In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Eva Mendes stars as Romina, an old flame of Luke, a tattooed stunt biker played by Ryan Gosling, who turns to robbing banks to support her and the baby he didn’t even know he had. Mendes is terrific in a performance as gritty and raw as what she delivered in Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day,” more than a decade ago.
The actress, who is now dating Gosling, talked about the film at a junket recently in midtown Manhattan. She politely refused to answer any personal questions about her relationship with Gosling, but noted that she’s excited about filming Gosling’s debut directing effort, “How to Catch a Monster,” which he also wrote, in Detroit this summer. It’s scheduled for a 2014 release.
She was dressed simply in a patterned dress designed by Pierre Cardin. The actress is working on her own fashion line and said she chose the dress because she was going through her closet and looking at old vintage clothing for inspiration and this caught her eye. She lost about 15 pounds for the role of Romina, a hard-working waitress, and she’s still very slender, much less voluptuous than we’re used to seeing her on the red carpet and in films. The L.A.-born Cuban-American actress was excited to talk about a film that focused on her acting chops and not her sexy looks.
Here are highlights from our interview with Eva Mendes:
Derek (Cianfrance, the director) said he didn’t know if you were right for the part. How nervous were you when you first met him?
I had heard that he wasn’t sure about me fitting in, about me in this role, but I kind of just had this very peaceful feeling about it, because I knew it was mine. There’s certain things that you just know and not from an egotistical way, there are plenty of jobs I have not gotten, but it was stemming from an, “I know this woman place.” So when I went to go meet him — he was from New York — I went to meet him in LA, and he was doing his casting, and I said, look, I can go into this room and audition, but why not come with me, we’ll take a drive, and I will show you where I grew up in Los Angeles, and we will talk about the character that way.
I knew once he could see a different side of me, that he would feel that I was right for it. So I was actually really calm and peaceful about it, because I felt like, I had never done that before, I had never taken someone on a tour of my life [laughs] to neighborhoods and stuff like that, so it was beautiful for me, as well. We took about a two-hour drive, where I grew up, where I went to school, different places, then we stopped at this little park that I used to go to, and it was beautiful.
You grew up in L.A. but filmed in Schenectady, so what parts of your life did you use to find your character as Romina?
It’s not so much that it reminded me of Schenectady, it was the idea of coming from nothing. We weren’t poor, but we were lower, lower middle class, and [I was familiar] with the struggle.
You’re mainly connected with glamorous or sexy roles. This role is the polar opposite of what people are used to seeing you in, so what was that like?
At the end of the day, I take responsibility for the image that I have put out there, and I think he (Cianfrance) was worried I was a bit kind of glamorous and stuff, but the truth is, that’s something I tap into when I have to. Just like when I am working on a campaign, and the hair and makeup comes into play, or if I am doing a photo shoot for a fashion magazine, or today, I want you guys to think I look nice. I am not going to wake up looking like a hobo, like Will Ferrell called me in “The Other Guys.” [laughter] But when I am out there, I am not that girl. I am a very kind of L.A. girl who, I certainly didn’t grow up on the streets at all, but I am the girl next door when it’s just me.
That was my favorite part … I know my work doesn’t reflect this, but I promise you, you will see more of it, I hope, anytime I get to really play a character and I get to change the way I look, I am happier, that’s what satisfies me. I still go to acting class. I am such a student of acting, and everything I try in acting class it’s material, it’s Edward Albee material. It’s crazy, crazy dark stuff, that I go crazy for. But unfortunately, it’s been difficult to have those opportunities in film. That’s why I took the part in “Holy Motors,” because I wanted to look totally different and that’s why this thing I just did with Larry David, I look insane for. So it was such a great part and I just look totally different for that. And I try to sneak it in there actually, in a lot of films, you can’t really notice, but even in “Hitch,” like I did the scene after the night where Will spends the night at my place, and that next morning, I had no makeup on. It was a big studio movie and I was like, I don’t want makeup on, eyeliner kind of down here, because I had slept with my mascara on, and it’s amazing how many people kind of fight you on that.
So to answer your question, when I get to age myself in this film, I was like, Derek, what can I do? And then I made a decision because truthfully, we didn’t have months to prep for that. We had about a week. And it was still a small film, and we went through prosthetics, maybe a bit much, so I did little tricks … I decided, besides me obviously graying and stuff like that and I had some undergarments that were kind of helping with my body language a little bit, but I decided [laughs], I was in the hotel room, the Holiday Inn in Schenectady, and (thinking) what else can I do to myself to just change my face? Because time had had a way with her, and it wasn’t like she was old, she was in her early 40s … So I started shaving my eyebrows and I was like, that’s interesting. And I started shaving, shaving, shaving, and I almost shaved them all off. It’s weird. [laughter] And I thought, that might change the shape of my face a bit, so I did a little bunch of tricks like that, besides the obvious of absolutely no makeup. And then using a pencil to draw in some stuff, and like the scene at the hospital when I am with Jason, that whole night, I didn’t sleep, like in my hotel room, in the Holiday Inn in Schenectady, drinking coffee, coffee, coffee, and not sleeping, because I wanted to look haggard, delirious.
There’s obviously this incredible chemistry between you and Ryan on screen. Part of your character can’t stay away from him, so can you talk about acting with Ryan Gosling and how you brought that out, that interaction with him and what you did?
Well, it’s one of those things that you have to keep in mind, that Romina lives in a small, sleepy town, in a small, sleepy life. And here comes this man, Luke, who is a motorcyclist, stunt driver, excitement, like he is just excitement, and in her life, that’s just kind of, he’s the superstar of that town. Or whatever town he goes into, he’s the superstar. So I think that it stemmed from there, it’s just exciting. And then he leaves and she stays in her normal, kind of quiet, quiet life.
Why does your character show up at the fair where Luke is working if she doesn’t want to hook up with him again?
Because life is beautiful and complicated and complex, and some of us make bad decisions. And here you are with, think about it, it’s 1992, so you have a fling with this guy, he disappears, you have his baby. You have this other guy in your life who is stable and wonderful and wants to raise that child as if it’s his own. You don’t know where the biological father is so you are thinking, what am I going to do? So you are probably tempted to make a call. This person comes back into your life, you have one night, an opportunity, you know he’s in town one night, with this traveling circus, a carnival, and you are going, you are under a clock and you are like, what do I do? What is the right thing to do? He is unfit to be a father, but this is his biological child.
And I think the beauty of what Derek wrote is this woman who is morally questionable, and just trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. So she goes to see him. There’s sparks and hopefully what you saw was a push and pull of like, she still didn’t know what to do, it just couldn’t come out … I like that she is flawed like that, and that she didn’t do the right thing, because we don’t always do the right thing in life.