global.”

Barrera says that the best way for Latinos to have representation in Hollywood is for them to produce their own content. “That’s the way that we actually make meaningful strides, not just like waiting for opportunities, but creating them ourselves,” Barrera says. But even with her current successes, she acknowledges that the hustle never ends. “It never really gets easy,” Barrera says. “The landscape just changes. But you always got to keep digging, and I do find a lot of comfort and motivation and in like support from my people from Mexico.”

As Barrera continues to pave a way for Latinos in Hollywood, she says that she holds her family and her roots as a motivation in her career. Whenever she sees comments that remind her of the start of her career in Mexico, she realises how much she has grown throughout the years.

“It just reminds me how far I’ve come,” Barrera said.“Knowing that there’s people that have been following me and been with me on this journey from then, I just want to keep going for them. I just want to keep fighting for them and for my gratitude for sticking with me.”

‘Keep Breathing’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

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