Eva Mendes for “We Own the Night”

Eva Mendes has battled throughout her career, proving to herself and others that there’s more to her than the glamorous star. Crouched on a sofa in a Beverly Hills hotel room, the beautiful actress talks about the unpredictability of Hollywood as she navigates her way around its many pitfalls.

It took her a year to say yes to playing Joaquin Phoenix’s sexy, damaged girlfriend in We own the Night, because she didn’t want to play ‘the girl’. The challenges, she says, to find kind of woman she wants to play without resorting to the sexual stereotyping that Hollywood would presumably be happy to place on her, varies, she says. “it’s a case-by-case situation,” the actress explains, dressed impeccably in a gorgeous satin grey dress that shows off her femininity.

“I’ve learned that I have to kind of trust what’s coming to me, and then make the best decision from there, so because everything is fluctuates in this industry, it’s almost like, you’ve got to be able to relinquish a little bit of your control, so that all these things can come to you, and then, I can choose from there. I love saying no, and sometimes I say it too much, but I’m sure I say it out of the fear of being boxed in and I just don’t want to be “that girl,” because I know I have more than that to offer.”

We own the Night casts Mendes as the often flawed and insecure girlfriend of Phoenix’s Bobby Green, a New York nightclub manager in bed with the Russian mob, whose life spirals out of control after his cop brother arrests him. She says that she ultimately changed her mind about taking this on, because “I’ve learned that I respond to love stories, especially if they’re a little tragic, so I thought this was a really beautiful, tragic love story. It was also exciting that I could dig a little deeper into the actress in me, and it definitely ignited something in me.”

The movie opens with a graphic sex scene between Mendes and Phoenix, but yet the nudity was the one thing that she says did not concern her. “In that way I am very un-American because when it comes to nudity I feel like if you’re emotionally nude for a movie and you’re saying you’re not going to do nudity, I just feel like that’s a contradiction and hypocritical. What’s interesting is I’d rather be nude and be true to the scene and the character than be scantily clad for no reason if that makes any sense. I think it’s actually more grotesque to be parading around in a film in skimpy clothes for no reason than to actually be true and authentic and have your breasts exposed or something, so I have a difference of opinion.”

Mendes says that at this stage of her career, she wants nothing more than being challenged, even when asked to play a femme fatale in her next film, The Spirit. “I ran into this actor, who shall remain nameless, who said to me, ‘Oh, The Spirit will be an easy movie for you, because it’s like a cartoon. You just show up and do the lines.’ I said, ‘What, If anything it’s even harder, because you have all these things that aren’t there that are supposed to be, you have to have these pictures in your heads and you have to be so connected.’ So I thought ‘No, I don’t see that that way at all.’ “

As Mendes establishes her within Hollywood’s elite A-list, the 33-year old recalls that her desire to act was born out of a basic need. “to want to break out of my poverty,” the actress recalls. “It was in me ever since I was little, when I would write cards to my mom at five years old: ‘Mom, one day I’m gonna pay all your bills, and pick you up in a limousine,’ things that a five-year-old thought. I remember that I actually I had a little book that I made when I was about eight, an Easter bunny book, that’s on my coffee table, again, which had the same theme, that the Easter bunny ended up coming, and he not only brought candy, but paid the rent for the mother.” Mendes says that this has been a recurring theme throughout her whole life, “that I was going to get myself and my family out of that situation and that’s where the fire comes from. Thankfully, I found something that I wanted to excel at, and that I loved.”

The actress still is fighting to prove to herself that what people see is not necessarily what they get. Talking to Mendes, it is clear that she is a smart, savvy young woman, who is aware of her own physicality as well as what she has to offer as an actress. “You know what’s interesting is, I feel like I’m still in that place where people just have certain preconceived things about me, and if I start wanting to prove people wrong, that’s a lot of energy being wasted on those people. So what I do is, I try to really let people in, such as when I’m sitting down with you. This isn’t me going, ‘Oh, the film was amazing,’ but rather I’m giving you a piece of myself. This is how I talk, these are my thoughts, this is me, so that’s what I try to do. I try to bring it down to human connection and to everybody that I meet, and if I have a chance to sit down with, you’re getting a piece of me. That’s how I kind of break it down, and then, that’s just how it’ll kind of spread, that I’m not this vapid, but I don’t even know what people think of me.”

And she does care to a point. “There’s always a fine line, because I do care what people say about me, in terms of my reputation, but yet, you have to not care when it becomes tabloid-y, but I do care what my peers think about me and I certainly care what the people I work with think about me.” Mendes says she is still trying to prove to herself that can be challenged, professionally. “It’s a challenge every day, because sometimes people don’t even want to see me. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, she’s amazing, we love Eva, but, you know — the director really doesn’t want to see her,’ or, ‘they don’t want to go ‘ethnic’ with this’. I hear it a million times a day, but I really try to do sit down with a director, so that they can see that I actually know cinema, I have an opinion about it, I know foreign cinema. I can have a dialogue about that kind of stuff, you know? I don’t think of an old movie as being E.T,” she says, laughingly.

So it’s ironic that given her love of the classics, that she brazenly agreed to step into Joan Crawford’s iconic role in the remake of the 30s classic The Women. While fully prepared for the criticism, Mendes says that she wanted to play that character because “it’s that challenge thing. I’m not gonna try to emulate her, but I want to make her my own. There’s a scene where I kind of pay homage to her, which is the famous bathtub scene, and I wear this great turban that’s very much from the time of the ’30s and ’40s, a little ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge, but I really made her mine, and I think. a little bit funnier.”

Mendes will next start shooting Frank Miller’s The Spirit, opposite Scarlett Johanssen. She describes her femme fatale character, Sand Saref, as “somebody who lost her father when she was very young, then lost the love of her life the same way, so she’s out for vengeance. She’s obsessed with shiny things and she’ll do anything to get the most precious stone of all. She does end up killing people for certain things. They usually deserved it, but she’s still killing people.” And also uses her sexuality along the way, she adds. “And that’s something that’s interesting to me, because that’s something I have to tap into. I use mine, of course, I’m a woman, but I don’t use it mercilessly, but she does. So that’s going to be a challenge for me to play that character without apologizing, just to be fearless in that way and go for it.”

The once impoverished child has grown up confident and determined. Her dream, she says, is to “just challenge myself artistically. I really want to just go darker and deeper, to keep working with the James Grays of the world, and I’d love to work with Mike Leigh.” Mendes says that “determination is amazing. I have my insecurities about me, absolutely, and especially when I first started in the business, I didn’t have any experience, I wasn’t even a mediocre actress, I was bad.” Now, she says, she knows what she wants and working with the best in the world remains her priority. “I’m so moldable, like a piece of clay. It’s like, ‘Take me! I can do it!’ I just need my director, their vision, and I can do it, you know?”

Mendes’ work is her passion, yet not having a family of her own. “Family is a priority, but not my own like having a baby. I’m in a serious relationship, so I’m definitely settled down, but start a family? No.”