Eva Mendes first came to cinematic attention in her breakout role as Denzel Washington’s girlfriend in “Training Day,” for which he won an Academy Award. She also played opposite Washington in “Out of Time,” and has gone on to create a variety of roles ranging from dramatic to comedic, including the romantic comedy “Hitch” starring Will Smith. Her face is also familiar on television and in print ads as a model for Revlon cosmetics. In her latest film, “Girl In Progress,” Mendes has been “deglamourized,” and plays Grace, a narcissistic mother who is oblivious to the problems with which her young teenage daughter is grappling.
Cierra Ramirez made her show business debut as a singer at the tender age of seven and performed when she was only ten at ‘Showtime at the Apollo.’ She was the opening act for such groups as Earth Wind and Fire and Chicago. Ramirez got her acting chops on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon television networks where she had recurring roles in several television series. Ramirez plays Grace’s struggling “coming of age” teenage daughter, Ansiedad.
Co-starring with Mendes and Ramirez is a fine cast of supporting actors including Raini Rodriguez as her best friend Tavita, Landon Libroiron as Ansiedad’s boyfriend Trevor, Matthew Modine as Dr. Hartford, Grace’s illicit lover, and Patricia Arquette as Ansiedad’s sympathetic teacher.
Mendes and Ramirez recently sat down with a group of select journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss the film and the following interview has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
What was the biggest challenge in creating the character of Grace and how was she different from other characters you’ve played?
Mendes: I’ll just start with what I was attracted to, which was the fact Grace was so flawed and so human and so, you know, such a mess. That’s attractive to me because it means playing a real person or closer to it anyway, rather than playing a one-dimensional or two-dimensional character.
You’ve played a mother before. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Mendes: I’ve played a mother quite a few times. My first big break in the business was “Training Day” with Denzel Washington. There were just a couple of scenes in the movie. I was 25 years old and I played a mom. It was an amazing experience and changed everything for me.
What was it like working with Denzel?
Mendes: I actually worked with him twice – “Training Day” and a few years later, “Out Of Time.” He’s incredible.
Have you thought about having kids?
Mendes: (Laughs) You seem like a real nice girl, but we’ve just met and talking about kids right now…take me out to dinner first (laughter).
As you get older, are you conscious of the changing ways in which you approach your roles?
Mendes: I’m sure that subconsciously you bring certain things to a role as you age and hopefully you bring more experience and more life and more gravitas, but consciously I wouldn’t know what I brought to the roles.
What attracted you to the role of Ansiedad?
Ramirez: I think it’s a very universal message and anyone can relate to it – not just Hispanics. But what really attracted me to the role is the love she has for her mother. She mapped out this whole coming-of-age plan just to gain her mother’s attention, which she felt she lacked. That was really strong for me and really important and the transition she went through was definitely a plus – going from good girl all the way to bad girl – that was really fun.
In keeping with your character of Grace, who was disconnected from her daughter, did you stay distant from Cierra during the shoot?
Mendes: Not at all. We bonded right away and it was like a sisterly bonding. At first I thought should I be more maternal towards her, but I think it worked out the way it was supposed to because Grace is not really in touch with her maternal side as much as she should be. So I think the sisterly kind of thing worked out. I remembered earlier today that I divulged a secret to this young lady.
Ramirez: And I kept it.
Mendes: And you kept it! It was a good one, I promise (laughter).
Oh you can share. Your secret is safe with us (much laughter). But seriously, how did you prepare for the role?
Ramirez: I went through a session with the director Patricia Riggen and we kind of wrote down this character that transitions from good girl to bad girl. It’s rare to come across a role that you can play so many different characters in that one role, so I wrote down each one of the characters and brought them to life.
How do you generally prepare for a role?
Mendes: The way I prepare for a role is to work with my coach, Ivana Chubbuck, who I’ve been with for 12 years. We have this whole process, which I could bore you with, but it’s how to break down a script and how to walk in the character’s shoes and all that fun stuff, which I personally find the funniest part of the acting process. Being on set is great, but there’s something about the prep and the rehearsal… I’m a student at heart and still go to acting classes.
What was the set like in between those intensely emotional scenes? How did you decompress or did you?
Ramirez: Following those dramatic scenes, I didn’t like to get out of character. I went to Vancouver to film and my dad went with me. My mom came up during Spring Break and I remember I was filming some really dramatic scenes and afterwards she said ‘Wow, that whole time you were just so into your character and it wasn’t like you were my daughter.’ I didn’t like talking to anyone during those emotional scenes because I wanted to just stay in the moment and never wanted to look at my mother because I was afraid I would smile or something and it would break my character.
Mendes: I was actually in awe of Miss Cierra here because she was so committed and her emotions are so available to her. It was incredible. In the middle of a dramatic scene Patricia wanted me to cry or something and I would say, ‘I’m not feeling it – I don’t know if she would cry’ (Referring to the character). I was struggling with the scene and I’d look over and the camera isn’t even on Cierra, it’s on me, and the tears are falling down her beautiful little face and I ask, ‘How do you do that?’ It was the sweetest answer. ‘I just pretend I’m the character and think about what she’s going through and I’m so sad for her.’ It’s gorgeous to watch a young talent like that.
Your characters are both out of control. What was your favorite out-of-control behavior?
Mendes: For me, smoking in the car with two kids because it’s the most taboo thing you should absolutely do, right? We did it a few times and I actually used a real cigarette and would blow the smoke in their faces. I know it was terrible and if it had gone on for more than a few hours, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s so taboo and so wrong, that it really got me into the character.
Ramirez: I actually had fun with all the scenes. I especially like the scene where I tell you I’m out of control. That was really fun because I’m nothing like that character in real life.
Mendes: Especially being the bad girl. When else would you dress like that. Honestly, in real life, I would take you over my knee (laughter).
Eva talked about how she breaks down her character. Did she give you any advice?
Ramirez: She was just really easy to act with and made every scene easy. I kind of just fed off of her.
Mendes: You know you do need advice (laughter). You can always come to me.
Was there one film when you growing up that impacted on you to the extent that you just had to pursue an acting career?
Mendes: You know what? I hear other actors say that there was one film or they went to the circus when they were eight or went to a play and I’m so jealous that they have those moments because I do not have that one moment. I really don’t. I know I was a ham when I was a child, but I don’t remember having that one moment like this is what I want to do with my life. I do remember wanting to be a nun from the ages of five to 10. Very clearly I remember that until my sister told me that nuns don’t get paid (laughter). What??? They don’t get paid? So I said forget that dream! (Laughter).
What did you learn about passages in a young life as a result of playing Ansiedad?
Ramirez: Experiencing this, I kind of realized that you shouldn’t get into anything that you are not ready for. The whole idea of losing her virginity led to an epiphany of waking up and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m only thirteen.’ So I feel like that’s what I can take out of this movie – to never get into something that I know in my heart that I’m not ready for.
Mendes: I think ‘to each his own.’ I was raised with two sisters in the same household, but we all had such an incredibly different journey and I think what my mom was really smart about was that she raised us differently. She altered her parenting to our personalities. I think that’s really wise because again, you can raise three girls under the same roof and we were all completely different. I’m thankful that my mom knew what I needed from her and I responded to her strict ways. She was very strict with me. I would go to a girl friend’s house and by the time I arrived there, she was on the phone with the mother already and when a couple of hours went by, she would call again and check on me. You know what? When I was 13, 14, 15, 16 she should have been doing that and I appreciate that. But, maybe with my sisters, the same parenting wouldn’t have worked because they might have rebelled.
Do you maintain that movie star persona off screen?
Mendes: I’m actually pretty simple. If you catch any paparazzi shots of me out there, I’m never done up to go to the mall. I’m not one of those. Or if I’m going through LAX, I’m not wearing the outfit. I don’t wear jewelry except for this ring that I always wear. I’m not a glammy glam kind of girl. Certainly there’s a time and a place to play it up. I’m going to Met Ball, a big costume ball in New York City and I will be having some fashion fun, I promise you. Of course, I had my hair and make-up done for today, but otherwise, this is it. I prefer the more simple approach.
You looked pretty unattractive in some of the scenes. Was that your idea or the director’s?
Mendes: With this role, before a take I kept asking Patricia if I looked bad enough (laughter). I wanted the eyeliner down here (points to under eyes). There’s a line where I tell my daughter that I’m tired so I better look exhausted. You know how you’re never suppose to rub your eyes if you have black liner or black mascara on? My little trick for Grace was to do exactly that and it worked (she demonstrates rubbing her eyes while laughing).