When making Carmen, the new romantic drama from French choreographer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied, Melissa Barrera saw the chance to redefine movies about the immigration experience and ran with it – or rather, pas de bourée couru with it. In the movie, which features more dance numbers than it does English-Spanish dialogue, Barrera plays the titular young woman, who runs into Paul Mescal's tortured ex-Marine Aidan while crossing the border between Mexico and the US.
When her mother is brutally killed by a dangerous drug cartel, Carmen sets a course for Los Angeles in the hopes of reuniting with family friend Masilda (Rossy de Palma) at her soul-soothing La Sombra nightclub. Carmen and Aidan wind up making the long journey together, finding quiet but passionate solace in one another along the way.
"All of the themes of the movie are so close to my heart. It's a reality that a lot of people are living right now, and they're dehumanized by the media, and are treated like a nuisance," Mexico-born Barrera tells GamesRadar+. "We see all these stories told over and over and over. We've seen them in TV shows and movies, and it's always very tragic and violent. It's always about the danger and how they're poor and dirty, how they're suffering. When I saw that there was going to be a romance involved in this and that there would be dance, and hope, and beauty, I was like, 'Maybe this is a way, like, I don't know… a Trojan horse to talk about it.' You don't even really know that you're watching a story of an immigrant," she continues. "You forget, because of everything that happens, that you are watching this movie about a Mexican immigrant who had to cross the border illegally because her life is in danger.
"I hope that [people] enjoy [Carmen] for the unique piece of art that it is but I also hope that, maybe, it sparks a conversation or two of like, 'wow, that was really beautiful, and at the core of it is a story about immigration'. It's not, like… you don't get to see a lot of it. We don't ever talk about it in the movie, really. You just kind of see it and then, you know, she's on the go. That's it, and that's how it is in life. It's this unspoken monster that's always chasing. But yeah, I think it's a very special and different way of telling a story we've heard so many times."
Accompanied by a moody, majestic score by Nicholas Britell, the musical maestro behind Moonlight, Succession, and more, Carmen, which is loosely based on Prosper Mérimée's 1845 novella of the same name, feels like an extended music video – and that's no criticism, given the innate charisma both Barrera and Mescal possess. At one point during their trek north, Carmen and Aidan stumble across an abandoned fairground, kicking off a dream-like sequence filled with neon lights, tango moves, and backing dancers drifting in and out. It also features, well, no words.
"The first script that I read was very different to the script that we ended up using," Barrera reveals. "In 2018 it was more of a straightforward script but over those next three years, Benjamin just started stripping it. I think Benjamin is such a visionary because the the movie is so intentional, and he made the movie exactly how he wanted. He's such an interesting storyteller that I think a lot of people don't understand. But people that are, you know, dancers specifically, or anyone that's a little bit more emotional really gets it."
Having already appeared in Broadway film adaptation In the Heights, survival series Keep Breathing, and two Scream movies, Barrera isn't afraid of physically demanding roles. As a matter of fact, she seeks them out; admittedly drawn in by the idea that writers and actors don't always have to use speech to express the way a character is feeling on screen. Carmen, however, was perhaps her most challenging of the type yet.
"I like doing things that force me to train in some way, or learn a new skill. [This] was hard for me because I'm playing a character that is supposed to be a natural born dancer. She's just this free, wild, naturally talented person that I am not," she explains. "Finding the balance of me as Melissa working really hard to learn all of these steps and then getting to a point, once I knew everything, of relaxing into them so that it didn't feel like I was doing a complicated bit of choreography was difficult."
It was made even more tricky, too, due to Millepied's love of capturing each dance in one take, as if the actors were performing live on stage. "He choreographs the camera's movements so it's all part of the dance," recalls Barrera. "I personally love oners. When I'm watching a film, when I see a good one, I'm like, 'That's brilliant.' Because it's really hard. But when you're dancing, it's extra hard, especially as a non-dancer.
"If you make a mistake, you ruin the take or it's going to end up in the movie, you know, because there's no cut around it? There's nowhere to hide," she adds. "That was something that had me very nervous and stressed throughout the whole process. But I think in the end, all the hard work paid off."
While she put pressure on herself, Barrera insists that "collaborative" Millepied, who joined the New York City Ballet when he was 18 years old, never made a fuss over her fumbles. "When I met Benjamin for the first time after I read the script, we just chatted. Then he called me back in and my team was like, 'He wants to see you dance now,'" she remembers.
"That day I was worried because I was like, 'I hope he doesn't expect me to be any good because he should know that I'm not a trained dancer.' They were like, 'He knows he seen videos of you, it's fine.' And then I went in and immediately felt relaxed because he's not judgmental at all. He's very collaborative and he sees the beauty in everything, even in my mistakes. To him, it made Carmen feel more real and emotional, and he was open to changing certain moves to suit me."
The fact that Mescal, her co-star, was in a similar boat helped, too. Not just to put Barrera at ease, but also with creating a bond between the pair of them that translates on screen. "It was a learning process for both of us and we both kind of felt inadequate in the beginning," she says. "I think because we were on the same journey of like, 'We need to do this together and it's going to be us and so we just became a team and supported each other.'
"I think it really fed the connection that you feel between Carmen and Aidan; their unspoken, almost spiritual thing they have going on. It's meant to feel like they know each other from before, you know? It's meant to feel like they're meant to find each other, from past lives or something.
"We'd been spending a lot of time together, going out to dinner, talking on FaceTime, freaking out about being in quarantine in Australia," recalls Barrera. "It was a lot of hours of getting to know each other – and the best way that you can get to know a person is in a setting like a dance rehearsal room, because you're getting to know not just their utmost vulnerabilities, but also the way they move, what they do when they're uncomfortable, how they take up space. It all informed us when we got to set. We were like, 'we're in this together.'" Just like Carmen and Aidan.
Carmen, from Dazzler Media, releases in select cinemas on June 2. For more, check out our list of the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way in 2023 and beyond.