Melissa Barrera has been taking Hollywood by storm these past couple of years thanks to her starring turns in major productions like In the Heights and the revival of the Scream franchise, quickly proving herself to be a fresh and versatile performer with some serious pipes to boot. Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, this triple-threat built her foundation in the world of singing and musical theater. All of this surely came in handy during the making of Melissa Barrera’s latest theatrical release, Carmen.
The directorial debut of Benjamin Millepied, Carmen is a complete reimagining of the famous Georges Bizet opera of the same name. Set in the modern day against the backdrop of the Mexico and United States border crisis, the film follows a young woman named Carmen (Barrera) who is forced to flee from her home and cross the Mexican desert when her life is threatened. Her goal is to reach Los Angeles. When she crosses paths with a traumatized marine veteran named Aidan (Academy Award nominee and Aftersun star Paul Mescal) who just begrudgingly began a job as a Border Patrol agent, he defies orders and the pair go on the run together.
Carmen may be based on an opera, but Millepied’s take does away with the grandiose style of singing in favor of a story told primarily through movement. Millepied has had a long and esteemed career as a dancer and choreographer and is no stranger to the movie industry, having choreographed and performed for Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan as well as choreographing the “sandwalk” for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune. Carmen is a thoughtful, refreshingly original, and moving debut for him as a filmmaker, and Melissa Barrera shines exceptionally bright in the lead role.
We caught up with Melissa Barrera ahead of Carmen’s wide theatrical release, where she talked about the film’s lengthy rehearsal process, working with Paul Mescal, and her next horror project, a secret Monster thriller at Universal with Scream directing duo Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett). Note: This interview took place before the ongoing WGA strike.
Exclusive Interview with Melissa Barrera for Carmen
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it true that you shot this movie before you did either of the new Scream movies?
Melissa Barrera: I was actually shooting the first Scream, or Scream 5, and on the weekends, I was rehearsing for Carmen. I shot Scream, and then immediately after, I left for Australia and I shot Carmen.
What’s it like to look back on an experience you had before, I assume, a lot changed for you after Scream came out?
Melissa Barrera: Not a lot has changed, actually. I think people always assume that some grand things happen and are life-changing. But in my experience, nothing has ever felt like it really changed my life. I definitely think more doors opened and I met more creatives because of that. But everything is kind of still the same. Still knocking on doors, still auditioning for things, trying to find what feels like the right next thing to do. Something that’s exciting and that I’m passionate about. And also finding more things to produce and create from the ground up and make into movies and TV shows.
This particular story, this role, and the relationship between the two main characters – it’s all told predominantly through movement and physicality, as opposed to being dialogue-heavy. Have you ever done a project that’s similar to this at all?
Melissa Barrera: I did a show called Keep Breathing where I was silent because I was alone most of the time. But it was very different because I was alone. That was a different experience of just me and the camera and nothing between. And here, it was more like the story is going to be told through movement because dance is a universal language. So we’re expressing what the characters are feeling through dance and we don’t need to talk about it.
That was a completely different experience because I was just nervous that people weren’t going to understand. I was like, “But what if they don’t know where Carmen is coming from and we need to talk about it?” That’s me being the rational, cerebral actor that I am, and Benjamin [Millepied] was like, “Trust me, this is the vision. People are going to get it.” It’s all about feelings and, of course, as a dancer and a choreographer, that’s his language, you know? He’s been doing that forever. Letting go, trusting, and going on that journey was so beautiful and magical. It was unlike anything else that I’ve ever done.
My older sister is a professional dancer, so I’m very familiar with stories being told through that medium. Not enough in film though, so it’s nice to see a little more representation as far as like, the art of dance on film goes.
Melissa Barrera: Yeah, I love watching films, like dance short films, it’s always riveting. I’m always like, enthralled by it. I feel like this movie is very special because it’s an experience. And if you let yourself go on that journey, it can be very powerful and very moving.
With dance there’s such insane levels of trust, especially between partners like you and Paul Mescal in Carmen. How do you help establish that when you have the limited time that you do with a film?
Melissa Barrera: Well, I felt very lucky and blessed that we did get at least three weeks of rehearsal time together. So we spent a lot of time in the dance studio. You know, spending so many hours with someone, trusting each other, and making fools out of each other by laughing and falling and failing and getting back up and being tired and thinking that you’re not going to be able to do it and cheering each other on – that creates a very deep bond and that’s what happened with us.
So, when we got to set, we already felt like we deeply knew each other and that’s what Carmen and Aidan basically feel when they first see each other. Like they were just meant to meet and there’s something drawing them in. I think that’s why the almost-silent relationship works between them, because we had built all of this history during the rehearsals.
What was it like then, to see him at the Oscars this year after having had that experience with him?
Melissa Barrera: It’s incredible. It’s incredible because he’s such a generous guy. He was the best possible partner to have on this project and I’m just so happy for him and how he’s risen. People love him and cheer him on. He’s unstoppable.
I watched you on the Kelly Clarkson Show and you talked about something that I think about often, which is how you said you initially didn’t want to be involved with stories that deal with things like the border and the Cartel. What exactly made you want to tell this kind of story now with Carmen?
Melissa Barrera: I’ve never seen it told in this way. I’ve never seen it told through song and dance, and in a poetic and romantic and beautiful way. Also, she doesn’t die at the end, you know? This is a tragedy, Carmen always dies, and it always feels so unfair. Benjamin wanted to change that. We wanted to change her story and I just thought it was so beautiful and hopeful.
To tell this immigration narrative that we’ve seen done so many times but to do it in a way that’s never been done before, that feels very artistic and different. And for a different audience, really. There’s a very specific audience that’s going to gravitate toward this movie, I think. If we can create empathy – because this movie will make you feel things – and if you feel for Carmen and you humanize her struggle, you’re humanizing all of the people that are at the border right now that are waiting for asylum, that are looking for the same things that Carmen is looking for in this movie.
You’ve got another film with Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin from Scream that’s in the works. Obviously, you can’t really tell us much, but I’m wondering if you could say how it differs from Scream as far as tone or anything like that?
Melissa Barrera: It’s very different from Scream and it’s in the Monster Universe. It’s a different kind of monster than Ghostface. I don’t know what else I can say because they didn’t even release the title! I was so surprised, they don’t even want you to know what the movie is called. So, I’m not sure that I can say anything, but there’s some action in there and there’s a lot of suspense and yeah, some creatures.