While waiting for her Monster, the indie movie that turned Charlize Theron from babe into Oscar-winning actress, Mendes has tried to be savvy about the roles she accepts. Her winning turn as Nicolas Cage’s prostitute girlfriend in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) may have been overshadowed by Cage’s deliriously whacked-out performance, but the chance to be directed by Werner Herzog, she says, was reason enough to sign on. She initially turned down director James Gray when he approached her about We Own the Night because she wanted a more complex, sensual character than was written. Only after Phoenix joined the roster and Gray promised to allow her greater input did she go forward. “She’s now trying to avoid ‘sultry, hot’ Eva Mendes,” says the director. “She’ll say, ‘Can you please write me a part?’ She has a very deep commitment to the craft of acting in a way that most actors of her generation simply do not.”
Mendes did not grow up with any ambition to become an actress. The summer before her senior year at California State University, Northridge, where she was dabbling in communications without much focus, her neighbor, a photographer, happened to snap a few pictures of her, which caught the eye of an agent. Soon she was booked for an Aerosmith video (“Hole in My Soul”) and won her first film role, as a screamer in the straight-to-video horror flick Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998). Her utter lack of experience led Mendes to seek out L.A. acting coach Ivana Chubbuck, with whom she still regularly takes class.
Her big break came three years later in Training Day, and though the script didn’t call for it, she suggested to director Antoine Fuqua that she appear fully nude in her first scene. She and the character played by Washington had just made love, she reasoned, so why was she topless but wearing her underwear? “I’ve never had a problem with nudity, but I don’t put it out there without a reason,” says Mendes. “I’m not an exhibitionist. But, honestly, for my art I’ll do anything, almost. I’ll go there.”
She certainly went there in We Own the Night—in the opening scene, Mendes masturbates in her underwear. “I remember calling my acting coach after seeing that first scene and telling her how embarrassed I felt, and she said, ‘It means you bared your soul.’ I was like, ‘Right,’” she says in agreement, adding earnestly, “I’d never felt that before.”
When asked whether all the nudity makes her feel objectified, Mendes doesn’t flinch. “I know I walk a fine line between being a respected actor and being what they call a sex symbol,” she says. “It’s a hard one to walk if you want to be known as a real, credible actor. But I’ve never felt objectified. Nothing you see me do is an accident. I might act like it’s an accident, but the opposite is true. I’m incredibly calculated when it comes to my career.”