Ferrell and longtime cowriter Adam McKay, the film’s director, had written Gamble expressly for “someone like Eva Mendes, who is instantly recognizable as one of the most beautiful women in the world,” says Ferrell, without knowing if she’d actually go for their brand of goofball absurdism. And then McKay had lunch with her, “and it’s kind of shocking how funny and cool she is,” he says. “She’s very quick and honest and isn’t afraid to make fun of herself. So within two seconds, she isn’t like a beautiful Hollywood actress anymore, she’s Eva and game for anything.”
In the past 12 years, Mendes has appeared in 24 movies, though it’s safe to say that despite some memorable performances, none have propelled her to the top of Hollywood’s A-list. She’s longing to stretch, she says, having been cast more typically for her looks, so redolent of the full-bodied Sixties Italian sirens Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, than for her acting cred. Among her best-known roles: Denzel Washington’s mistress in the 2001 police drama Training Day; Joaquin Phoenix’s sexy squeeze in the compelling 2007 cop thriller We Own the Night; and the canny, fast-talking gossip columnist Sara Melas in Hitch, the 2005 blockbuster romantic comedy that costarred Will Smith as the dating coach she falls for. Though Mendes was singled out for praise, it was the heavyweights Washington, Phoenix and Smith who got the lion’s share of critical attention.
With The Other Guys, however, Mendes may well give her co-stars a run for their money. “It was completely liberating,” she says of the opportunity to play in another key. “Never have I had so much fun with a character and felt so natural at it. Had I done this movie three years ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to throw it back at Will, and now, if anything, I was overly confident. I didn’t know when to stop!”
Mendes, Ferrell recalls, was nimble on her feet and always knew where the joke lay. His and McKay’s method is nonstop improvisation, a working style they’ve honed in such films as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, but one that was new to Mendes. Asked to sing a little ditty they’d composed called “Pimps Don’t Cry,” Mendes “made up this funny, weird, touching moment where she’s caressing my face and singing this song like a lullaby, completely seriously,” says Ferrell. “It was odd and insane and funny all at the same time.”
No stranger to being the lone female in a testosterone-fueled ensemble, Mendes happily jumped into her next project, tentatively titled Last Night, because it allowed her to work alongside Keira Knightley and to inhabit a buttoned-down, understated character for the first time. The film, which does not yet have a release date, features Knightley and Sam Worthington as a married couple tempted to stray. Mendes plays the husband’s alluring business associate, and though she’s the other woman, “she is not seen as overtly sexy as she’s been in other films,” says freshman director Massy Tadjedin. “There’s a softness and subtlety in her performance that makes it a very real depiction of a woman.”