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She’s making heads turn

Special to The Times

In Hollywood, the people who help determine an actor’s ascension from the rank and file -- casting agents, magazine editors, producers, publicists -- have decided that now is the time for Eva Mendes.

By the end of this year, the 26-year-old actress will be seen in such varied films as the sequels “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”; opposite Denzel Washington in “Out of Time”; and in the latest from the Farrelly brothers, “Stuck on You.”

The confident presence, self-possessed verve and looks that won over the star-making machinery of Hollywood have also landed her a Revlon endorsement deal, placing her in the company of Halle Berry, Julianne Moore and Rachel Weisz. How Mendes became a corporate “face” encapsulates her career so far, where spunky fortitude, fluky happenstance and, frankly, a need for someone just like her have collided.

“I heard through my commercial agent,” she explains, “that they were looking for a face and it would probably be somebody more exotic -- that’s what they call me, ‘exotic.’ I was like, what do I have to do?

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“They don’t really take meetings,” she continues. “They just see your press book and what you’ve done. I thought, oh God, they’re going to be so not impressed. When my agents couldn’t really set anything up I was like, OK, what if I just happened to be in New York, in their building, and I just happened to stop by? Basically, we did it like that.”

Born in Miami to Cuban parents, the youngest of four children, Mendes moved with her family to Los Angeles, settling near Echo Park, when she was about 2. A little more than five years ago, having never considered acting, she was “loosely” attending Cal State Northridge but mostly just “mooching” off her boyfriend. One morning they were having a yard sale when a neighbor took some pictures of her.

The photos caught the eye of a manager, which led to auditions, a couple of music videos, television parts and roles in such forgettable films as “Children of the Corn 5" and “A Night at the Roxbury.”

Mendes displayed an ability to slide between sultry seductress and girl-next-door charmer that meant she wouldn’t toil in obscurity for long. Asked to describe her appeal, director Bobby Farrelly says, “She came in to read with about a hundred other girls. I know she’s building quite a resume, but honestly, we didn’t know anything about her. Often with that many girls, it can be a hard decision, they’re all so close. But she was completely different -- such enthusiasm and zest for life. You can’t teach that.”

Elizabeth Avellan, producer of “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and wife of the film’s writer-director Robert Rodriguez, recalls when Mendes came to Austin for an audition. “She walks off a plane and has an energy and a look that’s so striking. It’s interesting to see how people notice her. “

The ethnicity factor

When Mendes enters a Sunset Strip coffee shop on a late weekday afternoon, chatter ceases and heads actually turn. Waiters make sure her water glass always stays full. Each time they approach, her voice, full and throaty, self-consciously drops, as if she’s not entirely comfortable being caught talking about herself.

Eva Mendes arrives as Hollywood is trying to broaden its appeal and she isn’t coy about the fortuitous timing. She doesn’t shy away from the topic of her ethnicity and its role in her rash of film roles, but she is especially careful with her words.

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“Basically right now Latins are getting the best of both worlds,” she says. “Latin is the new flavor of the month, and it’s now more acceptable, by Hollywood standards, to pair a Latin woman and a black male. I do not agree with this, but in Hollywood logic, to pair a black woman and a black male makes a black movie. A white woman and a black male becomes a little controversial. It’s much more acceptable to have a Latin woman with a black male. And I think that’s what’s going on with me.”

“Out of Time” director Carl Franklin says, “There’s some of that working, sure. I think the studios feel that to some extent, because I think the public feels that. But the Latin market has grown incredibly over the last 10, 15 years, and Madison Avenue and Hollywood are going to address it. You can say she might not have gotten these opportunities previously, or you can look at it from a positive perspective and say this new market means that they’re going to take a broader look.”

Avellan puts forward a slightly different take. “I see her as a representation of the real women I know, not as one of these mousy types or Chiquita bananas.”

Mendes has shown a knack for making a lot out of a little, creating characters that spike the viewer’s attention despite little screen time.

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In “Training Day,” in which she played Denzel Washington’s girl on the side, there’s a world of sadness lurking just behind a chipper facade as she repairs for business in a back bedroom. Her nude scene in that film reveals as much naked emotion as flesh.

Her vivacious, sparky attitude and way with a sweater at times make Mendes seem like a throwback to the days of Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth. The contemporary spin for a young actress, however, is the question of how much to take off for whom.

“That’s where your sense of self comes into play,” she says. “I just did the photo shoot for my first magazine cover. I’m very excited and had a great time, but I’m half-naked. Some people might say you went naked for a film. What’s the difference?

“Well,” she says, answering her own question, “with ‘Training Day’ it was presented to me as a topless scene. And when I sat down with [director] Antoine Fuqua and talked to him about why she was topless in this scene, he said, no one’s going to go for full nudity. And I said, well, I will.

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“So it was basically my idea. It was the honest thing for my character in that moment. But that was a serious film that Denzel won the Oscar for. This is a magazine my 14-year-old nephews will flip through. That’s the difference, and it makes me nervous.”

There’s a scene in “2 Fast 2 Furious” which finds Mendes wriggling on a chaise longue like an old-time photo-club model, her white bikini contrasting sharply against her darkly tanned skin and a towel wrapped casually around her head.

“That scene to me was campy and I had fun doing it,” she explains. “The nude scene in ‘Training Day’ was raw, there was nothing fun about it, and I was very aware of the difference. I got pressured to do that scene [in “2 Fast”] with wet hair, really sexy. With as much control as I had, which wasn’t much, I tried to take it to another place. It seemed more interesting with the towel than the wet, dripping hair.”

Was there ever any talk of the scene revealing more?

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“Because it’s a PG-13 film, that was never even a discussion,” she responds. “And if it had come up, that discussion would have ended quickly with me saying no. The power of saying no is a beautiful thing. I love to say no. Rather than complain or say you’re being exploited, well, say no. There’s always that option.”

“I love ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ ” she hastens to add. “It’s good, clean, American fun. To me, it’s not the kind of thing you take your top off for.”


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