Outside the rain is falling hard in a cloudy Santa Monica, Calif. Inside, Eugenio Derbez appears from his office wearing a thick black sweater, a polo shirt and a thin scarf he neatly wraps around his neck to resemble a wide tie. Considering the comedic actor has played some of the most colorful, vibrant and eccentric characters in mostly Spanish-language films and TV shows, he is actuallyvery different in person. In fact, he is extremely shy.
“I’m quiet,” he says flatly. “When I go to a party I am very quiet. There are people who invite me to a party thinking I’m going to be the loudest one there. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs and I’m very shy.”
Derbez may be quiet in the general sense when he’s not performing, but in 2013, his film Instructions Not Included, about a single womanizer who is left to take care of his daughter alone, became the most successful Spanish-language film in the U.S., earning nearly $45 million domestically and about the same amount internationally. That box office success was a game-changer.
“A week before in Mexico I was in bed watching Jimmy Fallon,” Derbez recalls. “Suddenly I was with Jimmy Fallon in New York (a week later). I never imaged that happening. It was a shock.”
The Hollywood success allowed Derbez to start making films like the upcoming How to be a Latin Lover, which he produced and starred in. The film co-stars Salma Hayek and also includes Kristen Bell, Raquel Welch, Rob Lowe and Rob Riggle. Actor Ken Marino directed.
It may seem Derbez, 55, was an overnight success thanks to Instructions Not Included, but his hit persona was really in the making for 12 years as he toiled away in the depths of Grupo Televisa's sound stages, creating some of his most iconic characters of Mexican television, like the lovable and sometimes misunderstood Ludovico P. Luche from the series “La Familia P. Luche.”
In a way, Derbez grew up in Televisa, where his late mother, Silvia Derbez, worked beginning in the late ‘50s and went on to become one of Mexico’s most beloved actors. “She would tell me what I did right and what I did wrong,” says Derbez of his mother, who died 2002 at the age of 70. “She was my best ally and she never missed any of my shows.”
Now Derbez is making his own path in Hollywood where he’s not a household name with non-Latin audiences. Yet.
He moved to Los Angeles about three years ago with his wife Alessandra Rosaldo, also an actress. He opened up a production company (3Pas, which translates to “guts” in Spanish as in tripas), hired several executives and has continued working as an actor, writing scripts, developing projects and receiving a warm Hollywood welcome from fellow actors such Adam Sandler (“a gentleman,” says Derbez), Helen Mirren (“a goddess”) and fellow Mexican Hayek.
Sandler personally asked Derbez to appear in his 2011 film Jack and Jill and Mirren got to know the actor recently when they worked on the upcoming Lasse Hallström film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which also stars Keira Knightly and Morgan Freeman.
“I wake up and ask my wife how we got here,” Derbez says of his transition from Mexico to the U.S. “It’s like being in somebody else’s body. This is part of a dream that I still can’t believe. Three years ago I was in Mexico. I had another office with another career and suddenly I shut everything down and I was living in a different country doing new things.”
LIVING THE DREAM
Derbez discovered his comedic chops almost by accident, when he was hired to work on a Saturday Night Live-type show in Mexico. Almost 30 at the time, he embraced comedy and realized that he could make his funny and ugly and move in many directions, while delivering his lines smoothly.
The 2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning Sangre de Mi Sangre helped Derbez get even more Hollywood notoriety, and since he moved to Los Angeles, he’s done as much as possible to be involved in quality projects that represent Latinos.
“I studied Mexican cinema extensively,” Derbez says. “I realized that so many films had abused the same theme over and over: drug-trafficking, poverty, depression. People would tell me they wanted to laugh and wanted more.”
Instructions Not Included, for example, “brought people into theaters because they wanted to see a film in Spanish that focused on a Mexican guy who worked in the U.S., was successful and was good man,” Derbez says. “It broke the stereotype of Latinos in films who are often portrayed as drug dealers and criminals.”
For How to Be a Hot Latin Lover, Derbez called on his pal Hayek who signed on for the comedy about a man (Derbez) who makes a career out of romancing older women, but suddenly he finds himself living with his sister (Hayek) and her son (Raphael Alejandro).
“People want to identify,” says Derbez of the characters he creates. “It’s important to create roles that are relatable. I base them on people I know or people I meet. You embellish in comedy, but people relate and through the comedy spectrum, people laugh.”
Derbez’s comedy is physical, and he likes to exaggerate gestures and movements.
“My primary weapons are my face and my voice and sometimes my body as well,” he says. “I use an iPhone to record as I move along with a character and I can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s all about trial and error and nobody gets to see that,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s an intimate way to disrobe your soul and do things that you would not normally do. You really have to lose your ego. People tell me I look better in person; I never worried about make-up or combing my hair when I was about to go on set to perform. Forget who you are and become someone else and you should just focus on making a character better.”
The attitude applies to real life as well. Even with Derbez’s newfound place in the business, for example, he knows that many in the U.S. still have no idea who he is.
“When I go to a restaurant in Los Angeles patrons don’t necessarily recognize me,” admits Derbez, who last year got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “But the staff makes me feel at home. I am thankful to that staff because they have made my career. I owe my career to them and that’s the truth. I’m living the American dream and now more than ever we must all try to help each other.”
I hear an insistent knock on the door and Derbez finally opens and his English Pitbull, Fiona, walks in. She greets me by putting her paws on my lap before taking her place next to Derbez and both turn to look at me. It’s a moment that’s strange and beautiful, and yes, funny at the same time. Just another day at the office for Eugenio Derbez and Fiona.
Derbez’s favorite haunts
Eugenio Derbez may be living the American dream in Hollywood, but he often flies back to Mexico, where he enjoys good food, theater and loves exploring the work of Frida Kahlo.
“If you go to Mexico City and you have never been or it’s been years, you’ll see a whole other side that’s spectacular,” says Derbez. “For tourists it’s a great place and your money will go far.”
Here are some of Derbez’s favorite haunts.
Fisher’s seafood restaurant
Although there are several locations in Mexico City, Polanco’s Fisher’s is Derbez’s favorite spot because of the quaint neighborhood. Almost everything is great on the menu, the actor says, but try the camarones petroleros and “you will not leave from that spectacular place.” The sauce is black, creamy and the tortillas they serve will make this dish come together in a way that will not be forgotten anytime soon, he adds. “You cannot imagine how good it tastes.”
Historic Center of Mexico City
There is no place like el Zócalo or the main plaza (the biggest one in Latin America) where thousands of people visit every day, Derbez says. The area also includes amazing architecture and a cultural highlights that can be explored through museums and simply walking along the streets. The Catedral Metropolitana is a must-see, Derbez, says and seeing these things in person is impressive along with learning about Mexico’s history.
A visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum is nothing short of amazing, says Derbez. Going to Kahlo’s Blue House, where she grew up and later lived with husband Diego Rivera, will delight the senses as one can explore the Colonia del Carmen neighborhood. Derbez advises to explore the area to see other artists, musicians and the helados, or icecream, in flavros that include avocado and arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Santa Fe neighborhood in Mexico City
Santa Fe is a major business district, but Derbez assures that it has grown tremendously with new and cool restaurants, shops and the architecture is not to be missed. “If people think that this place is a little old town, they need to check out this neighborhood because in many ways it does rival bigger places” like New York.
This quaint area is a top pick for tourists. But it never fails because who doesn’t love a boat ride through the canals while singers serenade you? You can also eat and drink on these colorful rides, Derbez says, that show you a different side of Mexico City.
Teatro de los Insurgentes
So much good theater is available in Mexico City and Derbez has a soft spot for many houses including Teatro de los Insurgentes. In the last decade the theater company has stepped up their game with musical productions that rival Broadway. The recent “Hombre de La Mancha” was critically well received and proves that good acting and theater is a major treat in Mexico.