‘Keep Breathing’: Melissa Barrera Shares Her Real Reactions in Liv’s Survival Story
Melissa Barrera braves the elements in Keep Breathing, a gripping tale of survival coming to Netflix July 28. The In the Heights star shows herself in a brand new light in the rugged six-episode story, most of which she acted in alone.
In Keep Breathing, Barrera plays New York lawyer Liv, a workaholic who doesn’t let anyone in. After her private plane crashes in the remote Canadian frontier, she finds herself as the lone survivor. Liv must battle both an unforgiving wilderness and past personal demons to stay alive in the survival thriller. (The series also stars Jeff Wilbusch, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Austin Stowell, and Florencia Lozano.)
Barrera had her work cut out for her in this show. As if plunging into freezing cold water and exerting her body to the point of exhaustion weren’t daunting enough, she had to deliver a compelling emotional performance to boot. Here, Barrera breaks down the work put into Keep Breathing and why she desperately wanted to play Liv.
Were there any survival skills you already knew? What kind of training did you do, if anything?
Melissa Barrera: I didn’t know any survival skills. I’m a pretty handsy person, so I feel like I knew certain things like the physics of building a shelter, pulleys. I thought, “Oh, maybe that’ll come in handy,” but it didn’t.
The most preparing that I did was the underwater stuff. I had to do a scuba certification training to get comfortable under the water and with the equipment, because I was going to spend a lot of time underwater. I did cold water training, because the lake that we were shooting at was frozen a week before we started shooting. I had to get my body used to the freezing temperatures, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to move, so I did a lot of laying in my bathtub with ice during my quarantine before shooting. And then, I did breath-hold training, because a lot of the scenes underwater I did on breath hold, so I had to do a little bit of training to expand my lung capacity just to hold my breath for longer.
That was the extent of my physical preparation for the show, because that’s what I was most nervous about. I was just coming off of Carmen, so I was in pretty good shape and I felt confident about the land stuff, but the water stuff is what had me a little nervous.
Was your dialogue in the cold water scenes scripted, or were those your real reactions to the water temperature?
That was real reactions to the cold water, for sure. It was freezing. The only time that I went in without a wet suit on was that time when I go in in my underwear, and they didn’t even want to let me do that. They were like, “No, it’s too cold.” I was like, “Just a second. Let me do it!” But they were so worried, ’cause the water was freezing. I think we did two takes of that, and that’s it. They were like, “No more.”
It was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. We did all the surface work on the lake, and then we did the underwater, inside the plane and everything in a tank, and so for that they warmed up the water. That was like a huge hot tub. It was amazing. It was the most fun I think I’ve had on a set ever.
Was it a challenge to get yourself into the emotions these circumstances required?
It was challenging, it was intimidating, especially because I was alone. “Alone” with 200 people in the crew behind the scenes, but acting alone was intimidating for me. I was like, “How am I going to do this? How much do they have to see? And how much can the story be told internally?” I needed to find the right balance for that, because sometimes the camera has these beautiful wides, but it’s mostly up in my face the entire time, so I wanted the story to really be told through Liv’s eyes. I had to be very specific about what I was doing and thinking the entire time.
It helped to have the amazing scripts that I had. Honestly, it’s the most beautifully written show ever. If the scripts ever are released and people get the chance to read them, they’re incredible and they’re written like novels. I had so much information.
Can you paint more of a picture of what those scripts were like? Was it more stage direction than dialogue? Was much of the solo dialogue in the episodes improvised by you?
A lot of the verbalizations were in the script, but there was a lot more description. There was a very detailed description of what was going on in the script, and then the occasional dialogue. Sometimes they would just write “she celebrates,” so I got to pick how she celebrates. Stuff like that.
I can’t imagine anything more opposite to a movie musical. What made you want to take on this rugged story?
Exactly that. The idea that this was so completely different to anything I’ve done before was the first thing that attracted me to it. Secondly, the idea of this survival drama that is mostly with this one woman, I was like, “Oh my God, what actress wouldn’t want to do this?” I just thought I was going to have to fight everyone for this role. I was like, “There’s no way they’re gonna give it to me. They’re gonna give it to someone that’s famous or something.”
But when I got the scripts and read them, I called my team crying, like weeping, after the fourth episode. I called them and said, “I don’t know how, but I have to get this role.” They really fought for me to meet with [executive producers] Martin [Gero] and Brendan [Gall], and I sold myself basically. I told them, “No one is going to throw themselves more into this role than me. I am so ready. This is exactly the kind of role I’ve been wanting and dreaming for my entire life.” I think I just convinced them. [Laughs]
They were trying to scare me out of it. I think they were testing me, but I was ready.
Going into a series like this, the challenges are pretty clear. But what was an unexpectedly difficult part of filming it?
I consider myself a pretty strong person with a lot of stamina and endurance, and when I’m shooting something, I’m usually the actor that doesn’t get tired. I’m ready every day, I’m upbeat. I kind of put this program in my head knowing the duration of things, and I’m set. I don’t ever need a break or anything. I did the same for this, saying like, “I know this is going to be a challenge, but I’m ready.” And two weeks into the shoot, I was dead. I couldn’t get out bed. I was like, “What am I going to do? I have two months left of this. How am I going to survive this?”
I took a lot of baths, which is something I never do in my life, and I slept a lot. All the time that I wasn’t on set, I was sleeping. I just pushed through it and used everything I was feeling — the exhaustion, the frustration, and the tiredness — and poured them into Liv and hoped that it would turn out good.
There’s always a sense of accomplishment at the end of a job. But did this one stand out? It’s such a raw story of survival.
One hundred percent. It’s the most satisfied that I’ve ever been, and it’s the first time that I ever finished shooting something and I’m ready to finish it. This time, I felt so happy and accomplished and satisfied, but I’m dead. It was very, very fulfilling and rewarding. It was life-changing.
Keep Breathing, Series Premiere, Thursday, July 28, Netflix