While most actors might avoid a divisive topic like immigration as if it were a carb-laden dish of pasta, the gregarious Eva Longoria revels in expressing her opinion. The native Texan rattles off facts and figures about migrant workers and education among Latinos like a seasoned pro, demonstrating a passion that’s clearly informed her latest film role.
In Michael Berry’s directorial debut, Frontera, the 39-year-old actress-activist-entrepreneur plays Paulina, a poor Mexican farmer who attempts to sneak across the Tex-Mex border in search of her husband. The usually glamorous Longoria — a fashionista and perennial Maxim pinup girl in real life — spends most of the film sweating it out in the desert, dust forming creases around her eyes, dirt caking her tangled hair.
“The adding of sunspots from working in the fields, the dirt under my nails. It was adding on to deglamorize” Longoria in her transformation from pampered to impoverished. The Magnolia Pictures film, out Friday, costars Ed Harris as a retired border guard and Michael Pena as Longoria’s husband. “I dyed my hair black. I gained a little weight. I spoke Spanish — I’ve never spoken Spanish in a movie. I was unrecognizable, and I loved that,” she said.
The woman best known as Wisteria Lane’s narcissistic ex-runway model Gabrielle Solis brings her plain-spoken character Paulina’s aspirations and fears to life in touching and sometimes brutal, hard-to-watch scenes.
Longoria actively pursued this role because it was “different than most other border films.” Rather than vilifying one side or the other, she says, it illuminates the humanity and fallibility on both sides of the fence. “We’re not trying to solve the immigration debate with this movie,” she says. “We’re just trying to tell a love story, and what people will do for love. That it happens to be set on the border is what makes it topical and eye-opening.”
Director Berry was astonished when Longoria’s camp approached him. “I'll be honest,” he says. “I never even considered her for the part. But I got a phone call saying she was interested, and I was like ‘Eva Longoria?' She does that Housewives show and goosey glamour stuff. That sounds like a terrible idea.
“But she told me of her passion for the Mexican culture and how fortunate she’d be to be part of this project. Once we were doing this, and especially when we started cutting it, I was like ‘Oh, my God, she’s pulling it off.’ ”
It’s one of many feats Longoria has pulled off in a decade-plus career that goes well beyond acting into politics, business and philanthropy. Her resume now includes executive producing the Lifetime series Devious Maids; promoting her own fragrance, Eva; writing a cookbook; and producing two documentaries about migrant farmworkers. Her latest, Food Chains, hits theaters in late September.
As for her tabloid appeal? She divorced French-born San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker in 2011 after four years together and is now dating Mexican media mogul Jose Antonio Baston, so yes, she still makes TMZ and the Daily Mail happy.
But it’s the more serious achievements of Longoria’s, such as her recently earned master’s degree in Chicano studies from Cal State Northridge, that elicit the most surprise. How do you pose for a Maxim “Woman of the Year” spread one minute, then appear before Congress arguing for stricter labor laws the next?
“Why is it so hard for some people to reconcile beauty or sexiness with smart?” she asks, clearly irked by the question. “There’s so many women in the world who are complex, complicated people. I’m not saying I’m one of them, I’m just saying people tend to view through one lens. You’re the sexpot. You’re the smart girl. You’re the comedy actor.”
Longoria is willing to walk that line between making fans and losing them, be it in impossibly high designer stilettos or off-brand sneakers coated in border dust.
“There are issues bigger than your career,” she says. “It’s a slippery slope when you think of everything as your audience or your ratings. And I care about farmworkers. I didn’t grow up as one, but I eat food. We are one of the most well-fed nations in the world, and the people who feed us go to bed hungry. I think my fans are people who, like me, understand that.”