Every time I mention the name Eva Mendes to another guy, he gets this stupid grin on his face while, no doubt, fantasizing: Eva Mendes mowing his lawn. Eva Mendes juicing kale in his kitchen. But when I mention Eva's name to a woman, the response is almost a nonresponse. "Oh," the woman will invariably say, "she's ... really pretty." Coming from a woman, this is not necessarily a compliment, which isn't to say it's not a fact. At 33, Eva Mendes is uniquely pretty, Revlon-commercial pretty, the-new-face-of-Calvin-Klein-underwear pretty — but, as a matter of conversational reflex, one woman calling another woman "really pretty," and only that, is also a way of outright dismissing her. What these women really mean when they remark on Eva's bone structure and skin tone is that she is not an intimate in the Sarah Jessica Parker/Jennifer Aniston sense. She is that suspect thing, a guy's girl — who stars in movies for dudes, about dudes (2 Fast 2 Furious, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Training Day, Ghost Rider), with all that implies. But if Eva has her way, this is about to change.
I meet Eva on the patio of a strip-mall Hollywood café beneath a tilted umbrella and six cypress trees doing slow-mo tai chi in the breeze. With her spine straight, her legs crossed in half-lotus, Eva looks just about ready to chant ommm in her chair. Her dress gives off an ashram-couture vibe, natural and chic. It's empire-waisted and long, white linen with brocaded burgundy arabesques and thick beaded shoulder straps. Her Missoni purse is nearly the size of a gym bag. Blocky tortoiseshell sunglasses protect her eyes from allergies, she says, and she plays with her hair almost constantly, brushing it behind her, teasing it forward and to the side, twisting until it looks like a rope. For the first of three times, Eva orders a coffee and dumps in a side of espresso. "Cubans don't drink regular coffee," she says. "We basically drink petroleum."
Eva's latest project, The Women, is her first bona fide chick-flick, in which she plays a husband stealer who works the perfume counter at Saks. So, she's the bad guy in her first girl film — but it's a girl film nonetheless. Line crossed. "There's not a man in the film," says Eva, rather proudly, popping a blueberry-muffin morsel into her mouth. Instead, the cast features Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cloris Leachman, Candice Bergen, Bette Midler. The kind of cast that'll drill Peggy Lee's feminist anthem, "I'm a woman. W-O-M-A-N!" into your head for days on end, even if you're a man.
"Usually I work with guys," Eva understates, breaking off more muffin, "and I go to rehearsal in a summer dress or jeans or whatever. But last year, while rehearsing the movie at [writer/director] Diane English's house on Martha's Vineyard, I found myself really aware of what I was wearing, really caring about my outfits. With guys it doesn't matter. But this was with women, women who are all put-together and cute with their little dresses and their perfect earrings. Every morning I got up and thought, I'm going to see Annette today, I need to make sure she thinks I look cute. Jada's gonna be cute. Meg's gonna be cute. I'd better be cute." She pops a muffin crumb between her wide, asymmetrical lips and drops a new shot of espresso into a fresh coffee. "I'm sure I sound like a ditz saying this, but it's a girl thing. A timeless, ageless, ethnicity-less girl thing."
It's also a thing that goes beyond wardrobe approval. This is Eva Mendes looking for positive womanly support, looking for the respect of her most lauded cohorts. This is Eva wanting them to like her and wanting, in fact, to be more like them. "I don't understand women who don't like being with the girls," she says. "They say they'd rather be with the guys all the time? That it's just so much easier? I'm calling bullshit on that."
In Bening, Eva's found a true role model. "Annette's got taste and class," she says. "She reminds me of one of those women back in the '40s and '50s. She's a broad, and I want to be a broad. I mean, she's like Ava Gardner or Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. Those women were broads. They said it like it was. They weren't afraid to say fuck. They were in-your-face, but they were also ladies. That's a broad. Annette's like that, and I strive to be like that, too, to have femininity and a voice, to play the Hollywood game without getting pushed around.
Another thing she admires about Bening is her ability to keep her personal life, well, personal. Sure, Eva wants all of us to know the work of Eva Mendes, actress, but she deeply believes we don't need to know everything about where she lives and how long she's been with her boyfriend.
This is both her moral prerogative and, as she sees it, a shrewd professional move. "Think about what this whole culture of celebrity has done to movie stars," she says. "It's made them extinct. Actors used to carry films because people would have to actually go to the movies to see them. It was the only place. But now there's none of that mystique, and so there's less of a reason to buy a ticket."
But Eva is not a total enigma. The youngest of four children in what she calls "a big, old, loud, obnoxious Cuban family," she grew up in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood before it became a hive for hipsters. Her working-class family was conservation-minded before its time: "I was raised by parents who didn't have much," she says. "We didn't use whole pieces of paper towel. We shared, or used rags. Mom didn't even want us flushing all the time."
While in college at Cal State Northridge, Eva landed her first movie role, in the fifth installment of the horror franchise Children of the Corn. The film didn't exactly resonate with Eva, but the process of acting struck a chord. "Going in, I had no plans to make a career of it," she says. "But I realized that I was a terrible actress, and it started to seem like the right kind of challenge for me to pursue. I thought I could really do something with it."
So, she enlisted esteemed acting coach Ivana Chubbuck, whom she still considers a mentor, and went from being a screamer in agrarian-themed schlock to playing opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day.
Eva has had the same boyfriend for a long, long time (by Hollywood standards, she's impossibly loyal). She owns a 70-pound Belgian Malinois named Hugo, who was born in Belgium and therefore only responds to commands in French, which she finds both adorable and pretentious. She calls George Clooney "Mr. Clooney," says we, as a society, "need him, as a filmmaker and as a person," and dreams of one day being in a movie with him. She reads Philip Roth — but she also has a self-help book by her bed at all times. Self-critical and bent on self-improvement, she thinks her eyes are too small and her mouth is too big, and being "overly emotional" is her greatest weakness, and she sees a therapist about it all once a week. Eva meditates but won't share her mantra. She prefers the term "creator" to "higher power" or "God." She says she's on a quest.
Yet when I ask whether part of this quest involved a stint at a high-altitude drug and alcohol rehab facility last winter, she politely closes off and looks at me as if I've just run over a bunny, then punched her mother in the face. "I'm not going to confirm it or deny it." So I attempt another tack, noting that recent reports have claimed she made the trip to Utah's Cirque Lodge not to start her own path to recovery, but to learn firsthand about addiction for an upcoming role in Queen of the South. "Not going there either," she says. "My mom always tells me, 'Keep 'em guessing, kid.' I love that."
Then Eva asks me whether I want to go with her to buy dog toys.
On the other side of the mall, at Tailwaggers, she gets Hugo an amorphous yellow blob that squeaks, a spiky barbell, and a bag of Greenies for his dental health. Prior to walking out the door, Eva drops to her knees to greet a miniature she-terrier. She coos and calls the happy pooch "delicious" before fishing her keys out of her purse. Both the doggy and its mommy take to Eva like magnets.
On Eva's key chain, I spot 10 or so credit-card-size things in bright colors. They look like larger versions of the discount passes big-box stores give out. Eva won't tell me where her cards are from, but I can tell they're not from Walgreens or Sam's Club. After some good-natured begging on my part, she cops to the fact that each one holds some aphorism, something to provide focus and balance for her daily quest — the kinds of affirmations that toe the line between recovery literature and the change-your-life-now chart-busters found in every airport bookstore in the country.
Gamely, Eva agrees to read one aloud.
"You're embarrassing me," she notes, turning her back and memorizing before facing me again, her giant sunglasses propped up, turned toward the sky like solar panels.
The line comes out like a confession. "How can I choose to have a good day today?" she says, and half-shrugs.
"I guess I'm just a total dork like that," she says.
Then she tells me I'm awesome as a way of forgiving my invasiveness, reaches out for a hug, and drives off before I even have a chance to tell her something — that I think she's on her way to becoming exactly the kind of headlining, badass broad she admires most.
Howie Kahn won a 2008 James Beard Foundation award for magazine feature writing.