EXCLUSIVE: After rising to stardom in Mexico, Luis Gerardo Méndez is transitioning to Hollywood with a determination to tell stories of his home country that go beyond the stereotypical images that play out in cartel films or reflect polarizing news coverage and political rhetoric involving immigration.
Méndez makes his English-language debut in the Jennifer Aniston-Adam Sandler comic whodunit Murder Mystery which Netflix releases Friday, this after starring in and exec producing for four seasons Netflix’s first-ever-Spanish-language original series Club de Cuervos, the streaming service’s first original production in Mexico. Méndez also plays a key role in Sony Pictures’ upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot coming this fall.
Now, Focus Features has set the first English-language project to be built around him. Half Brothers is a pic he has been developing with co-writers Eduardo Cisneros (Instructions Not Included), Jason Shuman (the upcoming Adam McKay LA Lakers pic Showtime for HBO) and director Luke Greenfield (Let’s Be Cops). It tells a universal story about the complex connection with a brother who is based in Mexico, meant to be a metaphor of the relationship between neighboring countries America and Mexico.
It will shoot this summer in New Mexico. Méndez will star with Connor Del Rio (Unfriended and Level Up), the latter playing the troubled American half-brother of a Mexican man (Méndez), who grew up worshiping his father in Mexico until the man was forced to go to America to find work, and never returned. His son is understandably embittered when he gets the call his father is dying, and he needs to fly to Chicago and go on a road trip engineered by his father, with the half brother he didn’t previously know he had. Kiska Higgs and Luane Gauer will be overseeing for Focus.
Méndez has starred steadily in films in Mexico ranging from the Netflix boxing drama Bayoneta, Tiempo Compartido and the 2013 Warner Bros comedy Nosotros Los Nobles, whose $26 million gross made it Mexico’s second most successful film of all time. His starred in 2014 in the biographical feature Cantinflas, which became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the U.S. that year. He alternated nights in the same role with Diego Luna in the Mexico City stage play Privacidad, which they both produced, and most recently he teamed with Thomas Middleditch in Verizon’s Spanish-speaking international ad campaign, is the face of Pepsi in Mexico and launched the new Toyota Prius campaign there earlier this year.
Now, Hollywood is the priority, with his chance the result of the industry noticing his work primarily on Netflix.
“This started four years ago, first time I came to Los Angeles for meetings with producers and directors and studios after they began seeing Club de Cuervos,” Méndez told Deadline. “All of them said they were aware of what I was doing in Mexico, that they wanted to do something with me. And then they all said, do you have some ideas you want to talk about?”
Méndez wasn’t used to this, as the custom for top actors in Mexico is to chase good scripts for the next job.
“I said, ‘No. I’m an actor.’ For the past 15 years, I had been busy all the time, doing other people’s stories. Playing other people’s visions and perspective. I quickly realize that everyone in Hollywood wanted to talk about Latinos, and Mexicans and Hispanics but no one had a clear idea how to do it or where to start.”
That led to the meeting with Cisneros, Shuman and Greenfield, who were already working on an idea involving estranged half brothers. “They said, tell us about your life and they were interested in a complex sibling relationship like they all are, and that turned into a four hour meeting, and then a week later they gave me a one page idea they had and we worked on the script two years and then had a meeting with Focus where Kiska and I discussed the importance of finding stories for us as Latinx, as Mexicans. It felt crazy to be working on a film for Focus, which made films that were such a huge influence in my life and who I became as an actor and an artist.”
The film’s evolution and his own escalating presence in Hollywood has Méndez hoping he can become a fulcrum for telling stories that reflect the diversity of who Mexicans are.
“This film is a metaphor of who we are, as Mexicans, and as Americans,” he said. “We have been told so many times, we are different, we need to be divided, you hear that so much that you start to believe it in a way. For me, being on and off in LA and Mexico the past four years, and the more Americans I know, meet and have an opportunity now to work with, the more I realize that we are the same. Exactly the same. That is one of the metaphors of this story. This was one of the main reasons to do this film. There is a lot of material in the movies about this other side of Mexico, and yes that is a part of Mexico and it would be stupid to deny that. But that’s maybe 2% of who we are as a country and it has been a shame, that nobody has been interested in telling the other stories, that reflect the majority of us. It’s a good moment to speak about those other things. We are also doctors, businessmen, writers, painters and composers.”
Méndez and other actors in Mexico have reveled in the success of directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzelez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron, and wants to be a constructive role model like they are.
“We are incredibly proud of them because they are showing who we are, and I want to be part of that,” he said. “We have diverse stories to tell and it’s important to tell them here, in Hollywood, at this moment of inclusion. Because in Mexico, we know who we are, and how complex we are. To me it’s important to tell the world.”
Méndez said he hadn’t truly realized the similarities until it was time for him to speak English on camera for the first time.
“I was shooting Murder Mystery with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler last summer, and that was my first big Hollywood English-language film, and I was so nervous,” he said. “I’d grown up watching Friends, and Adam’s films, and my comedy references come from there. That first day, when it was the first moment my character was going to speak, in front of all the actors and writers and producers…I said my first line in rehearsal, and everyone cracked up. And I was able to breathe. I thought, Okay, this works. The things I’ve been doing the past 15 years in Mexico, the craft, it’s exactly the same.”
The only difference? “Budgets,” he said. “We learn to do so much with so little in Mexico, we learn to be very creative and smart in how we shoot things and solve problems. And you see why those directors do magical things when they come to Hollywood and work with bigger budgets.”
Del Rio is repped by Artists First; Greenfield, who is attached to direct the action-thriller We Are Untouchable for Chernin Entertainment, is Verve and attorney Howard Abramson; Méndez is repped by Paradigm, GoodManagement, and Stone, Genow, Smelkinson.