"We have to do it in Spanish": Melissa Barrera on dance-filled "Carmen" reimagining set in Mexico

Barrera was "terrified" to tackle dancing in "Black Swan" director's movement-centric take on Bizet's famed opera

Published April 21, 2023 11:59AM (EDT)

Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics)
Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics)

Melissa Barrera appears to be everywhere these days. She had a lead role in "Scream VI" last month, appeared in the gritty indie "All the World Is Sleeping," released the other week, and now stars as the title character in Benjamin Millepied's inventive reimagining of the Bizet opera, "Carmen."

"Benjamin wanted Carmen to not be tragic ... That was hard for me."

This hypnotic film features more dance than song — Millepied is, after all, a choreographer — as well as moments of magical realism. This version of the story opens in the Mexican desert, where Carmen's (Barrera) flamenco dancing mother is killed. Carmen sets the house on fire and hits the road to find Masilda (Almodóvar stalwart Rossy de Palma). After illegally crossing the border, Carmen is saved by Aidan (Paul Mescal), a soldier assisting with border patrol; he kills a man who endangered her life. The couple go on the lam, eventually ending up in Masilda's nightclub, where Carmen dances while Aidan seeks out a fight (bareknuckled, not against a bull) to earn money. Tragedy, of course, ensues. 

Millepied's film keeps the dialogue to a minimum, mostly, allowing the actors to express their emotions through dance and song, smoldering looks and even a love scene. Barrera, who broke out in the TV series "Vida," and sang and danced in "In the Heights," gives a fiery performance in the title role. She spoke with Salon about playing "Carmen" and her career.

What are your impressions of "Carmen"? Why is this opera/story so popular and what about it resonates with you? 

I think people are obsessed with femme fatales, and she was one of the OGs. The music is beautiful. What's funny, in Mexico, growing up, there was a soap commercial that used a song from "Carmen" with the lyrics for the soap. It's that popular! 

Why did you get involved with the film?

I love that Benjamin wanted to make her Mexican and that it was going to be a story told through movement, dance and music. The story may be something we have been seen so many times — someone crossing the border and what that difficult journey is like, and them wanting a better, safer life. I moved to LA in 2017 and I told my team, "I'm not going to go for immigrant stories, and for narco stories. Don't send me that. I'm not going to do it." They missed the logline on this: Benjamin Millepied. Musical. Mexican. Here you go. I was like, "Interesting . . . Maybe this is a way of telling a story we've seen so many times before but in a different way." It's all about emotions and romance. I'm looking for unique ways to tell stories and directors who have a true vision. 

CarmenCarmen (Sony Pictures Classics)What observations do you have about Carmen's relationship with Aidan? There is very little dialogue between them, yet their glances and body language convey their attraction. Can you talk about that and developing your on-screen relationship with Paul Mescal? 

"Who doesn't have chemistry with Paul Mescal?"

That was a thing with me. I'm a very cerebral person. Reading the script, I was like, "Why aren't they talking?" I would tell Benjamin, and he said, "That's not my language." He knows how to convey things with movement. That's what he has done all his life. I have to trust his vision and tell this story in that way. As for Paul — who doesn't have chemistry with Paul Mescal? We spent a lot of time together before filming doing dance rehearsals in the studio trusting each other and learning each other's body language and how to move and carry each other. That helped up a lot in creating that relationship.

What gives Carmen her strength? There is very little backstory. She is searching for herself and mostly expresses her emotions through song and dance. What decisions did you make about the character? 

It's a complete reimagining of "Carmen." Benjamin wanted Carmen to not be tragic. He didn't want her to die. He wanted to remake this character and have her survive and have a hopeful ending. That was hard for me. This is a completely different story. The only thing that is similar is Carmen and her energy. I had to be specific about what is that fire? She doesn't give a f**k. Her story leads to her doom. How do I translate that into this journey of young woman who just lost her mother and is leaving everything behind and going on journey with so much strength and carrying her mother's strength? To me, she's a survivor, a fighter. There's softness inside of her, but she has had to build this hard shell because of the life that she's lived. She needs to be that strong person who makes decisions and is proactive. It is nice to play women who are not victims. She finds beauty in everything. There is an innocence and maturity that I was playing with. That's what makes her so magnetic and compelling. She is like, "I can do anything."

Can you talk about performing the dance scenes and musical numbers? "Carmen" is quite different than your last musical, the exuberant "In the Heights." How did you and Benjamin Millepied envision the performance scenes?

I was terrified the entire time. In 2018, when we first met, Ben and I started working on some choreography. The brilliance of Ben is as a choreographer, he choreographs for you. He studies you and how you move and makes choreography that is organic to your body so you always look good. I went to musical theater school, but I don't have the technique of trained dancers. I am really good at faking it. I can make you believe I can do everything. I had just done "In the Heights." I felt like I still had some of that mobility and agility. But then Ben goes off to Australia and hires Sydney National dancers to choreograph. I was freaking out. I was shooting "Scream" and they lent me an empty soundstage to practice the choreography on Zoom for hours. I thought I'd get to set, and he'll change everything for me so I can do it. I can't do what he's doing with professionals. He said, "You're going to do it." I was like, "Are you kidding me?" He shoots oners [long, uninterrupted takes] so the camera dances with you. I had a great assistant who grilled me and was patient with me. Finally, there was some magic that happened in front of the camera. It happened with the desert dance and the trio dance in the club. Ben would cut and then come and ask, "How did you do that?" I had no idea. I was just letting it all out. I'm grateful and happy it's on camera and immortalized forever because I didn't think it would ever happen again.

CarmenCarmen (Sony Pictures Classics)What can you say about performing in Spanish and the importance of a bilingual film? How important is it for you to make Spanish-language work?

There is so much magic in Mexico. I assumed that's why Ben wanted Carmen to be Mexican. The whole film is magical and driven by something spiritual. Originally the script was in English, but one of my pet peeves is when you're in a country where they don't speak English and the characters speak English with an accent. It makes no sense. We have to be talking in Spanish, otherwise, it's not authentic. He was like 100% on board with that; we have to do it in Spanish. There was a lot of improv in the film and in Spanish, because no one spoke Spanish except me and Rossy de Palma. We do our whole scene on the dance floor, and it was all improvised. He trusted us to do it and know the purpose of the scene and the journey of it and he let us feel our way through it. 

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This is a very different project for you after your breakthrough with "Vida," your "Scream" roles, the series "Keep Breathing" and even "All the World Is Sleeping." What decisions are you making with your career and what opportunities are you chasing? 

I don't have anything set. I go with what I'm feeling in the moment, and I trust my gut when I get a script and get excited, I know that I should pursue that. The same on the other side. If others are excited and I am not, I [pass]. I feel I'm in the sweetest spot in the industry. I am doing exciting things, but I am not uber-famous. I still have to fight for things I want to do. I get some offers, but I am still looking and auditioning for things. I want to keep doing this very badly. I am a workaholic so I would love to jump from one set to another with no days off, but I realize I need to be more specific and purposeful about the projects I take and the messages I'm putting out in universe. I also do not want to ever be put in a box. Which is why I'm doing extremely different things. I don't want to be known as the girl who only does this. You can't put baby in the corner. That keeps it exciting for me and for people who are following my career. I can keep surprising people.

"Carmen" opens in select theaters April 21 then in a few more markets on April 28, a bunch more on May 5 and 12, and widest on May 19.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Benjamin Millepied Carmen Dance Interview Melissa Barrera Mexico Movies Paul Mescal