Melissa Barrera Conquered One of Her Biggest Fears With 'Keep Breathing'

Melissa Barrera talks about the ending of 'Keep Breathing' and how it features one of her personal biggest fears.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Melissa Barrera in 'Keep Breathing'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for Keep Breathing, streaming now on Netflix. Read at your own risk!

As a performer, Melissa Barrera spent years juggling complicated relationship dynamics on telenovelas, singing and dancing her way across feature film adaptations of a Broadway play and an opera, and physically running from a masked killer (not to mention mentally running from a dark, secret family history) — none of which seems easy by any means. But the hardest thing she has had to do thus far in her career, she tells Metacritic, was play a character trying to survive alone in the wilderness while also coming to terms with pain from her childhood in Brendan Gall and Martin Gero's Netflix six-episode limited series Keep Breathing.

"It was just so tough, and not just for me [but also] for the crew, for everyone. The hours, the location — it was just a hard show to shoot. So when I was done, I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm so glad that I don't have to do it again.' But then after I watched it, I was like, 'I miss it, I want to go back.' I feel like it's the like the trauma of giving birth, how women forget about it to then have another kid," Barrera says with a laugh.

In Keep Breathing, Barrera, who thus far is best known for work on Vida and in In The Heights and Scream, plays Liv, a lawyer whose father just died and who learned she is pregnant and decides to take a spur of the moment trip to track down her mother. Although her mother abandoned her when she was a child, Liv recently found postcards she had sent to her through the years. This revelation, coupled with her about to become a mother too, makes her seek out connection. And in her desperation to find her as soon as possible, she convinces two random strangers to allow her to join them on their charter flight. Unfortunately for her, it proves to be a near-fatal decision when the plane crashes and she is stranded in the Canadian wilderness alone.

As she struggles to survive by pulling whatever provisions she can out of the downed plane and using found objects in the supplies to start a fire and collect rainwater, Liv also encounters a bear, has to use the trial-and-error method (at first to disastrous results) to determine what local berries are safe to eat, make her own compass, and try to find her way toward any signs of human life — and not only for herself.

"I feel like I'm very similar to Liv in a lot of ways, and I feel like my biggest drive in life is my mom. In moments of doubt and in moments of darkness in my life, I always resort to my mom's belief in me and my mom's trust and support in me and how she's always been by my side and has always been cheering me on; even when I don't believe in myself, she believes in me. And I feel like Liv has that, too, with her dad. And in those dark moments, she always thinks back to her dad and it's little key words that make her keep going," Barrera says.

"She's fighting for for her dad; even though he's not alive anymore, she's always wanted for him to be proud of her. So, I feel like that's a fuel for her, but also, she's fighting for her unborn child. She doesn't want to be like her mother, who gave up on her kid, so that's also fuel," she continues.

Since Liv is alone, her mind naturally wanders to her past, and she begins to work through the pain of her mother's abandonment, her father's death, and her complicated relationship with her baby's father, who is also a coworker. Those moments are shown through flashbacks, but with few exceptions where Liv hallucinates people from her past walking alongside her in the wilderness, in present-day, she is mostly the only actor in the frame.

"At the beginning, I felt kind of stupid sometimes because I wasn't by myself [on set]. There were like 200 people there with me [in the crew], and I had to get comfortable with that aspect of it and understand that this is what most of the show is going to be like. I had to figure out a way to convey the loneliness and contemplative parts of it, where she's just sitting with her thoughts and going back to all of these moments that she cherishes or regrets, that are haunting her," Barrera says. "A lot of the times the camera was right up in my face. And as long as I was present and very specific about what was going through Liv's mind, the audience is going to be able to see it in my eyes. That was that was challenging at the beginning and then it kind of became second nature."

The show filmed on location in Whistler, Vancouver, an experience for Barrera that mimicked what her character was going through in many ways. (Having a crew around her being the biggest difference.)

"It was just like getting thrown into the wild," she says of production. "We were there all day, every day, out in the sun, and those days in the summer up in Whistler are long. We were making the most out of the daylight that we could and then some dusk things that we also got. But it was long days and and I got very tired very quickly, and I used it — just using how worn I felt and how exhausted I was feeling the entire time and channeled that into Liv's state of mind and physical state and not eating, not drinking and all of that stuff."

Barrera was coming off Carmen, the feature adaptation of the famous opera of the same title, as well as promotion for In The Heights when she began filming Keep Breathing, and she notes that having just worked on projects that required so much dancing made her feel like she was "in pretty good shape" for the on-the-ground physical work of Keep Breathing. Where she did make sure to take time for additional training (during her quarantine period before filming began) was in water stunts.

Keep Breathing is bookended by major moments in the water for Liv, the first being the plane crash, which sees Liv have to get herself out of a submerging vehicle, while also trying to help the two others she was traveling with.

"I did do a scuba certification and I did some cold water training and breath hold training because the underwater stuff was the most challenging. It was the most foreign to me and I've never done anything like that before. And I also have a real fear of drowning. I think was probably one of my biggest fears. I love the water and I love swimming, but I just don't go deep. But I knew that I was going to spend a considerable amount of time underwater, and that was terrifying," she admits.

Thankfully, she was able to ease into the water work a bit. The scenes in which she pulled herself out of the plane were done in a tank that production built on a farm in Southern Vancouver.

"The lake was too deep; we never would have been able to get the plane in there, and it was also murky visibility," the actor reveals. "And also, the lake was frozen up until a week before we started shooting, so it would have been impossible. Even the surface stuff, I was having trouble breathing because the water was so cold. They would put me in the water for a little bit, then our water stunt team would be like, 'No, she has to come out' and they'd let me catch my breath."

The end of the series sees Liv, physically broken down from pain and hunger and exposure to the elements, thinking she hears traffic, only to find herself on the edge of rapids, with the "whooshing" sound being rushing water instead of wheels. After an imaginary conversation with her deceased father, who she imagines standing there with her — and with nothing left to lose — she gets in the water, holding the stack of postcards and a decent size piece of a tree, and lets it take her where it will. She is pulled quickly down the stream, with the water washing over her face and more fully submerging her, often flowing right by giant rocks.

For this water work, Barrera was tethered as she got in and only had to film that portion and end, when she is pulled out, in the real wild — and only in "a portion of the river where it's calm now," she says. The other wide shots saw her stunt doubles step in — two whitewater experts who were specifically hired for the scene because of how dangerous it could be. "They had to hire people that are familiar with the rapids," she says. "There was a lot of extreme stuff that went down."

All of the close-ups were a bit of TV magic, with Barrera once again getting into a tank — this one filled with rocks and trees and motors that moved the water.

The farther she travels in the water, the more it looks like she's not going to survive after all. She loses the piece of the tree she was using to help her float and she gets continuously batted around. The show flashes through key moments in her life that she spent her time in the wilderness finding peace about and also offers a glimpse into her future, in a very "life flashing before your eyes before you die" kind of way. However, she is miraculously pulled from the water by two men who just happen to be in the right place at the right time, and they perform CPR. They think they have lost her when she coughs up water, opens her eyes, and lets out a loud gasp.

Unlike other such recent "stranded" dramas as Yellowjackets and The WildsKeep Breathing is a limited series. Because of the close-ended nature of its six episodes, Barrera admits that she wasn't sure when she first took the part whether Liv would, well, live through her ordeal. Although she admits she would return to the survivalist world, and certainly want to work with Gall and Gero again, she considers the ending "perfect."

"It took my breath away when I read it for the first time," Barrera says of the ending. "In my mind, it's such a perfect ending because it's not really conclusive. What I love about the show is that it doesn't really go where you expect it to go. I think the beauty of it is that it's a survival show, and yes, she's trying to get back to civilization and she's trying to survive in the woods, but it's really about her surviving her mind and about reaching a level of acceptance and peace with certain relationships. It's more of a mental survival show than a physical one."

Get to know Melissa Barrera:
Barrera first picked up acclaim acting in telenovelas including Siempre tuya Acapulco, Tanto amor, and Perseguidos, but she broke out for American audiences when she starred in Tanya Saracho's Vida (Metascore: 78). From there, she made a move to feature film work with the theatrical adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights (84) and the fifth installment of horror franchise Scream (60). Up next, she will be seen in the sixth Scream film, as well as a modern big-screen adaptation of Carmen.