Stylist spends a lazy LA afternoon with Eva Mendes - an actress hellbent on showing her serious side.
Eva Mendes can reel off the three crucial roles that have made her career without hesitating. First there was Training Day, the 2001 police drama starring Denzel Washington in which she appeared in just two scenes. “It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago, but I’ll always remember it because it put me on the map,” she tells me. Then there was Hitch, the 2005 comedy that saw her play her first lead – Will Smith’s love interest – and “go huge commercially and internationally.” Both were box office hits that propelled Eva to stardom, but you get the impression that, grateful as she is for her early successes (“I came from a very working class family”), these aren’t roles she can speak about with renewed excitement. It’s only when we get to role number three, that of a troubled police officer in harrowing 2007 drama We Own The Night, opposite Joaquin Phoenix, that I detect any real hint of emotion in her low, only slightly Cubaninflected drawl. “Now that,” she says, “was the film that gave me street cred, serious indie cred. And here I am.”
Indeed, here is the naturally stunning 37-year-old, not only arriving for our 5.30pm dinner date at the notoriously A-list hangout, the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles (where she makes an effort to look inconspicuous in dark glasses and a casual ensemble of camel Prada sling-backs and white tee tucked into coral linen Tibi trousers), but also as a serious player in the film industry. In the past Eva has never shied away from playing ‘sexy’, stripping down to her underwear (and famously exposing her nipples) in Calvin Klein adverts that were deemed so racy they were banned from billboards in the US. She’s also safely stuck to playing love interests and femme fatales in action flicks like Ghost Rider and 2 Fast 2 Furious – roles that have tended to lack emotional depth. Her recent decision to take parts in distinctly less glamorous but more dramatically challenging films (We Own The Night was followed by 2009’s Bad Lieutenant, in which she played a drug-addled prostitute opposite Nicolas Cage), marks a definite shift however. And one that is continuing with her next project, Last Night. Released in cinemas this week, it’s another thought-provoking indie, set in New York and beautifully made by first-time female director Massy Tadjedin, in which Eva is cast as a woman causing turmoil in a marriage played out by Avatar’s Sam Worthington and Keira Knightley.
The paparazzi is the most overwhelming thing about fame. It's bizarre, rude, foreign and scary.
Sitting in the secluded courtyard garden of the Chateau, the slightly self-conscious but frank actress (it’s clear she attracts attention wherever she goes, and today she’s wary of onlookers) asks me to be truthful in my opinion of the film over our bowls of white asparagus soup and cups of mint tea (“It’s not like I directed it”, she grins). And I’m happy to be, because I found the film so thought-provoking and honest, it was like somebody was holding up a mirror to some of the moments in my own relationships. I wondered about some of the questions it raised, even days after seeing it.
Even more intriguing is the fact Eva has taken a small supporting role in it. Although her performance is memorable, she’s by no means the lead, a fact she says she doesn’t worry so much about now; instead of pay cheques and screen time she says she’s become better invested in making intelligent film choices. And smart she is, demonstrating theatre knowledge that makes her a “true thesp” (she reveals she almost signed up to a West End play recently) but guarded when she wants to be, expertly evading conversational trouble spots during our 90-minute interview (she won’t go into details of her nine-year relationship with filmmaker George Augusto and I know better than to ask about her 2008 stint in a rehab clinic, which she insists she will never talk about).
At the same time, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her most recent comedy, opposite Will Ferrell in 2010’s The Other Guys, saw her brilliantly mock her own stereotype of the perfect, hot woman and her spoof Sex Tape video for Ferrell’s website funnyordie.com wittily addresses the ‘sexy’ issue head on. And if the past decade was about “becoming known and financially stable” (her upbringing was tough, being raised by a single mother as the youngest of four children), the next is about proving the extent of her talent. What’s more, she’s really quite charming, befriending the waiter instantly by sharing a joke in with him Spanish and failing to offend when she sends back her soup (it was “too vinegary”) and is full of compliments for me. “It’s been like talking to a girlfriend,” she tells me, ruffling perfectly tousled hair once our interview has finished, and I have to agree. In fact, my sneaking suspicion is that she’s always been a girl’s girl really.
Last Night is a really smart film. What attracted you to it?
I thought it was beautifully written and it takes a close, honest look at the complexity and imperfection of relationships. I could tell it was written by a woman because of the dialogue… I thought, “Ah! I get that.” Like when Keira’s character is in her friend’s kitchen with her ex and she says, “I can never be in this kitchen again now”. As a woman I identify with that, being that sensitive to places and smells.
What drew you to your character, Laura, in the film?
At first I wasn’t drawn to her. I loved the script, but I didn’t want to do it. On paper she was a bit of a seductress, the other woman. But when I sat down with Massy [Tadjedin, director] she was like, “That’s why I want you, because I know you won’t play her like that.” If Laura was a vixen it would cheapen Sam Worthington’s character because this isn’t about obvious cheating.
Was there ever a question that you would play the lead?
No, Keira was already in – but you know, that doesn’t bother me. I think those days are gone when you play the lead and only the lead. For me it’s about the people I’m working with. It would bother me to pass something up for such an empty reason.
You’re playing smarter roles than ever before. Has that been a conscious decision?
It’s very conscious, so thank you for asking [looks relieved]. I think what can really make a career is the stuff you say no to. A couple of years ago I made a decision to only do things I was really in love with, whereas before I just did things that seemed right for my career – a big part, a good move. I’ve been in the industry for 10 years now so I’m at a nice place where people know me and I don’t have to make financially motivated decisions anymore. It’s empowering to be able to choose.
You’ve played ‘sexy’ very successfully. Do you feel those roles held you back from more serious film choices?
There have been films I’ve done that I’m not proud of, sure, but who knows what’s held me back or not. I don’t sit and dissect that. Some of the stuff I’ve done has been amazing, like the Calvin Klein campaigns. It was a dream to do those, especially because when I was a kid it was all about Kate Moss. She’s about the same age as me, and my friends and I talked about those campaigns constantly. I think it’s about how you do things. The people who inspire me, like Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, are incredibly sexy, but they’re also serious actresses who have navigated those waters carefully.
Do you feel you are still learning?
All the time. I still go to acting class. I get very excited about it. I just finished a four-day intensive, where you work 9am to 9pm in pairs and put on a play for the group in this tiny theatre in Santa Monica. If it’s in New York, we do it off-off-Broadway and you get critiqued. I’ve been taking classes for 12 years and Larry Moss [acting coach to Hilary Swank], who held last week’s class, has a great point. He says if you’re a good painter or a cellist, you don’t stop practising. I feel like with my acting, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. We did Molière in this last one. I mean, where else am I going to play Molière?
Why not in a movie?
Well, you need to talk to the industry about that. I know it’s boring, but it’s just very difficult to be a woman in this business and even more difficult if you’re an ethnic woman. I wouldn’t be cast in a classic like [a Molière film]. I don’t want to keep saying it and making this my thing, but we need more diversity. It’s like my friend Lucy Liu, she’s such a talented actress, but there are very few roles for Asian- American or black women.
You have managed to achieve diversity in your roles, especially recently. You’ve mixed action, drama and comedy and have even parodied your sexy image in the sketch for funnyordie.com.
[Laughs] I wish I could take credit for coming up with that. I was filming The Other Guys with Will and the director Adam McKay, who are behind the website, and they were like, “Mendes is funny.” And I was like, “Why act so surprised? Dude, just give me something to do.” So after a couple of months they called and said they had this sketch about a sex tape. It’s a play on words though – it’s about sticky tape – you have to see it. It’s still one of the top videos on funnyordie.com but it gave my mother a heart attack. She wouldn’t even watch it, even after I told her it was a joke. I was like, “Mum, it’s funny and cute,” but it got to the point where I just had to let it go.
Do your family usually watch everything you do?
Everything. And my god, they’re my best critics. They’re very honest but they’re loving, and for such a working class family, they really took to the fame thing very well. They get that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Well, everybody has struggles and issues they’re working through, but it can be incredibly stressful to not know where your next job is coming from. Paparazzi, hands down, is the most overwhelming thing. It’s not only bizarre to have someone watching you from the bushes, but rude and foreign and scary. Sometimes I don’t even know what’s happening until my mum alerts me. She has me on Google Alerts [laughs]. But I think sometimes she feels that’s the only way she can keep in touch with me.
You’re a big believer in therapy. Why?
It’s just the guidance that I need. When I was little, therapy something you only seek out if you’re sick, a little wacky. But it’s not and I think more and more people are starting to get into it.
I still go to acting class. We did Molière in our last one. Where else am I going to play Molière?
What is the greatest thing you gain from it?
I’ve been seeing my therapist for eight years so she makes me aware of behaviour patterns. She’s like, “Remember when this happened and you reacted this way?” I’ve always been about taking preventative measures so you don’t end up being a train wreck in this industry. If I see even a little spark of something that could be problematic, I just go, “Let’s put that fire out now.”
Lots of your peers like Cameron Diaz, also see therapists regularly. Would you recommend it?
Yeah, I would. I speak to mine about once week, often on the phone. My only advice would be that the therapist has to be right for you. This woman who I’ve been seeing for years was recommended by a friend – actually Cameron and I had a nice discussion about therapy around that time – and I’ve given her number to lots of people. Sometimes you just want to yap and complain about things with your girlfriends, but the therapist is there to help you solve the problem.
Do you have a big group of girlfriends?
Yes. Yesterday we had girls’ day [laughs]. I quite often have a girls’ day on a Sunday where they all just come over and we talk about anything and everything. We get graphic, we get medical, we get emotional. There are no boys allowed and no alcohol, just tea and juices and one of my friends gets cupcakes from a place called Sprinkles. Some of the girls cook but I don’t cook – I just set the ambience. My thing is flower arranging.
Are you a rubbish cook?
[Looks sheepish] I open the fridge and I don’t know how to go from point A to point B. I do want to start because I feel really pathetic – at a certain age you’ve got to learn how to provide for yourself. Three weeks ago, the director of Last Night, Massy, and her husband came over and brought food with them and she said, “We just need olive oil.” And I was like, “I don’t have it.” I don’t even have pepper, I don’t think. I don’t. We get home delivery meals three times a week and we go out the rest of the time. It’s so embarrassing.
What did you do in your days of singledom?
I was in a relationship at a very young age so I went straight from my mother’s house, where she was cooking for me, to ordering pizza every night with my [then] boyfriend.
Will it worry you if you don’t learn to cook?
It would worry me if I became a parent, but that’s a thing... I don’t know about being a mum. [Pauses, looking worried]. I’m not saying no but I don’t know, I really don’t. There are so many things I need to get together before I do that. Cooking is one, but I also need to learn how to swim. We just got a pool…
So you can learn in private, no paparazzi…
Exactly. Oh my god, you’ve just reminded me of something [giggles]. When I was on the Amalfi coast in Italy on vacation the year before last… I was “off-season”. I call it off-season because when I’m on vacation there’s no stopping me – I really don’t care how I look – it’s my time. So that was two weeks and I’m in the Mediterranean with a noodle. You know, the cylinder tube floatie, like kids wear? I’m having the best time and then my mum writes me an email that night saying, “Cute noodle.” The paparazzi got me. I’m in these crystal waters with a fluorescent noodle and I’m so embarrassed about it because it’s such a private, pathetic little thing.
I quite often have a girls’ day on a Sunday where we talk about anything and everything. We get graphic, we get medical, we get emotional.
What else happens “off-season”?
Oh, whatever I want. It’s usually in Italy. There are a few of us that do it – we’re all like “Dude, we’re off-season”. It’s nothing to do with work; it’s about living life and having fun, and eating Nutella with my espresso every morning.
Going back to motherhood, you’re playing a mum in your next movie, See If I Care.
Yes, I’m so excited to be starring in it and producing. It’s about a mum who’s a disaster, which my mum wasn’t, but the similarities are great in terms of money and struggling and my mum being a survivor. The expression ‘bills are piling up’ – they really were in my childhood. This character is very involved with men and has a 13-year-old who needs her love but she’s the last one to get it.
Did it make you think any differently about parenthood?
In a weird way I fluctuate between not giving it any thought and wanting to leave it up to whoever’s running the show, then giving it a lot of thought. I have to be honest, I don’t feel the urge yet. Maybe I’ll do it when I’m 41 or something; that’s happened to a lot of people I know who decided not to. I don’t feel the ticking clock… I feel I have time. Whether that’s a reality or not, I don’t know. I’ll just be patient.
You’re also playing the opera singer Maria Callas in a forthcoming biopic…
Yes, that one is in development. I’m producing it and [Downton Abbey creator] Julian Fellowes has written the script. Anyway, this film is based on the book Greek Fire, which concentrates on her, not her opera diva persona. It’s a love story, a beautiful Greek tragedy about her giving up performing for love – it’s so heartbreaking. I’ve read the book five times and I cry each time.
You’ve been with your partner George for almost a decade. Any desire to get married?
The idea is a beautiful thing but I just feel that marriage can complicate things. Maybe some people need that piece of paper to solidify things but I don't. I also feel it’s very sexy and beautiful to be 60 years old and call your man your boyfriend. I do believe in the one forever. The idea is beautiful to me – being a team – and I can be really sappy, writing notes and things.
Do you think perfection can exist in relationships?
Oh god, perfection is so boring. I don’t strive for perfection in anything I do. Even when I’m out there on the red carpet, I’m like, “No, don’t fuss over me.” I welcome mistakes in my work, but that’s what creates beauty in a scene, something spilling over. Life is one big imperfection.
Last Night is released in cinemas nationwide on 3 June.
Picture credits: Rex Features and Getty Images