Not a lot of people come out of The Place Beyond The Pines talking about Eva Mendes, but that's their mistake. As Romina, the mother of a baby boy fathered by Ryan Gosling's stunt cyclist Luke, Mendes resonates through all three stories in Derek Cianfrance's ambitious generational drama.
Arriving at a Toronto Film Festival round table the day after the film's premiere, Mendes - looking far more glamorous and confident than she does in character - was only too happy to talk about getting the role, aging believably on camera... and that time she ate ice cream off a baby.
You play a key character in The Place Beyond The Pines: Romina appears in all three of the film's sections and sort of serves as its moral centre. Did you bear that in mind while you were shooting?
I just concentrated on being the mother. You know, feeling that pain that comes from feeling partially responsible for creating your son's fate, and where I was with that. But we never talked about me being the through-line.
You're also playing the character across 15 years, and you let yourself look - well, "haggard" is the word I'd use.
[lighting up] Yes! I love you! I love you. I love that you asked this question, because that was the whole thing. Aging in a film can be quite obvious if you do it wrong, and 15 years isn't that long a time - it's not like you're going from her late 20s to, you know, 60. It's late 20s to early 40s. There's stuff that changes, of course, but you don't wanna go too far, and to be quite honest, this is a small-budget film, [so] I had, like, five days to do my turnaround. No matter how much pizza and burgers I ate in that time, I wasn't gonna change much [laughing].
What did you do?
I made a choice to be very skinny for the beginning of the film. I don't know if you could tell, but I was a lot skinnier than I usually am, because I wanted her to feel very tired and depleted. So anyhow, the way we took that into the future, I wore absolutely no makeup, and in addition to doing that, I created lines here [indicating her eyes] and lines here [indicating forehead], and with a pencil every morning we would break up my skin to create broken capillaries. All these little tricks - I actually shaved my eyebrows three-quarters of the way down. I just thought it looked really severe. Like, "What if she's so anxious, she's so manic, that she just over-plucks?" That, combined with some other physical stuff that I did. I had fun with my wardrobe undergarments. I just tried to create from the inside out.
You don't get that opportunity often, to totally transform.
It was so great to go that far in a film, because the truth is I'm an actress. I mean, I still go to acting class and this is what I live for: to work with people like this, the Derek Cianfrances of the world. Cuz a lot of times a director will hire you and they say they want you to go the full way but when they start seeing you, you know, not looking so great, they maybe get a little scared. The fact that Derek is so brave, that he was like, "Yes! Go all the way, go all the way!" - it was fantastic.
The Place Beyond The Pines has a tragic, epic American-family-drama vibe that made me think of James Gray's movies, and of course you made We Own The Night with him a few years ago. Are you actively chasing projects like this?
Yes. This has been something I've been doing for the last five years: I did the James Gray film, and then I went on to do a Werner Herzog film. You know, Werner Herzog, he's like every actor's dream to work with. And I take class with Larry Moss, we do a lot of stage work, and I also produced a little film called Live! a few years ago. Besides The Other Guys, which was a big, fun commercial hit that I was in, I've really been concentrating on smaller films and roles that are exciting to me, and that are flawed. And I've been all the happier for it.
Cianfrance said we should ask you about how you auditioned for the role. Can you talk about it?
It was a very interesting audition. Immediately after I saw Blue Valentine - I saw it on a little screener before all the Oscar hype - I thought, "Okay, I need to work with Derek Cianfrance." He was in New York, and we had a nice meeting; I basically told him, "I don't care if I'm an extra in your next film, but I need to work with you." And he was like, "Great, great, yeah." I don't think he told me about Pines. And then about six months later, the script came across my desk and they were like, "He'd like to meet with you." And I said, "Fantastic." And they said, "Well, he's meeting with a lot of girls, but he appreciates you meeting with him earlier, so he wants to meet with you."
So he was in Los Angeles and I went to the audition room and I look totally different - I'm already looking totally different. Basically, I was hanging out in the lobby and he passed by a couple times and didn't recognize me. I just went - I mean, I went kind of Jersey girl on him a little bit. Anyway, I see him and I said "Hey" - I had my sides, my audition papers, in my hands - and I said, "You know, I can do this with my eyes closed, it's not about the lines. But I wanna show you some stuff. Can you just hop in my car?"
Then I took him around where I grew up in Los Angeles. I showed him what school I went to. We took this beautiful drive, and it was so sweet, and we talked about the character and I showed him another side of me that he didn't know existed. Why would he? It was a very personal side. He had to meet financiers for dinner or something, so I got him back in time, and he said, "Thank you so much - you know I still need to read some actresses." And I said, "You go read those actresses, I dare you to. I challenge you." But I just knew. I was like, "I've gotta play this character. I've gotta be a part of this film."
And that's what clinched it?
I think it was all of it together - I think it was driving, I think it was also the way I looked. I really looked like, uh ... I looked like shit, you know [laughter]? Most of the time when you show up for an audition, even if it says "non-glamorous look" you tend to put a little concealer on or something. No, no, no. And I don't know if you guys are familiar with it, but I bought that old-school hair gel - Dep? It's like $1? I just Depped it out [and wore] dark, dark, dark, dark liner - that was the only makeup. I just went for it, and he could see my dedication - and [then seeing] where I grew up, seeing that I could be this character because I am that character, in a way. I think it was all of it. It was so cool. When else could you do that?
The movie requires you to go to some really unpleasant places - there's that awful moment when Luke comes to see his son and Romina doesn't want him anywhere near the baby, and we understand just how badly things have spiralled out of control. What was it like to shoot that?
I don't like violent scenes, because I'm just not a violent person. I especially don't like any kind of violence in the home. It was really tough because the baby was around, and I became so protective over that little guy. I thought, "We know we're acting, but this baby doesn't know we're acting," so I'm screaming over and over again - you're screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming - and I just kept, you know, hugging that baby and trying to let him know that it's okay. And I have to point out that the beauty of that scene, really, is when Ryan picks up the baby and the baby immediately quiets down and starts to fall asleep on him. I mean, that's magical. And that happened a lot, too - that wasn't a one-take special, you know? To me, that's one of the most beautiful parts in the film, because babies don't act. So that was just phenomenal.
See, I thought that was deliberate, to show us Luke being a decent guy deep down. It's echoed in the way he gets his friend's dog to play fetch just seconds after being told she doesn't.
That's what's amazing about Derek: he provides all these opportunities for real, natural moments to happen. And he looks for them. This to me is a very brave way to shoot a film, because you don't have your shot list, knowing exactly what your full coverage of the scene is. But the beauty is that you have all that [other] stuff, like when the baby was on the motorcycle and started to cry. Another director would be like, "Oh, cut, let's try it again" because they're so fixed in their way that they didn't see the baby crying. I am eternally grateful to Derek for a lot of reasons, but for him to allow me to just explore and to allow me to make mistakes...
It makes things more organic.
I can't tell you how many times you're doing a scene and you're eating and your food falls and your director - a good director - says "cut." But that was a gift from the movie gods! "Great, guess what? My character's real! She's a real person!" Or, you know, you trip and they're like
"Cut!" Why? That's a beautiful moment that happened! So anyway, again, it's all about Derek and the way he runs his set.
So when the motorcycle makes the baby cry, it's not foreshadowing the bike representing danger because Luke uses it to rob banks?
No, no. We didn't even think that. That part was like a documentary, the camera was barely in our face. We took him inside, Ryan and I really took that baby, we really ordered the ice cream, we really paid for the ice cream, and then we sat down - and none of what happened was scripted. When the baby's eating and I take the ice cream from his mouth and eat it? I don't know what came over me. The maternal - whatever that thing is, I've never seen that before. Later on, [watching] the footage, I was like, "I what? I was eating off that baby's face? That's crazy! I love that!" I'd never even thought that was a thing before, and my mother was like, "Oh my god, yeah." I'm like, "Mom, did you do that?" She was like, "That and everything else. You just do anything for your baby." It was really sweet that those moments happened, because there was no structure to that. When you put him on the bike it was just, "Oh, I'll put him on the bike." You know, whatever. We had all these little things that we did.