Eva Mendes was riding in a cab through New York’s SoHo in May when it stopped at a red light on Houston Street. Looking out, she saw herself splashed 50 feet wide across a billboard, writhing in a white tee and skinny Calvins. “There I was,” she says, “all greased up, my head thrown back, and I thought, Who are you? Are you kidding me?” Later that day the curvy beauty, now ensconced in a banquette at the Carlyle hotel restaurant, laughs as she recounts how disconnected the sighting made her feel. “There’s that little surreal moment,” Mendes says. “I’m proud of it, absolutely, because why not? I can access that side quite easily, and I enjoy it, but certainly how boring if that was all I had to offer. The goal is to explore all sides.”
Coming from an actress who has posed nude for the cover of Maxim, provoked a controversy with her bare nipple in a 2008 TV ad for Calvin Klein perfume and spotlighted her shapely breasts in countless photo shoots—in Italian Vogue, they were smushed upward by an unseen woman’s feet—this may strike you at first as disingenuous. But spend a little time in Mendes’s company and you begin to see that her most substantial assets are not just the ones on perennial display.
“Can I get something out of the way really quickly?” she asks as she scans the menu, holding up her slender hands to show me her crazy long fuchsia nails. “Not me! These are fake nails for a photo shoot, and they won’t come off. I was looking at my hands and thinking, Ugh! What are these?”
Talons aside, Mendes, 35, is surprisingly delicate and unadorned in person, with a quick wit and the kind of boundless optimism that reveals itself in the way she says “aMAZing!” when asked to describe an experience. Tonight she’s wearing a white gauzy summer dress with a plunging V-neck, and her hair is loosely piled atop her head. She has willowy arms, a forehead that furrows and slightly buck teeth, as she calls them, that lend her generous smile its warmth.
“It’s very hard for me to be seen as funny, and the truth is, that’s where I’m most comfortable,” she says when talk turns to her latest film, The Other Guys, which opens in August and also stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Mendes plays über woman Sheila Gamble, a Knicks dancer–turned–doctor married to a dunderhead of a forensics cop (Ferrell) who doesn’t realize what a babe his wife is. “These are the two comments I get from people when they meet me,” says Mendes, who lives in Los Angeles but is in New York for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. “‘You seem a lot taller on film,’ and ‘You’re funny.’ If people hang out with me, they see I’m a ham.”