A telenovela star is reborn
She strolled into the dim dining space of Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard undetected. Even when she placed her oversized sunglasses atop her head -- revealing a face seen on millions of television screens -- customers remained oblivious.
But some heads did turn. Waiters. Busboys. They recognized Kate del Castillo. To them and the masses who have watched her across Latin America and beyond, the svelte 36-year-old Mexican actress is a household name (think Jennifer Aniston of Latin America). Starring in nine telenovelas can sometimes have that effect, especially when they’ve aired multiple times in more than 100 countries, including the U.S. on Univision.
And her face is likely to become more recognizable to American audiences. After finding it difficult to break into films in her homeland because of her telenovela ties, the actress moved stateside three years ago for a career rebirth that has included roles in films, spots on hot television shows and the occasional spokeswoman deal with big cosmetic companies.
“It’s good to be busy, right?” Del Castillo whispered before a star-struck server approached to reveal he was a fan of her telenovela work.
She starred in the 2007 independent movie “La Misma Luna” (“Under the Same Moon”), about a Mexican mother who immigrates to the U.S. and the son she leaves behind -- it recently became the highest-grossing Spanish-language theatrical release in U.S. history. The actress, joining the hair-flipping ranks of fellow Latina sirens Penelope Cruz and Eva Longoria Parker, just closed a deal to become the new face of L’Oreal Paris, with print and TV ads debuting in the U.S. this fall. Oh, and she recently appeared on A&E;'s “The Cleaner.”
She also has a recurring role on Showtime’s “Weeds.” She plays Pilar Zuazo, a powerful Mexican crime boss and a new nemesis for Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker), the suburban mom-turned-pot dealer. The role also finds her bossing around her real-life ex-boyfriend Demian Bichir, who plays drug lord/respected politician Esteban.
“I love playing this powerful Latina woman,” Del Castillo said as she ignored a call on her iPhone, revealing a beach-side photo of her and beau Aaron Diaz, a Mexican model/actor. “We’re usually either seductive, slutty women or we play maids. To play someone with power was a lot of fun.”
“Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, though she hadn’t been familiar with Del Castillo’s acting, didn’t even need to see the Latina starlet audition in person. “Truthfully, she was out of town,” Kohan said. “All we had was her reel and that was enough. She just blew everyone away.”
Del Castillo’s strong and confident demeanor made her “perfect for the role” as a stiletto-heeled chief who is a powerful figure in Esteban’s life, causing a dent in his relationship with Nancy. And she’s done it without being “particularly ‘soapy’ or melodramatic in her acting,” Kohan added.
Del Castillo may have ditched the telenovela-esque performance usually outfitted with over-the-top facial expressions and exaggerated dialogue delivery, but she did find the genre’s work regimen useful on set.
“I’ve done 40 scenes in a day when I did telenovelas,” she said, motioning with her hands to emphasize the rapid pace. “Here, you do two or three -- maybe four. [Telenovelas] give you a lot of tools to work with. There’s not a lot of time to waste. You have to be on top of your game. It was almost like a training school and I really appreciate that.”
And, as another part of her campaign to branch out, soon the alum will be going back to her training grounds. She’ll star alongside Brazilian-born actor Guy Ecker in “Vidas Cruzadas,” a Web novela appearing on Univision.com this summer. The 15-episode series, Univision’s second venture in the genre, will consist of three- to five-minute shorts.
Del Castillo plays a woman who wants to have a baby and, after growing tired of waiting for the right man to come along, decides to get artificially inseminated. And, in true novela form, viewers can expect a twist.
“Telenovelas are huge,” Del Castillo said. “People still turn on their TV sets every night at 7 o’clock. But the Internet is where everyone is going. And the videos are good quality. People won’t know the difference.”
The Web venture reunites Ecker, Del Castillo and producer Carlos Sotomayor, who all worked together in Televisa’s hit 1998 telenovela “La Mentira” (The Lie), about a man who travels to his native Mexico to try to unearth what led to his brother’s suicide. After finding themselves living in Los Angeles, the trio were “itching” to work together again. They wanted to do it in Los Angeles -- and they wanted to send a message.
“There is really no Latin TV production here in Los Angeles where there is a huge Latino population,” Ecker said. “We wanted to show everyone that it can be done. Programming on the Univisions, the Telemundos . . . are mainly telling the story of Latinos in Latin America. We wanted to tell the success stories of Latinos here in the United States.”
Del Castillo is one of those success stories, Ecker said. She was born in Mexico City to a family steeped in entertainment. Her father, Eric, is a well-known Mexican actor who also starred in a slew of telenovelas. Kate even acted as a child alongside her father in “Las sobrinas del diablo” (The Devil’s Nieces)
“He didn’t push me at all,” she said, adding that she just returned from Mexico where she spent Father’s Day munching on carnitas and barbacoa. “He actually didn’t want me to become an actress, just because it’s a hard life. Now I see he was so right. It is very hard.”
Her role as Leticia in Televisa’s hit telenovela “Muchachitas” in the early ‘90s propelled her into the serial melodrama stratosphere. But after finding it difficult to break into film in Mexico because of her TV background, Del Castillo relocated to California; she now lives in Westwood.
“It was really hard to break out of telenovelas back home,” she said. “It’s hard to divorce from them and go into movies. I come here and when I go to an audition, I’m just another actor. If I get a job, it’s because of my talent not because of the telenovelas or who I am or who my father is. It’s different and I love it. It’s like starting all over again.”
She made her American debut in the Golden Globe-nominated PBS series “American Family” alongside Edward James Olmos.
And since her role in “Under the Same Moon,” she has starred alongside Tilda Swinton in 2008’s “Julia” and recently completed production for “Down for Life,” which depicts the lifestyle of a Latina gang leader in South Central LA.
Ecker compared her to Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz as a glamorous but versatile actress. “And she has the audience she’s brought along with her from Latin America and within the Latin community in the United States. It’s a loyal audience; as soon as people become aware of projects with their favorite stars, they go watch. The big actors in Latin America are the novela actors. It’s not the film actors.”
For now, her only complaint is the workaholic style of the industry here.
“I look around and people always have their heads down looking at their phones,” Del Castillo said. “I call friends up to see if they want to have a drink and they say they’ll put it on their schedule for next week. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Next week? I want a beer now!’ It’s something I’m getting used to about this place . . . in Mexico, we’re a bit more spontaneous.”