Eva Mendes doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Leos Carax’s nutty and beguiling art house hit “Holy Motors,” but she sure leaves a mark. In what is arguably the most memorable scene in a film that’s stocked full of them, a sultry looking Mendes plays an American model who is abducted on a photo shoot by a ghastly leprechaun that goes by the name of “Merde” (Denis Lavant in one of his many “Holy Motors” disguises), only to find herself singing the little beast a lullaby in a dank sewer lair moments later. It’s a scene made manifestly more bizarre simply because Mendes is in it. This is a long way from “Hitch.”
As it turns out, Mendes’ participation wasn’t merely a stunt on Carax’s part — she sought him out. As she reveals below in an exclusive 1:1 with Indiewire, Mendes is at a point in her life where she wants to have “fun,” which in her books means acting in the films that she wants to see — namely ones by directors whose visions aren’t decidedly mainstream. So far her new approach seems to be working out for her: she next appears in Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” that made an acclaimed debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
How did you first get in contact with Leos? He’s been off the grid for a while.
Yes, he has been off the grid. I’ve kind of been keeping an eye of him, not like a creepy eye on him, but I love his films. I was such a fan of “Lovers on a Bridge” — what a beautiful love story. I knew he was at the Morocco Film Festival a couple of years ago, and I was like, I’ve got to meet this director. We were trying to make it happen. It was one of those days where I was literally leaving on a plane. I was packing and they’re like, “Oh, he can meet you now!”
He’s so cool. We met for Moroccan tea. It was all so exotic and wonderful. He was just as strange as I’d hope he be. He told me of a possible role that I would be right for that had no dialogue. I was like, “This is so up my alley.” And he said that all my scenes were to take place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris. And that’s one of my favorite places in the whole world. It’s just so beautiful and romantic there. And then the fact that this character would have no dialogue. I’m kind of the anti-actress in the sense in that I’m always trying to strip away dialogue, I’m always trying to cut dialogue. It’s funny, but that’s just how I feel more comfortable, when I have to communicate my feelings through my behavior or my actions. So I was just in heaven. I was just praying it would come together, and when it did, I was just beside myself. Not to mention that I got to be completely somebody else.
Unfortunately those opportunities don’t come up too often when you can totally transform yourself. It was very dramatic. I almost felt like I was in an opera, like a “Madame Butterfly” type or work or something [laughs]. It was so severe and extreme and operatic. I just had a blast, Nigel, a blast.
About that ‘no dialogue’ factor; I can’t see Quentin Tarantino come knocking on your door anytime soon.
Well, let’s not get crazy here. It’s just one of those things I’ve noticed about myself, especially these last few years. It’s so fun to just eliminate dialogue. Sometimes things become very expository. Sometimes it feels like we say too much.
I think what’s happening, when I see this film, I’m so overwhelmed with emotion, because I’m finally acting in the films that I want to see. That’s really fun for me right now.
It’s still worth noting that you’ve worked with directors like Werner Herzog, Robert Rodriguez and James Grey over the course of your career. What kind of gameplan did you have initially, going into acting?
I always set out to work with amazing filmmakers and be a part of amazing films. But unfortunately when I was starting out, let’s say my acting skills didn’t yet match my tastes. So although I was a David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar fan — that was where my taste layed and it still does — I wasn’t quite up to it when it came to my acting abilities because I was just starting out.
I still go to acting class — it’s so fun to me — and I’m constantly working on my craft. It’s just I’m finally able to take advantage of all these amazing opportunities that are coming my way. For example I just did this film with Larry David, called “Clear History,” which is the antithesis of “The Place Beyond the Pines.” That was exciting for me because it was completely different, not only in style but in theme and everything. This film I did with Larry, it’s completely improvised. It’s kind of in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” style where there’s an outline of the idea of how it’s going to go. I was in “The Other Guys” a few years ago with Adam McKay directing me and working with Will [Ferrell], and there was a lot of improv on that set as well. And I took some courses with UCB. It was really fun for me.
For the “Clear History,” they actually didn’t want to see me at first, convinced I wasn’t right. I don’t know what they thought. Anyway, I was like, “No, I want to audition.” So I’m at the place now where I want to go into the room and actually have fun. So I basically begged them for an audition, which was weird, and they let me come in and I ended up getting the job because it was just so much fun for me. I’m in a really fun place, I just keep exploring new options. And I know the word ‘fun’ keeps coming up and I really mean it. I’m finally fun at what I’m doing.In the past, do you feel your looks ever got in the way of the types of films you wanted to make?
I don’t know. It doesn’t sit well with me when I hear actors complain about how their good looks have kept them from getting certain roles. That doesn’t sit well with me, so I’m going to stay away from that [laughs].
I think I’ve just been very fortunate. If I’ve ever been typecast in any way, I see it as my own fault. I think that if I have a certain image out there, or if I ever did, it’s of my own doing. That’s why in these last few years I’ve really made some conscious decisions to change that, if that was even the case.
Going back to the film, how did Leos sell your sequence to you? You talked about your character and how you loved that she doesn’t speak, but what about what she endures? It’s pretty racy.
I’ve always been a fan of monster movies like “Beauty and the Beast.” There’s that element in there for sure, and that was just so alluring to me. And the fact that she was not a victim, that she went willingly, that she never faught him, yet she wasn’t…she was kidnapped at her own will in a sense, and I thought that was really empowering. I saw it as she wanted to be saved from this very superficial, absurd world that she was in. She sees this monster man and instead of being frightened, she’s actually relieved. I believe that he came to adduct her because she was sending him signals to do that, to save her.
What kind of boundaries did you set up with Denis before going into it? Did you set any up, or did he have free reign to do what he wanted to you…and around you?
No, it was very understood that…um, how do I say this? [Long pause.]
I’m specifically addressing the scene where he exposes himself to you.
Oh, no, no, no. That was all prosthetics.
Oh my god, yes! It’s called movie magic. There was never any kind of talk of a love scene or anything like that. So there was no need to set up real boundaries cause there was never a feeling of…it’s not like when you go into a fight scene in a film, or a love scene where you obviously set up very clear boundaries and everything’s verbalized. Because there was prosthetics and movie magic involved, it wasn’t an issue for me.
Did Denis break character in between shots, or did he stay in character as the sewer dweller?
Oh yeah, he would be smoking and laughing. I’d look over and he’d have one glass eye, and his monster slash leprechaun slash Nine Inch Nails looks and I was just like, this is so cool.
There’s this famous picture, was it Bella Lugosi? He played Dracula. There’s this photo of him and I believe it’s him having a cigarette, maybe he’s just sitting around having a normal moment — I can’t recall it specifically because I saw it when I was very young — but that’s always stayed with me. That’s kind of how I felt when I saw Denis between takes. He would just become this normal really cool guy, from being this monster [laughs].