In her latest film, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Eva Mendes shirks her sexy image and gives a down-to-earth portrayal of a small-town waitress forced to choose between the father of her child, a face-tattooed stunt motorcycle driver (Ryan Gosling), and a man who can offer her substantial security (Mahershala Ali) – kind of her own “Sophie’s Choice,” as Mendes says. Though some may raise an eyebrow at her being cast in a Derek Cianfrance film, Mendes fought for the role of Romina, an important female figure in a film dominated by men and concerning legacy in America, particularly about what is passed down from parents to children. During her research, Mendes gathered up her own family and friends with children to further explore the role and added that thoughtful touch to her performance. You can read more about ‘The Pines’ in our TIFF review here, our interview with co-star Ryan Gosling here, and our interview with Derek Cianfrance here, in which the director admits to kind of falling in love with her. After watching ‘The Pines’ and reading the Q&A below, I challenge you not to fall for her.
In this recent Q&A with journalists, Mendes discussed wanting to work with independent filmmakers like Derek Cianfrance and Mike Leigh, finally being “accepted into the weird club,” great improv with Larry David, and much more.
Tell me how you got involved in this.
After I saw “Blue Valentine,” I was blown away by the performances and the film and how thought provoking it was and I thought, “Look, you get a couple great performances that could be the actors, but you get like an entire cast giving killer, authentic performances and that’s a director.” So I was like I need to meet this person. So I met with Derek and at the time, we didn’t talk about ‘Pines.’ I didn’t know there was a possible script, but it was important for me to know that someone like that, that works at that level, knows that that’s what I want to do. I’m sure that my choice, my body of work doesn’t exactly scream indie. Although if you do the calculations, I realized in this last interview I’ve done more independent films than other films. I’ve actually only done a handful of big budget films.
Right, but often times like “Hitch,” they’re big enough that sometimes those are the only films people know.
Exactly. So anyhow when this came around it was like months later, maybe 8 months after I first met Derek, and I knew that I really wanted to go out for the part. Derek kind of had reservation about me and I was like, “Uh oh.” I was challenged and I thought okay. So I went to go audition for him and when I got there I looked the part. I looked totally different and I think he was impressed and he was like, “Do you want to get out of here?” It was the end of his day, he had been casting the whole day. I said, “Yeah, I actually grew up around here. Why don’t I drive you around Echo Park, Silverlake and show you where I grew up? And we can draw parallels between Romina and myself and you can see how serious I am about this.” So I think that was it. I think he really saw my education at that point and probably trusted in me and I’m so happy about that.
It’s a tough, potentially thankless role – this mom who’s got the shit end of every stick. What drew you to it?
Definitely. I like the moral predicament that she’s in at the beginning. I like how difficult of a decision that is to make and it’s kind of her own “Sophie’s Choice” in a way. I haven’t said that before, I don’t know why that just came to me, but it’s just such a heavy decision. I mean you have this child with someone, you have this man’s baby who you just had a fling with, who you have no connection to, you can’t find. It’s the early ‘90s, certainly there’s no Facebook and then you have this other man, who’s wonderful and stable who you’re not technically in love with and who wants to provide for your child even though he’s a completely different race and that will prove to be problematic – he wants to take your child in, you know? And then the biological father comes into your life and it’s really a tough one.
And actually? Before we filmed, I had a woman’s day at my house where I invited my sisters and my Mom and my girlfriends who had kids, and we all sat around and ate lunch and I was like okay, here’s the situation and I gave them the institution.
You brought the dilemma to them?
Yeah Romina’s dilemma, Romina’s choice, and I said, “What do you do?” I thought for sure you’re going to go with the good guy, who wants to take care of your kid. And they were all like, “you try everything in your power to make it work with the biological father.” I was like, “what?!” I was so shocked and said, “But he’s unfit!” They were like, “It doesn’t matter, something primal kicks in and, unless he’s a physical threat to his life, you try everything you can to make it work.” I was like so happy I did because it made me realize this incredible push and pull. And so when Romina, at the beginning for the film kind of starts toying with the idea of reconnecting with Luke [Ryan Gosling’s character] and then does, it’s not just because it’s some kind of hook up in any way. She’s testing it to see if he’s really fit, and be a father. Can she really trust her baby around him ? And then, of course like things in life, it spins out of control. So, it added another layer of depth. I feel like if I didn’t meet with these wonderful women, I wouldn’t have been thinking that way.
That’s great research. I heard you did some waitressing?
That was all Derek, it was such a smart idea. He said, “I want you to take a few days and work at the diner that Romina’s going to be working at and waitress.” I said, “Great, fantastic.” Very few people recognize me in Schenectady. I was fine and I was really happy because they were just mad that they didn’t get their eggs on time so you know I got attitude from customers when I deserved it. I got tips when I deserved it. So it was great, but the beautiful part of that was meeting and connecting with the women that worked there that were born and raised in Schenectady and their stories and they were wonderful women.
It was also super practical when it came to shoot. I knew my way around. I felt great with the space. I knew where to refill the ketchup and the salt. I knew where to put the orders. I had it all. I knew the drill. I knew when I got a break. Derek is so smart, not just because you’re living the character, but that’s rehearsal. Most of the time when you do a film, even when it’s with a great director, you don’t even see the place you work at or the location of the house until that day. So the fact that Derek thinks of this and you’re already connected to the space, it’s amazing. That also helps with the character. It’s not an easy job either; it’s a pretty thankless job.
We were talking briefly there about your trajectory; you’re working with Derek. What do you have planned next for that kind of thing?
That’s always where I’ve been. I’m attracted to those directors and that material because that’s where my taste lies. You can look back at interviews from me like 10, 11 years ago when I was doing “Too Fast, Too Furious” and she was asking me, who would you like to work with and I was like Mike Leigh and they were like, “What?” Like that’s my dream, Mike Leigh and Pedro Almovodar. They were just like, “Okay, didn’t expect it,” and it still stands true today. I still haven’t worked with either one of them and I would love to work with either. So I think it’s just kind of like, I’ve paid my dues and hopefully word’s getting around that I’m a really hard worker. I still go to acting class and I’m kind of all about the craft, so I’m a geek in that way.
Even working with Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and those guys, that must have been fun.
That was amazing and I just did something with Larry David, “Clear History.” Incredible improv. I love it and I took some improv classes when I worked with McKay and so when this Larry David thing came up. Again, Larry was like, “Uh, this role is not right for you,” and I was like, “No, what is it? I want to audition for it.” I came in and I looked just crazy and Larry and I went at it.
What’s that one about?
It’s basically about Larry having to start over. He has to start with a new identity and he goes to this new town and it’s all of these people’s lives coming together and stuff, but it’s really fun. I got to do a lot of physical transformation.
So Larry, Derek, you’re constantly having to change people’s perception of you.
Yeah, I’m not doing it to challenge anyone. I’m doing it to have fun.
What are you going to do next? Where are you hoping to go creatively?
I just hope to keep on having fun and challenging myself. I had such a great time on “Holy Motors.” I want to do a little bit more of the weird; I like the weird. I feel like I was actually finally accepted into the weird club with that one. I was like. “Cool, I can do the weird. Yeah, I have feathers for eyelashes.”
Would you ever consider directing?
I directed a short film that was sweet and a good kind of dipping my toe in the water kind of deal, but yeah, I would like to direct something, but it would have to be something that would come to me. I feel like with directing, you should literally like die if you can’t tell the story, and I don’t feel that compelled to direct. – Interview by Rodrigo Perez
“The Place Beyond The Pines” goes into wide release this weekend, Friday, April 12th.