At a notoriously schmoozy West Hollywood lunch spot, former "Desperate Housewife" Eva Longoria pays far more attention to the soft-spoken busboy than any of the nipped and tucked Hollywood types vying for her attention.
"Mi amor!," she greets the slight Latino man as he approaches her table with a coffee refill. He converses with her in Spanish as if the two have known each other for ages. "How is the family?" she asks. "Your son is going to UCLA now? ¡Felicidades!"
After he leaves, Longoria beams. "Wow, his son's in college," she says, her deep brown eyes sparkling under expertly applied makeup. "That's the American dream. That's why people come here. It's not to rape and pillage our social systems."
While most actors might avoid a divisive topic like immigration as if it were a carb-laden dish of pasta, the gregarious Longoria revels in expressing her opinion. The native Texan rattles off facts and figures about migrant workers and education among Latinos like a seasoned pro, demonstrating a passion that's clearly informed her latest film role.
In Michael Berry's directorial debut, "Frontera," the 39-year-old actress-activist-entrepreneur plays Paulina, a poor Mexican farmer who attempts to sneak across the Tex-Mex border in search of her husband. The usually glamorous Longoria — a fashionista and perennial Maxim pinup girl in real life — spends most of the film sweating it out in the desert, dust forming creases around her eyes, dirt caking her tangled hair.
"The adding of sunspots from working in the fields, the dirt under my nails. It was adding on to deglamorize," Longoria of her transformation from pampered to impoverished. The Magnolia Pictures' film, out Sept. 5, costars Ed Harris as a retired border guard and Michael Peña as Longoria's husband. "I dyed my hair black. I gained a little weight. I spoke Spanish — I've never spoken Spanish in a movie. I was unrecognizable, and I loved that."
Before you roll your eyes, Longoria isn't just slumming it here. The woman best known as Wisteria Lane's narcissistic ex-runway model Gabrielle Solis brings her plain-spoken character Paulina's aspirations and fears to life in touching and sometimes brutal, hard-to-watch scenes.
Longoria actively pursued this role, because it was "different than most other border films." Rather than vilifying one side or the other, she says, it illuminates the humanity and fallibility on both sides of the fence. "We're not trying to solve the immigration debate with this movie," she says. "We're just trying to tell a love story, and what people will do for love. That it happens to be set on the border is what makes it topical and eye-opening."
Director Berry was astonished when Longoria's camp approached him. "I'll be honest," he says. "I never even considered her for the part. But I got a phone call saying she was interested, and I was like 'Eva Longoria?' She does that 'Housewives' show and goosey glamour stuff. That sounds like a terrible idea.
"But she told me of her passion for the Mexican culture and how fortunate she'd be to be part of this project, which I thought was hilarious, given I'm a first-time director. But I was taken with her passion. Once we were doing this, and especially when we started cutting it, I was like 'Oh, my God, she's pulling it off.'"
A busy woman
It's one of many feats Longoria has pulled off in a decade-plus career that goes well beyond acting into politics, business and philanthropy. Maybe her film career hasn't gone stratospheric, but this is one busy woman.
Her resume now includes executive producing the Lifetime series "Devious Maids"; serving as a co-chair of President Obama's re-election campaign — and speaking at the 2012 Democratic convention; promoting her own fragrance, Eva; writing a cookbook; and producing two documentaries about migrant farmworkers. Her latest, "Food Chains," hits theaters in November.
As for her tabloid appeal? She divorced French-born San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker in 2011 after four years together and is now dating Mexican media mogul Jose Antonio Baston, so yes, she still makes TMZ and the Daily Mail happy.
But it's the more serious achievements of Longoria's, such as her recently earned master's degree in Chicano studies from Cal State Northridge, that elicit the most surprise. How do you pose for a Maxim "Woman of the Year" spread one minute, then appear before Congress arguing for stricter labor laws the next?
"Why is it so hard for some people to reconcile beauty or sexiness with smart?" she asks, clearly irked by the question. "There's so many women in the world who are complex, complicated people. I'm not saying I'm one of them, I'm just saying people tend to view through one lens. You're the sexpot. You're the smart girl. You're the comedy actor."
Her coffee growing cold, she continues. "[During 'Housewives'], I remember people saying, 'Are you afraid you're going to get pigeonholed into sexy?,' and I was like 'what's wrong with that?'," she says, her wavy dark hair tumbling just so over her shoulders. "I'm riding that wave as long as it will take me, because women have an expiration date in this business. It's unfair, but it's true. So am I scared I'm gonna be called sexy? No! Thank God. Bring it on."
Longoria's looks aren't what's bothering detractors such as conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who after hearing the actor weigh in on immigration policy, proclaimed: "Shut up and act!" But Beck is not alone. When Longoria speaks up about her passions outside of entertainment, anonymous commenters claiming to be former fans often react with angry screeds online.
Others offer praise. "She's made a tremendous contribution, and showed tremendous courage, in using her celebrity to raise awareness of issues that have an effect on the Latino community and the working community," says Thomas Saenz, president and general council of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The organization defines itself as the Latino legal voice for civil rights in America, and Longoria is on its board of directors. "She's demonstrated a true commitment to learning about these issues, deeply, then taking that knowledge and using her access to media and public to raise awareness. She is certainly a very different kind of celebrity."
Sense of duty
Longoria is willing to walk that line between making fans and losing them, be it in impossibly high designer stilettos or off-brand sneakers coated in border dust.
"There are issues bigger than your career," she says. "It's a slippery slope when you think of everything as your audience or your ratings. And I care about farmworkers. I didn't grow up as one, but I eat food. We are one of the most well-fed nations in the world, and the people who feed us go to bed hungry. I think my fans are people who, like me, understand that."
Longoria is no American newcomer — she grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, as one of four girls in a ninth-generation Mexican American family. According to research done by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for the PBS series "Faces of America," the Longoria family's roots in this country "run back to a time before Texas even existed."
Her philanthropic sense of duty was formed early on through the volunteer services received by Longoria's older, special-needs sister. "Organizations like the Girls and Boys Club put volunteerism at the core of my early life," she says. "I was doing charity work in school. It's part of my family's DNA."
The Texas A&M-Kingsville University grad (she majored in human kinetics) moved to California after winning the Miss Corpus Christi title in 1998 and its prize of a trip to Hollywood to compete in modeling and talent contests. She decided to stay, doing temp and extra work, getting a line or two in various TV productions and eventually landing the role of Isabella Braña on "The Young and the Restless." "From that, I got a small prime-time show," says the L.A.-based actor, "and then a big one."
Since "Housewives'" eight-year run ended in 2012, Longoria has taken on several film projects, including a role in the forthcoming Spanish-language feature "Refugio." But she will return this fall to network programming via Fox's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." She'll play defense attorney Sophia for a three-episode arc, challenging and charming Jake (Andy Samberg) in court.
"I love the medium of television," she says, ever upbeat. "I love being in someone's home every week, being able to play a character for a long period of time. It's very hard for me to jump into a movie, play a character and leave it. I constantly think about it. I go, 'Should I have done this differently?' In TV, you get to define the character as you go."
Longoria extends her reach with "Devious Maids." In its first two seasons, it was praised for giving Latinas a plethora of roles — and criticized for being cliche-ridden. .
In the end, stepping behind the camera instead of in front of it may be one of Longoria favorite roles yet.
"As producer-director, you cast, edit, write," she says. "It helps soothe the control freak side of me. I love the business side of our business — packaging, developing, selling. People say she's an actor turned director, and I'm like no, 'I was always a director who just started to act.'"