For W’s 2020 TV Portfolio, we asked 21 of the most sought-after names in television to embody their favorite characters from their favorite shows of the past few months—and to explain why we should all be (re-)watching The Sopranos, Ozark, Schitt’s Creek, and, yes, Floor Is Lava. To see all the images and discover their picks, click here.
The first time Melissa Barrera flew on a plane during the Covid-19 pandemic, she strapped a protective outfit on her body, à la Naomi Campbell: full hazmat suit, two face masks, a face shield, and plastic gloves on her hands. Back in March, Barrera—who came to prominence among American audiences when she starred in the drama Vida on Starz—was on track to complete a round of press for In the Heights, the Lin-Manuel Miranda–led musical she’d been working on. But when things were cut short and the film’s release was pushed to 2021 due to the lockdowns, she hopped on a flight to her home country of Mexico. When she left, she packed “a bag for two weeks,” she told me, and ended up staying for seven months.
When I speak to Barrera on the phone in September, she’s at an airport in Charlotte, waiting to board her connecting flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she’ll begin filming Scream 5. (The character she’s playing has yet to be announced.) The horror film is a stark departure from the 30-year-old’s current acting résumé: She began as a telenovela star in 2012, and was cast in the lead role of Lyn in Vida five years later. Vida, whose plot centers on Lyn and her sister, Emma (played by Mishel Prada), touches on topics that include queerness in the Latinx community, family secrets, and facing painful histories. When it first aired, in 2018, the show received critical acclaim—thanks in part to Barrera’s thoughtful approach to playing Lyn, the free spirit who’s vegan and has a romantic inclination toward wealthy white men. That thoughtfulness translates to real life, too: Barrera openly recounted her experience in quarantine, a time spent battling feelings of guilt and sadness, and, alternately, processing revelations, discoveries, and love. Here, the actress talks about how, at 10 years old, she loved watching movies so scary that they’d keep her up at night, and why she decided to head home to Mexico in the midst of a pandemic.
Why is Dark the show that got you through quarantine?
Well, I watched so much TV during quarantine; I think I finished all of Netflix and all of Amazon. I spent the seven months of the pandemic in Mexico, so then I started going on Mexican streaming services, as well. But Dark was the one that got me the most excited. I hadn’t watched it before, so I binged the first two seasons just in time for the third one, which premiered in June. And I was like, Where was I? Why hadn’t I ever watched the show? It’s everything that I love: time travel, romance, mystery, transgenerational topics, everything. And I love shows that you have to pay attention to, otherwise you’ll get lost. So it kept me entertained, and it gave me something to focus on during the tough first month of quarantine, when I struggled a lot with, What is my life?
I was a little bit sad because of all the plans that I had that got canceled, and seeing the state of the world, and then being far away from the Black Lives Matter movement in Mexico and not being able to march. It gave me a breather, and it made me forget about the real world and immersed me into this time-traveling epic that I was so happy to find.
How did you find out about the show?
I was just on Netflix, searching for something, and the poster caught my eye. I had heard about it—people had recommended it to me, and I had seen friends post about it when it first came out. And I was like, I think it’s a good show. And I love watching foreign TV. I had a little stretch of watching Swedish shows that I really loved, and Dutch shows that I really enjoyed. I never watched a German show, and I wanted to try. There’s so much good TV in the world, outside of the United States, that it was a perfect find in that moment.
Why did you decide to go to Mexico for quarantine?
I wanted to be with my husband. I thought, If I’m going to be locked up without being able to leave my apartment in L.A. and I’m by myself, I’m going to go crazy. I had the In the Heights press tour that was supposed to start right when the shutdown happened. [My publicist] got on the phone with me, and she was like, “Listen, there’s going to be a full stop for at least two weeks. Do you want to go to Mexico, and then we’ll let you know when we’re picking back up?” So I left with a bag for two weeks, and I stayed for seven months.
Obviously, this was a tragedy: a global pandemic, so many lives lost, so many people lost their jobs. But if you want to look at the silver lining—which is what I always try to do—we all got the gift of spending time with our loved ones, and reassessing the way we live our lives. And I’m a newlywed—I’ve been married for a year and a half now, but it was right after my anniversary that the shutdown happened. I was gonna have a pretty busy year, and I wasn’t going to see my husband almost at all, because he works full-time. So I was feeling a little anxiety, thinking, What is going to happen with my marriage? I need to see my husband, and this year feels like I’m not going to be able to see him.
And then, bam, I’m stuck with him for four months, 24 hours a day. We hadn’t had time like that in maybe four or five years. And I see it as a huge gift. It’s definitely strengthened my relationship. Then I got to spend time with my mom and my sisters in my hometown—and my sister just got married. So it was kind of like going back to the old days when we were all in middle school and high school, all living at home with my mom. It was a really cool bonding time that we got to spend: me, before coming back to work, and my sister, before getting married and moving out with her husband. So I definitely am very appreciative of these months that I got to spend with my family and to recharge batteries for everything that’s coming. It was a forced holiday for the lucky ones of us who could stay home. We aren’t essential workers, and we didn’t have to work.
Let’s go back to what you were talking about, watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfold while you were in Mexico. Can you speak more to that?
It’s a horrible feeling to feel like, because you’re far away, you’re not being supportive because you’re not out on the streets with the people, the way that you want to be. And you have to find other ways to do it from afar, like donating, sharing information on your social media, using your platform to spread information that is valuable. In Mexico, I saw how a lot of people were posting the little black square and hashtagging Black Lives Matter, and then feeling like they’re being supportive from afar because it’s a foreign issue. Like, it’s not our issue—but it is. I started using my platform to shed light on the fact that we also are hella racist in Mexico.
It’s a problem that we also have. We’re right next door, and we cannot pretend that this is only happening in the United States. It was a similar feeling to when the big earthquake happened in 2017 in Mexico, in September. I had just moved to L.A. I still had my apartment and my job in Mexico City, and it gave me that same feeling of, Why am I not there? I need to be there with them to help. But then the leaders of the Time’s Up movement and the Me Too movement were posting on social media, saying, everyone has their lanes. You can’t feel bad because you’re not on the ground, or you can’t feel bad because you can’t donate, or you don’t have a big enough platform that you feel like what you share will reach enough people. Everyone is doing their part. Every little thing helps toward the bigger goal of moving society in the right direction and changing the way that we think and the way that we act. I started coming to terms with that and just kept doing what I could from Mexico.
There’s a lot of guilt attached to this pandemic, I think. That’s how I felt a lot of the time: really guilty, because I didn’t have to work and didn’t have to worry about what I was going to eat next, or support kids—I don’t have children. My husband is a butcher, and technically, he is an essential worker because he works in food. So he never stopped working. I was basically at home with my dogs, trying to not think too much about how I was useless. It’s important to acknowledge that guilt but also to understand that you cannot wallow in it, because it’s not healthy for anyone. You just gotta do what you can and acknowledge the privilege that you have and use it in a way that is beneficial for the world.
I want to talk to you about Scream 5. Have you been doing anything ahead of time to get into character?
I’ve been doing a lot of research on my character specifically, because she has lived through certain things that make her a very complicated human being that I personally have not lived through. So that’s what I’ve been doing—just writing down memories and creating her life, basically her childhood, so that I’m informed in the way that she acts and why she is the way that she is. I’ve just been reading the script over and over again, finding different things in it, reading in between the lines and discovering new things every time I read it. And also trying not to be nervous that I’m going to meet Courteney Cox, honestly, because that’s one of the most exciting things. You have no idea how many times I’ve played in my head the scene where I’m meeting her for the first time. And I’m like, What am I going to say to her?
What are you going to say?
I honestly have no idea. And because of the safety protocols, I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to spend much time with her. I’m not going to be able to hug her, for sure. I love hugging people, and I’m not going to be able to do that. So that sucks. But I do have some scenes with her, so I’m excited to work with her and tell her how much I love her. And tell her how much of an influence she’s been in my life, because I’m a huge Friends fan.
When was the first time you watched Scream?
When I was young, I guess in between 10 and 15 years old. I was obsessed with scary movies, and I watched all of them. The first Scream came out in 1996, and I was way too young to watch it then. So I think the first time that I watched it, I was probably 10 or 11. I just loved getting scared and then not being able to sleep in my room and having to sleep in my sister’s bedroom on the floor. Because I’m a masochist in that sense—I love watching scary movies, but I cannot sleep for two weeks afterward. It’s insane.
Is Dark scary in that way?
No, it’s not scary like that at all. It is a thriller, it is mysterious, and it’s very dark—some scenes are—but it’s a different kind of scary. It’s the kind of scary where fucked-up things happen, and you’re like, How did they manage to get tangled up that way? That kind of scary: society and interpersonal relationships scary. Not, like, someone comes out with a knife and tries to stab you and kill you.
But the type of scary you’re talking about that you see in Dark can also be scary enough to keep you up at night.
One hundred percent. But not at the extreme of, like, Black Mirror. Black Mirror is terrifying, even though it’s technically not horror.
Black Mirror is frightening because it feels so real right now.
It’s so close. It’s so close to where we are.