When Melissa Barrera first heard about Carmen in 2018, she knew straight away that she wanted the title role. She didn’t know much about the upcoming musical, but what she did know intrigued her. She’d heard it was the directorial debut of French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, known for masterminding the dance scenes in 2011’s Natalie Portman-starring ballet drama Black Swan. And that it was an updated take on George Bizet’s timeless 19th century opera. But that was it. “I knew it was going to be really cool with a very unique, creative vision,” Barrera nonetheless concluded.
After reading the plot, however, a snag emerged. In Millepied’s version, the eponymous Carmen is a Mexican immigrant fleeing from drug cartel thugs who murdered her mother. After a deadly incident at the US border, she goes on the run with shell-shocked ex-marine turned reluctant border patrol guard Aidan, played by man-of-the-moment Paul Mescal. The problem? Barrera had vowed “not to go for any immigration roles”, wary of perpetuating stereotypes.
“Hollywood’s immigration stories are like trauma porn”
“When I moved from LA to Mexico in 2017, I told my team I didn’t want to feed the narrative of ‘that’s all we are’,” she explains via Zoom from a hotel in Dublin, where she’s shooting a reimagining of the classic Universal Monster Movies from the studio’s horror golden age (think Dracula, Frankenstein or The Invisible Man). “In Hollywood, most of the opportunities you get, as a Latino, are to play some version of an immigration story – which are always very dramatic, violent, sad and depressing… They’re like trauma porn that makes you want to crawl under the covers of your bed and cry.”
After reading the script though, Barrera was torn. She realised that Carmen had potential. With a few notes to Millepied to help expunge any clichés, it could be a more avant-garde way of telling a story that had traditionally left her cold. Featuring a score by Succession’s Nicholas Britell, the resulting bilingual film unfurls like a hallucinatory fever dream via song and expressionist dance numbers. Watching Barrera’s kinetic chemistry with Mescal, even hardline home secretary Suella Braverman might dust off her Spanish Duolingo subscription or be tempted to squeeze her cloven hooves into a pair of ballet pumps.
“It’s beautiful, hopeful and doesn’t hit the nail over the head,” says Barrera. “I thought this was a way of reaching an audience that would usually reject watching immigration stories. Maybe after this movie they’ll think: ‘Oh my God, Carmen was an immigrant’. The catalyst for the whole adventure-story was because this woman needed to run from danger and cross a border to seek a better life. It was a dream-like version of a narrative we’ve seen so much – told in an artistic way that will connect in a more emotional way through its use of movement and dance. There’s another level to it.”
At the centre of Carmen is the white-hot spark between Barrera and Oscar-nominated Mescal; which sizzles so much, you half-expect the film to light up a post-coital cigarette during the end-credits. They didn’t know each other before they started rigorous rehearsals (Barrera came onboard in 2018, while Mescal joined two years later – his casting announced six months after Normal People had turned him into an international sex symbol), but their relationship was forged through the intense experience of making a movie during lockdown in Australia, which doubles for the gritty LA desert, in 2021. They first met over FaceTime, both quarantined for two weeks in their respective hotel rooms, and even spent Christmas together as both were away from their families.
“Paul Mescal is a gentleman”
“We went out and had a little Christmas dinner together and Paul got me this gift – a journal – and I felt so bad because I didn’t get him anything in return!”, Barrera laughs. “I felt so horrible! But that just shows what kind of guy he is – a gentleman. He’s all about the details. He cares.”
Post-quarantine, they got to gruelling work on the choreography that powers the film. “You get to know each other on a very deep level because when you’re spending that amount of time dancing together, all your insecurities are coming out and you have to trust each other fully,” says Barrera. “[Paul was there] to witness me making a fool of myself, but also there to celebrate when I finally nailed something. I mean…” she laughs again, “It’s hard not to have chemistry with Paul, right?”
Although nothing like Carmen’s tale, you might argue that 32-year-old Barrera’s remarkable rise does have a dreamlike quality to it. Since her US calling-card role in the Starz series Vida, she’s proved her triple-threat credentials with a lead in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights, and given us a complex ‘final girl’ as Sam Carpenter, the daughter of original masked murderer Ghostface, in the 2022 Scream reboot and its sequel, Scream VI – the franchise’s highest-grossing instalment.
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, she was shy and introverted. It was watching children’s telenovelas – where kids’ would act in musical soaps then subsequently tour the songs featured in them – that made her want to act. “My subconscious was constantly exposed to that and I thought: if they can do it, I can do it,” she says. Even at a young age, she was thinking globally. She knew she needed to relocate to the US in order to make an impact – this was in the days before streaming made overseas content more accessible – so she studied musical theatre at New York University Tisch School Of The Arts. She thought she’d continue in America, working on her “number one love” theatre, but when she auditioned for reality show La Academia (a hybrid of The X Factor and Big Brother where she also met her future husband, fellow contestant/musician Paco Zazueta) on vacation back home and was accepted, she decided to return to Mexico. That was in 2011, and she worked non-stop for six years – on telenovelas and in theatre – leaving her financially-solid but creatively stunted.
“I was told I didn’t have the right look”
“I didn’t feel challenged,” she sighs. “I was trying to get into the film industry in Mexico and nobody was letting me in. I was looked down upon as a ‘soap opera actor’ and told I didn’t have the right look for the films I wanted to make. I felt jaded and, at 26, I needed a change of air.”
So she decided to go back to the US in 2017, rebuilding her career from scratch, knowing that all her achievements in Mexico would be erased as quickly as doodles from an Etch-A-Sketch. “Nothing I had done counted, so I was excited for the challenge of being the new girl and needing to go into rooms and wow people and be undeniable.”
Even for someone who relishes a challenge, her first major film, a starring role in 2011’s In The Heights – a movie-musical version of the 2008 Broadway show, proved a baptism of fire. Hobbled by exceptional hype, and the unfair expectation that any movie depicting an underrepresented group has to be a watershed moment – the Latin community’s Black Panther – good reviews failed to translate into significant box office receipts. Hollywood blame-game headlines branded it a relative flop, which took its toll on Barrera.
“At the time, I did take it very personally,” she concedes. “I don’t anymore. But it was my first big movie, everybody was saying it was going to be this huge hit, and it meant a lot to have a big studio movie with an all-people-of-colour cast. The reviews were great, and the movie was fantastic – I’m proud of it – but then it didn’t do well because of COVID and it was released simultaneously on HBO Max when people weren’t going to theatres. There were so many things that were out of my control.”
She takes a deep breath and continues: “It wasn’t a great time. But I wouldn’t change it because it taught me a lot about the industry. If it had come out and become this huge hit and I had skyrocketed and become a global superstar, I don’t know if I would understand the industry so well. There are so many things that I have no power over, so I learned the valuable lesson that I can’t let that stain or dampen my experience of making a film. The only thing that matters is whether I’ve had a good time and I’m proud of what I’ve made, and whether I’ve made lasting relationships out of it.”
Eventually, she did get a second bite of the cherry. Obsessed with horror movies since she was a kid, 2022’s Scream “requel” made for the perfect commercial contrast to In The Heights’ disappointment.
Barrera played Sam, a woman burdened by her father’s past while discovering her own burgeoning bloodlust. In the role of Sam’s sister, Tara, was Jenna Ortega – poised to go supernova in Netflix’s Wednesday. The film’s press tour underlined Barrera’s endearing nerdiness: when original Scream queen Neve Campbell is asked deep-cut questions about past films in a video interview, and flashes a blank expression, Barrera jumps in to help out with her intricate Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy-level knowledge of the franchise.
“I love these movies and sometimes I can’t even believe I get to be a part of them,” she tells us, with visible sincerity. “But I do feel very fortunate that Scream came out after In the Heights… In Mexico, I used to work to work – but in the US, I choose projects I’m devastatingly passionate about. Obviously Scream has a fandom, so it’s incredible to be part of that, but I’ve witnessed the other side of the industry. Hollywood is so extreme that you can’t base your happiness on the box office. With Scream, I feel like I’m on the rise with a certain group of people who are going to change the industry for the better”
“As long as people want Scream movies, they’ll continue to exist”
Looking ahead, Barrera won’t confirm Scream 7 but is obviously excited about the future of the franchise. “It would be great to see where Sam’s story goes – there’s so many places it could go and I’m excited to see that. I don’t want to say yes or no to a Scream 7 movie, although it feels as long as people want Scream movies, they’ll continue to exist.”
Six years after moving to the US with a blank slate to write the next chapter of her life, Barrera is about to have perhaps the busiest year of any actor in Hollywood. Apart from Carmen and the aforementioned Universal monster movie (which sees her reunite with Scream’s creative partnership of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett), she has a number of anticipated films in the chamber, including The Collaboration, an adaption of Paul Bettany’s acclaimed play about the bromance between art world titans Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But it was when she finished filming the upcoming Your Monster, shot in 20 days in Hoboken, New Jersey, that she fully reflected on how far she’s come from only being offered reductive roles involving cartels. It’s a curious-sounding project: a romcom horror about a woman who falls in love with a monster living in her closet.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – when I finished it, I felt like I’d climbed Mt. Everest!”, she laughs. “But it made me realise I’m capable of much more than I give myself credit for. I can do comedy, I can do drama, I can do action.” She smiles triumphantly: “I can do it all!”
‘Carmen’ is in UK cinemas from June 2
FEATURED IMAGE: Sarah Krick