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A new survival thriller from Netflix, Keep Breathing, takes In The Heights star Melissa Barrera and drops her in the remote Canadian north, trying to survive for her life.
“As soon as I found out about it and I read the scripts, I was like, this is the kind of show that I've always wanted to do,” Barrera told Yahoo Canada. “This is the kind of role that I consider a dream role for me.”
“It’s perfectly balanced action and a lot of physical work, but also a very beautifully written and well drawn emotional arc that drives the story. I was just dying for it and I was going to do anything to fight for this role.”
'We really wanted to bring the whole world to the Canadian wilderness'
Keep Breathing follows its main character, Liv (Barrera), a very type-A, New York lawyer who has been incredibly focused on her career, but now a personal turn in her life leads her on a trip to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. With her scheduled flight cancelled and a short timeline to get there, Liv convinces two men to allow her to join their small plane, but they crash on the way, leaving Liv to survive in the remote wilderness, and hopefully find help to get her out.
“We had been working on this show called Blindspot for five years, which is a very loud show, it's a maximalist TV program, and so, we never try to do the same thing twice, and we started talking about, well, what is the opposite of the show? What would be the quietest TV show on television?” co-creator Martin Gero, born in Switzerland but raised in Canada, told Yahoo Canada. “We started talking about some sort of survivalist drama that would deal with a lot of solitude, and also, the world is just crazy right now,...and Brendan [Gall] and I feel deeply grateful that we're Canadian, and can retreat at will to the Canadian wilderness.”
We really wanted to bring the whole world to the Canadian wilderness and have it be a restorative thing. So for us, this concept of a serene thriller started to develop where it was like, there would still be an urgency in the storytelling, but we could bring the audience into the forest in a way that would feel meditative in some points and have them feel refreshed after watching the show.Melissa Barrera, lead actress in 'Keep Breathing'
As Liv continues to be stranded, her mind starts to race and wander, with the solitude really forcing her to confront the traumas of her personal life, that she largely pushed aside.
“We were trying to push ourselves and see what kind of storytelling we could accomplish…and so that was really a thing that started to emerge, what does it look like when a character's main obstacle is dealing with themselves, and dealing with their past, and dealing with their own emotional baggage?” Canadian co-creator Brendan Gall said.
For Barrera, it was being able to see Liv start to unravel from her usual put-together demeanour, while still trying to just survive alone in the wilderness, that interested her about the character.
“That's the interesting part, when you start to see cracks in the armour, and the beauty of how the story is told is that you get to see her in flashbacks, how she is in life in the city, with her co-workers, with her family, with her love interest,” Barrera said. “She's just kind of avoiding feeling anything and just focused on work, and then she's thrown into the situation where she's on her own, she doesn't have to put up a mask for anyone.”
“You see her, for the first time, start to lose composure, and what that does to someone, and the high-stress situation that leads her mind to start running and thinking about things that you normally wouldn't think about, because she's busy working.”
'It was the hardest thing I've ever done'
While the emotional journey that Liv goes on is immense, there is also extensive physical work for Melissa Barrera, as well as the crew, to take on while filming Keep Breathing in British Columbia.
“It was the hardest thing I've ever done,” Barrera said. “I think for everyone, for the entire crew, they were having to climb up a mountain with the equipment and pushing the crane up a hill, it was just insane what they did to get to the locations that we needed.”
“I just have to react to my surroundings, we were very lucky to be able to get the locations that we got, and it was rough, because it was long days, we would usually try to make the most out of the daylight. So we would start, I would get picked up sometimes at like 4:00 a.m. …and then just shoot the most that we could all day until the sun went down, and days are long in the summer in Canada. So sometimes we'd be shooting up until like 10:00 p.m. because it was still daylight.”
For co-creators Brendan Gall and Martin Gero, it was Barrera’s tenacity and commitment to the project, and embodying Liv’s journey, that really made her the perfect fit for this character.
“Her agility with language is so phenomenal but also, even more important with this piece, is her ability to hold the frame in silence and to be alive in every moment, as she's thinking through a problem,” Gall said. “She's so intensely watchable in those moments, just what she's doing with her eyes and her face, and then I would say, as equally important is who Melissa is as a human is that she's fearless.”
Her willingness to jump into very difficult shooting circumstances and her ability to stay positive… We knew that we were going to make a difficult show, under difficult circumstances, and so we knew we had to build an ensemble of people on and off camera, who had joy in their hearts, and kindness and respect in our hearts, and Melissa was at the very top of that group of people in terms of her approach.Brendan Gall, 'Keep Breathing' co-creator
Being present for every scene in the series, with other actor playing significantly smaller roles, Barrera admitted that largely single-handedly leading this project did make her “nervous as hell.”
“It's a big responsibility and you feel a lot of pressure because you're like, wow I really just have to be the best that I can be, try and be the most honest and truthful that I can to tell the story, and hopefully, people won't get sick of my face,” Barrera said.
“I tried not to think too much about that because otherwise, it would have been like crippling anxiety, and I wouldn't have been able to do anything.”