The last time the world saw notorious drug trafficker Teresa Mendoza, she had narrowly evaded capture by Spanish police, survived a shootout that resulted in the death of her most loyal associate, publicly testified over the narcotrafficking roots of a prominent Mexican politician, then disappeared into the clutches of the U.S. witness protection program — all while pregnant with the child of a onetime lover whose death she had personally ordered.
That was in May of 2011. At that time, viewers of television all over the world thought that was the last they would ever see of “La Reina del Sur” (“The Queen of the South”), the smash Telemundo soap that turned Mexican actress Kate del Castillo into an international star — and which counted among its most prominent fans none other than El Chapo, then the chief of the Sinaloa cartel.
“They’d always flirted with the idea of doing a second part,” says Del Castillo, as she sinks into a comfortable couch on the terrace of her Los Angeles home, glass of wine in hand. “It was such a success that, you know, networks get excited. But I never wanted to do a second part.”
“I was, like, this is perfect,” she adds emphatically. “Let’s just leave it like it is. Why tamper with that?”
But eight years after “La Reina” made history, becoming a global pop cultural phenomenon and helping Telemundo beat the English-language networks in prime time, the queen is back — in a major way.
Forget the internecine machinations of “Game of Thrones.” The most intriguing power struggle on TV in the coming weeks will be the hotly anticipated second season of “La Reina del Sur,” which kicks off Monday night on Telemundo.
“I always wanted to play Teresa again, I just didn’t want to force anything,” says Del Castillo, who despite a petite frame looks statuesque in a silky cream duster and high-heeled boots, her mini pinscher Lola trotting around at her feet. “You know, there is so much expectation. I mean, even right now, I am really nervous to be honest.”
For the network, the second season of “La Reina” is a case of stars aligning.
Like Del Castillo, many of the show’s other principal players had been skeptical about revisiting a program that had been so wildly successful. And Del Castillo had become “very protective” of a character that had come to define her career and her life.
“I’m broke. I’ve been paying lawyers in the United States and Mexico for so many years.”
“I was going through a very bad moment with my second marriage,” she recalls of shooting the first season. “So I would cry with her. And when people on the series would get hurt or died because of her, I would suffer with her. I think that’s one of the reasons that I made her so mine.”
Also on the list of skeptics was Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the Spanish novelist who wrote the best-selling book upon which the series is based and who would have to approve any new project.
“It took three years to convince Arturo Pérez-Reverte to do this,” says Marcos Santana, president of Telemundo Global Studios, which produced the show in conjunction with Netflix. “We also had to reunite writers from the original team. That took a long time.”
The story picks up eight years after the original concluded — an ending that left Teresa Mendoza pregnant and alone in an undisclosed location. The new season finds her living under an assumed identity with her daughter in the Italian countryside. It is in this pastoral setting that her past catches up with her, and her enemies in Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel kidnap her child.
To be certain, the second season is no simple reboot. If the premiere episode is evidence of what is to come, Telemundo is kicking it up several notches with a visibly better wardrobe budget, plenty of action and oodles of location shooting. (The production traveled to eight countries, including Italy, Spain, Belize, Colombia and Mexico.)
Moreover, Del Castillo, who is fiercely committed to authenticity, did her own stunts — including a motorcycle sequence in the first episode that has her chasing the baddies around a Tuscan town at life-threatening speeds. (Not entirely unusual for the actress, who keeps a Ducati Monster at home.)
“It’s a more mature Teresa,” says Del Castillo of her character, whose drive now is the maternal urge to rescue her child. “She’s now blinded. She’s gonna kill everybody.”
If Teresa Mendoza is now more mature, so is the actress who plays her, notes Santana. “What we encountered was another actress of incredible skill,” he says. “She was so committed.”
Certainly, the intervening years for Del Castillo have played out like one of the convoluted plots in “La Reina del Sur.”
It began with Del Castillo’s infamous late-night tweet storm from 2012 that was directed in part to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera — tweets that led the capo’s lawyers to reach out to the actress to arrange a meeting about a movie deal. Like the rest of the viewing planet, Guzmán was also hooked on “La Reina del Sur.”
The meeting ultimately went down in 2015 — in the company of actor Sean Penn, who wrote about it in a rambling 10,500-word piece for Rolling Stone. Guzmán was apprehended shortly after this gathering.
Later, it came out that the meeting with the actors had helped the authorities track down and arrest Guzmán. El Chapo was quickly extradited to the United States and put on trial. In February, he was convicted for drug trafficking and operating a criminal enterprise, among other charges.
This sequence of events turned Del Castillo’s life upside down. Her text exchanges with El Chapo were leaked to the press, she was investigated for possible money laundering, and the investigation left her unable to return to her native Mexico for almost three years. Not a single charge was filed against Del Castillo, but the experience nonetheless took a toll.
“I’m broke,” says the actress with resignation. “I’ve been paying lawyers in the United States and Mexico for so many years.”
Last year, she filed a $60 million suit against the Mexican government for damages on the “unjustified” investigation. The actress believes she became a target of the Mexican government because she made them look ham-handed.
“It did make them look bad because it was like, ‘Look, here a performer was able to get a meeting [with El Chapo] and you guys supposedly can’t find him,’” she says.
While Del Castillo has moved on professionally — she just wrapped shooting on “Bad Boys for Life” with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence — she says she will never be able to leave this episode of her life completely behind her.
“I know it’s something that’s gonna be haunting me forever,” she says. “But I take responsibility for that. I decided to go down there. It was in my hands and I assume the responsibility.”
In the meantime, Del Castillo is only looking forward. In addition to the film, she is at work on a one-woman stage show that she is not yet ready to announce. And, of course, there is the second season of “La Reina del Sur” to look forward to — which has reconnected her to a character that has been vital to her career.
Teresa Mendoza is wily and headstrong. She is a survivor. She somehow manages to surmount the insurmountable.
“There are so many things of Teresa that I have in me,” says Del Castillo. “And I think Teresa has a lot of things that I’ve given to her.”
“La Reina del Sur”
When: Premieres Monday at 10 p.m.; airs weeknights at 10 p.m.
Rated: TV14 DLV