ALICE BRAGA IN NEW YORK, MAY 2016. PHOTOS: ROBERT NETHERY. STYLING: MARINA MUÑOZ/LALALAND ARTISTS. HAIR: LAURA DE LEON/JOE MANAGEMENT USING ORIBE HAIR CARE. MAKEUP: LINDA GRADIN/ATELIER USING MAC COSMETICS.
Queen of the South begins at the end: Teresa Mendoza, America’s preeminent drug queenpin and the show’s protagonist, is shot through one of the floor-to-ceiling windows of her home. “I knew this day would come,” she says calmly in a voiceover. Based on the novel by Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, USA’s new drama tracks Teresa’s journey from Mexico to the U.S., and her evolution from a vulnerable young woman into a powerful criminal. Brazilian actor Alice Braga, who made her film debut at the age of 18 in the Oscar-nominated City of God, stars as Mendoza. Though the show is predominantly in English, Braga is also fluent in Spanish.
While most English speakers will recognize Braga for her work in Hollywood action films such as I Am Legend and Elysium, Braga’s roots remain firmly in Brazil. She owns a production company, Los Bragas, in São Paolo, the city in which she was raised. Many of her family members are in the film and television industry; her aunt and mother are both actors and her sister is a producer.
WAGNER MOURA: I did my homework on you. I used to be a journalist years before we met, so it reminded me of the time I was a journalist. I think we met in 2003, right?
ALICE BRAGA: Yes. It was 2003 because I was 20 years old, and I turned 21 with you guys on set.
MOURA: You were just a girl.
BRAGA: I was a baby.
MOURA: I remember clearly the first day I met you. You arrived replacing an actress, so you got there 10 or 15 days before we started shooting. You showed up and I don’t know how exactly—it was you and Lázaro [Ramos] and me—but we ended up going to the lowest level kind of bars in Cachoeira. Do you remember this?
BRAGA: [laughs] I do.
MOURA: We were drinking cachaça and dancing. When I talk about a low level bar in the countryside of Brazil, I don’t know if people have an accurate understanding of what that means.
BRAGA: It’s definitely very cheap…
MOURA: A very cheap place. So much fun.
BRAGA: I do remember that. We had cachaça and cognac one day, but I think it was on set.
MOURA: A lot of drinking involved. [laughs] We were working with another actress, and we were like, “What’s going to happen?” The director just decided he was going to replace the actress, and you arrived. When we went to all those bars, I remember thinking, “She’s so cool.” Lower City ended up being a very important film for you—for both of us, I guess, but especially for you, right?
BRAGA: Yes, definitely. And thank you for saying that you thought I was nice. [laughs]
MOURA: Yeah, I think you’re nice.
BRAGA: [both laugh] When I did City of God, I was 18, and it was during my July vacation. It’s winter for us, so we only have a month off. When I was in Rio filming, I saw you guys doing A Máquina—The Machine—the play by João Falcão. I saw you and Lázaro and Vladimir [Brichta] and Gustavo [Falcão], but you and Lázaro together. And I loved the play. For me, it changed my perspective on acting and theater. I was 18 and I was enchanted; it was so amazing to see this group of actors doing the same character in the environment and the direction that you guys had. I completely fell in love. Then I finished City of God and I went back to São Paolo and finished school and started attending university for performing arts. When I got the call to go to Cachoeira to meet you guys, I remember exactly when they told me who was going to be in the film. I remember the feeling of, “Oh my god, these are the guys that I just fell in love with, that just inspired me to decide, ‘Okay, lets do this.'” Suddenly I found myself with you guys in that room on top of a tobacco factory. [laughs]
MOURA: It was an intense preparation.
BRAGA: It was! It was so intense. Of course the character was a big challenge for me, but also the chemistry between the three of us, finding that and then learning from you guys and starting to really work on something so deep as Lower City. I learned from everyone; I learned from the acting coach that we had, I learned so much from you guys. City of God, for me, was life changing for many reasons: it was my first film and the film got recognized all over the world and I got my agent. But Lower City was the most important film for me as an actress because it gave me a perspective of what I love about it, and how amazing it is when you put your soul into it and give yourself 100 percent to what you are doing. I always tell this story to journalists, because they always ask, “What do you remember that was very important for you and your career?” I remember one scene with you—we are in the room and you come to me and ask me to stay with you, and I say to you, “I can’t. I can’t stay with you and I can’t stay with him. I cannot,” and you grab me and push me against the wall. You’re pushing me and I’m trying to argue. That moment, looking in your eyes and having our DP going on top of the bed to try and get it, and all the energy that we had, was one that changed my life. I remember your passion, I remember your eyes, and I remember how we were in that with the DP.
MOURA: Yeah, that was a very, very beautiful scene. I felt the same about it. Lower City is one of my favorite films that I’ve done. We ended up going to the Cannes Film Festival with that, which was cool as well. Remember when we were invited to walk on the red carpet of a film that I don’t remember the name of any more, for reasons that I will explain now? [Braga laughs] It was a film with Bill Murray or something. We were so elegant. I had a tuxedo and you were so beautiful and people were taking pictures of us, even if they didn’t have a clue of who the fuck we were. I was like, “Alice, they’re taking pictures of us. Check this out!” We walked the red carpet and when we got to the entrance of the theater, a guy—a guard or publicist—showed us our way out of the theater. We were cracking up, laughing so loud, like, “What’s going on?”
BRAGA: That was the first time we walked a red carpet—at least for me—that big.
MOURA: Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of Hollywood stars were there. Lower City, like City of God, was one of the big things at the film festival.
BRAGA: I love that story.
MOURA: So here we are now, in the cocaine business. That’s where we ended up. Let me ask you something concerning Queen of the South. First of all, I want to know how was it, because we haven’t talked about the fact that we’re both playing drug dealers at the same time.
BRAGA: And that we are bosses!
MOURA: Yeah, we are the bosses of the whole thing. Playing a character like that, how did you prepare yourself? What was the first thing you thought, “This is what I have to do now.”
BRAGA: It is based on a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, this wonderful Spanish writer. I read the book eight years ago. A really good friend of mine gave me the book, and she said, “You need to read this book because it’s a beautiful, strong story about this woman. Maybe she’s a nice character for you to play, but just read it.” The years went by and they did the telenovela version in Spanish, and I was happy that they made it, because I always thought it was such a beautiful character for a woman to play. When they called me, I couldn’t believe that eight years after I had read the book and loved the character, they came to me. It was very special. It was funny because Blindness, which is based on the book by José Saramago, was also a book that I loved, so when they invited me it was the same feeling. For Queen of the South, my main [reason] to sign up for it was the character and the book, because that was a journey I really wanted to play. So right after I got cast, I went straight to the book and made notes, getting all the little details about what people say about her, who she is, what type of woman she is in the world that she’s born, how she manages to survive—all that. Just trying to honor the book and have a better understanding of it. I have an acting coach that helps me. He works with me on preparing—running lines and having ideas and developing different ways of approaching characters.
MOURA: And you basically worked off the book. The book was your main source of material.
BRAGA: Yes. They decided afterwards to change the course of the story. They got the inspiration from the book—this character Teresa Mendoza that goes from being the girlfriend of a drug dealer to running for her life. She escapes from the Sinoloa Cartel in Mexico. In the book she goes to Spain, and in the series she goes to the U.S. Because the writers decided to change the journey of the character, I sat down with them and said, “The character that I want to play is the character that’s in the book. That’s my passion. So I’m going to base how she would respond to these new things that you guys are creating on little notes and details that Arturo Pérez-Reverte wrote.” I really went to the book all the time to get little details that I love about her, like she never victimizes herself, she’s someone that listens more than she speaks, that observes a lot and has a very beautiful inner strength. She could have died; anything could have happened throughout her whole life. She was sexually abused. She comes from very poor circumstances. Those little details of her life I tried to honor. Whatever they wrote, my main source of preparation was the book.
MOURA: So she’s Mexican, but it’s all spoken in English?
BRAGA: They decided to do the whole series in English for the American audience.
MOURA: Did you try a Mexican accent?
BRAGA: I wanted to. I speak Spanish with a Mexican accent in a few scenes. I wanted to change my accent to a more Mexican English accent, but they started to neutralize everyone rather than thickening their accents. They wanted it to be smooth for people to easily understand. That was a choice that they made and I just went along.
MOURA: Is it still difficult for you to work in another language that’s not Portuguese? I think now, you’ve worked more in English than in Portuguese.
BRAGA: It is still a challenge. I never thought about it, but I think that’s true—I’ve done more work in English than in Portuguese. Because I’m so close to my family and friends and I always speak Portuguese, my heart and mind goes to Portuguese. Once I was on set, after three or four months doing the series working hard every day and only speaking English, it became easier. You’re mindset is there and you’re dreaming in English and you’re focusing in that language. But it is hard; in a way you’re translating from one thing to the other. How is it for you?
MOURA: It’s a nightmare. English or Spanish, any time I do something that’s not Portuguese, my brain is putting in so much effort. It’s like part of your brain is there doing the character and connecting to the emotions of the character, and the other part of the brain is like, ‘Am I pronouncing this well? Is this correct?’
BRAGA: [laughs] I go through the same thing. If you want to improvise or just put your heart out there, it’s really hard to bring that intensity to it.
MOURA: My primal emotions get out of my mouth in Portuguese. But let me ask you, doing Queen of the South, has your perspective towards the drug trade changed? Do you think drugs should be legalized?
BRAGA: In the series, the main journey is about this character and not the cocaine. In the first season, we’re showing the journey to get there—the relationship of the character with cocaine is through her boyfriend and through this woman that hires her. The other day I was talking to a journalist and they asked me about Narcos, and what I think is brilliant is that Narcos is not only based on a true story, but it follows the path of cocaine. It follows the whole explosion of cocaine in the world, and it’s really telling the story of this product, this drug. Queen on the South is different because the focus is not on the drug; it’s on this character. But we have [to find] the balance of, “It is entertainment, but cocaine can’t be a fun part of it or something that we idealize related to action or fame or money.” It’s always the point I’m trying to discuss with the writers. If you look at what’s happening—especially in that I play a Mexican and we’re talking about the Mexican world—it’s beyond devastating. The situation with the cartels and what they’re doing to the community, to the cities, to the whole country, is heartbreaking. To glamorize that, it’s a totally wrong way to go.
MOURA: Like you said, Narcos is pretty much about the birth of the drug trade, and the more I understand about it, the more I’m sure that the “War on Drugs” is a big flop. I definitely think that drugs should be legalized, because, like you said, the people who are really dying in this war are people who live in the poor neighborhoods of the countries that export or produce drugs. I think addiction is a big deal, and it should be treated like a health problem, not a police problem. The war is killing more people than addiction. I always thought drugs should be legalized but now, by doing Narcos, I’m 100 percent sure about it.
BRAGA: Exactly, I agree. All over the world, all of the relations with drugs come from the violence of trying to stop it and trying to smuggle it. What is happening at the border of the United States and Mexico is heartbreaking.
MOURA: It’s brutal.
BRAGA: Have you seen this documentary Cartel Land?
MOURA: I saw it last week. How about that doctor [José Manuel Mireles] that created a militia? What a character.
BRAGA: It’s crazy. It’s a wonderful film because of that.
MOURA: It’s such a sad story. In our countries, South American countries, the drug trade brings violence to—
BRAGA: —the slums.
MOURA: At a level that is beyond comprehension. I think the best way to stop it is by having the government control the drugs. But I want to ask you a little bit about Brazil as well. How is your relationship with Brazil now? I know you love to be there and love to work there, but how do you balance working in the U.S. and working in Brazil? How do you see the Brazilian film industry now, and how do you think they see you? I mean, I can answer that last one for you.
BRAGA: [laughs] Can I ask you? Because I don’t know actually.
MOURA: They love you, and Brazilians have a very accurate of understanding who you are. They see you as a great actress, which you are, and a great human being, which you also are. They’re very proud of you and all the films that you are doing abroad. How do you see the industry in Brazil?
BRAGA: Well, thank you for everything you just said. I love you.
MOURA: It’s not my opinion. It’s Brazilians’. [laughs]
BRAGA: [laughs] Very warm people. I ended up having these doors open up for me when I was very young to work abroad, and that was wonderful. I started just throwing myself into it and through curiosity, through a desire to meet new people and challenge myself with different possibilities, I ended up working here a lot. But Brazil is where I come from; I’m 100 percent Brazilian in that I have my house in São Paolo and I truly believe in our cinema and the talent we have. I think we have a wonderful film industry.
MOURA: You have a production company in Brazil, right?
BRAGA: Yes! Exactly. I have a production company [Los Bragas] with Felipe Braga.
MOURA: Now my best my friend, thanks to you.
BRAGA: I take that credit! For those listening, I introduced you guys and now he’s writing your first feature. My other brother. But because I’ve been working [in the U.S.] a lot, a bunch of people assume that I won’t work in Brazil anymore. For the past few years, the past two years especially, I’ve been kind of struggling and talking to our agent in Brazil to help me out. She says, “You’re always traveling, so some people think they cannot get you.” I’m really trying to change that. In Brazil they say, “Oh, she’s an international actress,” and honestly I’m not international; I’m an actress who works abroad. I really want to have the chance to work with [the Brazilian] directors I admire and love. There are so many good directors doing amazing work there. I not only want to do it, I want to support it, even producing to support our industry. Brazil where I come from and where I want to go back to always, so I hope they give me more jobs.
MOURA: They will. Brazil is in such a horrible moment right now. But it will pass.
BRAGA: It will. The good thing is that we’re not quiet. That’s the most important thing.
MOURA: There are a lot of people that are denouncing what’s going on now, and it’s good for people to know that it’s a horrible rupture with democracy. But that’s such a sad subject—let’s change it. Let’s talk a little bit about Elysium. So suddenly we found ourselves living in the same building and working together in Vancouver.
BRAGA: What are the odds? [laughs]
MOURA: I have three very strong memories about that. Memory number one is the day I thought I was going to die and you literally rescued me in a hospital in Vancouver. Whenever I talk about you, my mum cries. You became a saint to her.
BRAGA: I adore her. I do remember that day very clearly. I remember it being a day off and just relaxing. I was going to have dinner with my manager who was in town and then you called me saying, “Hey, what are you doing?” “I’m just having drinks and dinner, would you like to join.” “No, it’s fine. I’m going to go to the hospital.” And then I met you and we went to the hospital. You had a horrible fever and no one could figure it out.
MOURA: I had pneumonia and I was about to die. It was the worst. You’re the one that took care of me.
BRAGA: Aw, but I love you. I was afraid because no one from production… [laughs]
MOURA: I hope they’re going to read this interview. I’m not going to say names, but I called production, it was 11:00 PM, and I was like, “I’m dying, can you please take me to the doctors?” They sent a driver to pick me up and the driver took me the hospital, but not inside the hospital. He opened the door and said, “Good luck.” It was snowing and I walked and I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to survive this walk to the hospital,” so I called you. You saved my life. You bought food for me. My mum loves you. I love you.
BRAGA: You’re my brother. You live in my heart. I had to do it. And we were living at the end of the world anyway with Elysium.
MOURA: The other strong memory that I have is the day we drove a long way to go to a beach outside Vancouver, and it rained for five days.
BRAGA: [laughs] And they were the only days that we had off.
MOURA: We had five days off and we were happy. We rented a car and I got to know you a little better because we spoke a lot.
BRAGA: I always talk a lot. But I do remember you trying to tell me a story and I kept interrupting you and you never finished the story. Do you remember that?
MOURA: It was a poem that I recorded with my band. I wanted to say the poem myself and you interrupted me, like, six times: “Do you want to hear this or not?” [laughs]
BRAGA: When we’re done with the interview, I need to hear the poem.
MOURA: It’s beautiful, but you’ll never know it because it’s too late. I’ll never say that poem for you. The third one is not a memory, because I really don’t remember what happened. We went out, we were supposed to have dinner, but instead of eating we had three bottles of wine and I don’t remember we got back to the building.
BRAGA: I took you there to eat the cheesecake.
MOURA: We didn’t eat anything!
BRAGA: [laughs] And the next day I went hiking.
MOURA: And I stayed like a snake in my room, “Ughhhhh.” Dying.
BRAGA: I only remember one flashback, we were arriving at the hotel and you realized you had lost your glasses, so we had to go all the way back but it was hard to walk. That’s what I remember about the night.
MOURA: The people in the restaurant, they were so mad at us. I don’t know what we did exactly, but they were not happy with us. Who are your favorite artists? Who are your idols that you would want to work with or that you would faint if you met at some point?
BRAGA: It’s ridiculous because every time someone asks me, “Who did you work with who changed you?” and you are the first one on my list because of Lower City. People that inspired in my in my journey, Diego Luna was special, because it was the first film I did abroad and he was such a strong actor in the sense of young, but with so much knowledge because he was an actor since he was a kid.
MOURA: I remember we had a lot of fun with Diego in Vancouver as well.
BRAGA: And remember that you didn’t speak Spanish. Every time I talk to someone and they love your Pablo [Escobar], I keep remembering, “He didn’t speak Spanish!” You kept imitating me and Diego in that Japanese restaurant.
MOURA: At some point Diego said, “Dude, just speak Portuguese, please. Don’t try and speak Spanish.” There was this film that you did. I’m not going to say which one, but you know. You have a very beautiful scene in the end, and you don’t say anything, you’re just walking. [Braga laughs] And I asked you, “What were you thinking when you did that scene?” And you said, “I was thinking about the things I have to take and where I’m going to spend my New Year’s Day.” I think about that answer every time I’m doing a scene and really not thinking about it and it makes me laugh out loud. You were like, “You know, the beach in Brazil. I can’t forget the sunblock.” So my final question is where are you going to spend your New Year’s Day?
BRAGA: I was thinking either Bahia or Costa Rica.
MOURA: Let’s go to Bahia.
QUEEN OF THE SOUTH AIRS THURSDAYS ON USA.