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She was ready for things to turn ugly

Times Staff Writer

If you like “Ugly Betty,” a certain Mexican-Uruguayan-Japanese actress is hoping that you’ll take a shine to Ugly Barbara as well. That would be Barbara Mori, a household name in Mexico for her high-profile turns in “Rubi” and other popular Spanish-language soap operas.

Generously endowed with genetic good fortune, Mori could’ve been one of those comely ingenues who streak across the Mexican prime-time firmament, then vanish into obscurity. But rather than trading on her looks to land another telenovela gig, Mori ditched the soap opera circuit years ago in search of assignments that have stretched her beyond typecasting.

Now she’s taking self-deglamorization to a new level by starring in “Ugly Me,” a Spanish-language romantic comedy in which Mori plays Amanda, a love-scarred woman who decides that her best defense against future heartbreak is to disguise her physical assets with prosthetic buck teeth and a fat suit. The feature film debut of Chilean director Claudio Dabed, “Ugly Me,” which was originally titled “Pretendiendo” (Pretending), will open Friday in Los Angeles and Orange County (in Spanish, with subtitles). When screen sirens transform themselves into plain Janes, they tend to get either Oscar awards (e.g. Charlize Theron in “Monster”) or Bronx cheers for what’s perceived as a gimmicky act of false modesty. (By contrast, a Hollywood leading man is more likely to be praised for his professional daring if he deliberately subverts his hunk credentials.)

Mori readily admits that her natural endowments have opened doors professionally. But she insists that “physical beauty is a double-edged sword” for any actress who wants to be taken seriously. “At the beginning of my career, my green eyes or my pretty face helped me get onto the screen. You get on screen thanks to physical beauty,” she says in Spanish during an interview at a hotel rooftop lounge here.

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“But in the moment in which you want to show that inside yourself there is something more than green eyes, than a pretty face, it’s like very difficult. . . . I very much wanted to work to show the people that I also had talent, that I wasn’t just the girl with the pretty face, but rather that I was an actress. And it was very difficult. Finally, I obtained it, thanks to the work that I did.”

Indeed, critics on both sides of the border have found more than eye candy to admire in Mori’s performances. Reviewing the 2005 feature film “La Mujer de Mi Hermano” (My Brother’s Wife), The Times’ Carina Chocano called Mori “a memorable presence” and described her character, Zoe, as “disturbingly beautiful and melancholic.”

Like “Ugly Betty,” the ABC hit sitcom, “Ugly Me” is about the travails of a woman whose outwardly graceless appearance camouflages her inner radiance. After gunning down her cheating boyfriend in a fit of comic pique, Amanda decides her beauty is more curse than blessing. Outfitting herself with a new name (Helena) and identity, she flees the Chilean capital of Santiago and relocates in the quirky, blue-collar port city of Valparaiso.

As it turns out, the disguised Amanda isn’t the only one feigning appearances. Her male colleague (Argentine actor Marcelo Mazzarello) initially behaves like a first-rate sexist boor. But, confused by his strangely intense attraction toward Helena, he gradually begins to look deeper into himself and mend his ways.

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Mori, 30, thinks such pretenses are universal. “All human beings pretend in one moment of life,” she says. “You pretend that you’re a cool guy, that you don’t have problems. Or some man, if he likes a woman, he pretends that he’s a faithful man, pretends that he’s a tender guy, brings her flowers, to conquer her. . . . All humans pretend, unfortunately.”

Dabed, who also co-wrote the screenplay for “Ugly Me,” says that during filming Mori entered so fully into her dual character that at times it was hard to realize she was wearing a disguise. The on-set reaction was curious. “On the days when she was ugly nobody would offer her water or a chair or establish long conversations on the set,” Dabed recalls. “She was seeing herself in real life being invisible.”

Frustrated with soaps

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Mori was 3 when she moved to Mexico after her Mexican mother and Japanese-Uruguayan father divorced. Though telenovelas paved her early career, she says she eventually grew frustrated with “the same characters, the same stories,” as well as with the short amount of time allotted to preparing scenes and characters.

She turned to cinema because she “wanted to learn new things” and has no plans for more soapers. She and her boyfriend, actor-designer Jose Maria de la Torre, have started a film and television production company and are developing an action film in which Mori will star as a journalist who stumbles onto nasty goings-on. “To make cinema in Mexico is very difficult,” Mori says. “But it’s always said, if you don’t risk, you don’t gain.”

“Ugly Me,” a Chilean production, made $2.5 million at the box office in Mexico, a strong showing in a country where dubbed and subtitled Hollywood blockbusters dominate the multiplexes, often crowding out Mexican and other Latin American fare. By the same token, Latin American movies typically have trouble winning Latino audiences in the United States, a phenomenon that frustrates Mexican producers and filmmakers.

Cracking the U.S. market is crucial for any Latin American filmmaker or actor who’s aiming not only for commercial success but for greater artistic latitude, Dabed believes. “If you’re a painter, you don’t want to paint something that people have to put on special glasses to see it,” he says.

Mori agrees. Although she says that she is anchored in Mexico because she is raising her 10-year-old son here, she eventually would like to make movies in Hollywood. Like a number of other young Mexican actresses, including Ana de la Reguera (“Nacho Libre”) and Ana Claudia Talancon (“Fast Food Nation”), she has been studying English to appeal to the growing bilingual, bicultural entertainment demographic.

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While the movie biz is evolving for Mexican women, so too, Mori thinks, is Mexican society. “Mexico is a very macho country,” she says. “In the past, a woman was in the house, cooking, frying beans, making dinner, and the husband was working. Now a woman is more independent, now a woman works. Now there are many divorced women that are single mothers. . . . A lot has changed about the position of the woman here in Mexico.”

Even for a pretty woman, apparently.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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