Eugenio Derbez Reflects on Career as He Prepares for Star on Walk of Fame

Eugenio Derbez
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Eighteen months ago, Eugenio Derbez walked away from his life in Mexico City and his career as one of his country’s most famous and successful comedy actors.

“My wife and I were crying as we closed up our house and headed to the airport with all our luggage,” he recalls. “And on the plane we kept thinking, ‘Have we made a terrible mistake? Are we doing the right thing?’ Because we just left everything behind, to come to the U.S. and pursue my dream of making it here.”

But on arrival at LAX, Derbez was immediately hit with a “huge sign” that their leap of faith was about to pay off. “We were deluged with all these calls that I was getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” he says. “And I remembered the first time I ever came to Hollywood as a kid and saw (the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and was in awe of it and all the famous names. So the timing of this move to L.A. was very meaningful for me. But I never thought I’d be part of the Walk of Fame.”

Derbez, the beloved star of such Mexican comedies and telenovelas as “La Familia P. Luche” and “Instructions Not Included,” had always had showbiz and acting in his DNA. His father was a publicist and his mother was Silvia Derbez, “a telenovela diva who starred in the first soap opera in all of Latin America,” he says. “When I was a kid growing up in Mexico City, she’d take me to all these movies — twice a day, and four a day at the weekends. It was our passion, and I always wanted to be an actor and a storyteller.”

Ironically, the star, whose comedy credits include 2011’s “Jack and Jill” opposite Adam Sandler and this year’s “Aztec Warrior,” always yearned to be a “serious, dramatic actor, just like my mom,” he says. “So I tried doing telenovelas for a long time, but nothing happened. My career just didn’t go anywhere.”

Then, at 27, he landed a recurring slot in the popular TV variety show “Anabel.” “It was like ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and it changed my life, as I discovered myself as a comedian,” he recalls. “Before that, I wasn’t aware that I was funny and could make people laugh, and I never imagined I’d end up as a comedian. It was a big surprise to me.

“Now, I think of myself as a comedian, as the most important part of my career’s been in comedy,” says Derbez. But he’s also managed to establish himself as a dramatic actor over the years, notably in Fox’s Mexican-American 2007 release “Under the Same Moon” (La Misma Luna) directed by Patricia Riggen. That film grossed a respectable $13 million in the U.S. “That was my first opportunity in movies to do drama, and it came about because I did this Broadway play, ‘Latinologues,’ and Patricia saw me in it,” he says. “But in Mexico they’d never, ever hire me for a dramatic role.”

Eugenio Derbez, right, on the set of Sony Pictures’ family drama “Miracles From Heaven,” directed by his “Under the Same Moon” helmer Patricia Riggen. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Seeing Derbez’s natural gift for comedy on display in a couple of comedic scenes in “Under the Same Moon,” a Fox executive suggested that he “try pursuing comedy,” he recalls, “so I knew I was still basically unknown in the U.S.”

And that was still the case when Sandler cast him in “Jack and Jill,” which he notes was “my first English-speaking role.” He adds, “At that time I was still doing all my stuff in Spanish for Univision, and when I met Adam at his office for the part, it turned out that he didn’t know who I was — but he’d asked his Mexican nanny and gardeners, ‘Who’s the funniest comedian in Mexico?’ and they told him it was me. And that’s how I got the role. It was nothing to do with my agents.”

As a “big thank you” to his fans and unofficial agents, Derbez later went to Sandler’s house to personally thank the nanny and gardeners, “as they did more for my career than all my agents.”

Such an unusual gesture from a big star is typical of Derbez’s “great attitude to life,” notes Ben Odell, the former Pantelion prexy who’s now his partner in running 3Pas Studios. “What you see is what you get. Every time we meet with a studio executive or agent they will inevitably ask me at some point after the meeting if he is really as nice as he seems, and the answer is yes. I see him every day in the office and his demeanor never changes. He brims with goodwill and positive energy. He’s a miracle to behold.

“Eugenio’s a four-quadrant star,” continues Odell. “He’s beloved by children and adults, men and women. In Mexico, his popularity also cuts across all classes, which is very unusual. Eugenio has that ‘it’ factor that is impossible to explain or pinpoint but that immediately ingratiates him with anyone he meets. And that same light shines through in any role he does. But it’s not just about charisma. He’s very thorough when he creates a character and he spends a lot of time rewriting and reshaping his roles, to bring out their maximum expression, whether it’s humor or drama.”

“I never imagined I’d end up as a comedian.”
Eugenio Derbez

Odell also notes, “In his comedy roles in Mexico, many of his most beloved roles on paper were totally unlikable, but he somehow brings a humanity and heart to them, that makes you root for even the most despicable characters. And like every major star in the world, Eugenio never waited around for someone to cast him in a movie. He has created many of his biggest successes himself, writing, directing, producing. He is truly one of the hardest-working guys in showbiz and has always understood that you don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you, you create them.”

In 2013, he co-wrote, starred in and directed “Instructions Not Included,” a Spanish-language comedy-drama that became a surprise $44 million hit in the U.S., and the third highest-grossing film ($46 million) of the year in Mexico (only “Despicable Me” and “Iron Man” sequels did better). “It’s because I’d worked in the Spanish-speaking market all my life and was so well-known,” he says of the film that has become the highest-grossing Spanish-language release in North America. “Every TV show I’d ever done was always in reruns on Univision and Gala here in the U.S., and the whole Latino audience knew me.” (The star’s U.S. following includes some 18 million Facebook and Twitter fans).

The film’s commercial success “opened a lot of doors,” he adds. “And it changed my life, as it gave me the courage and opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of moving to the U.S., and now I’ve also opened my own production company here.”

Derbez co-wrote, directed and starred in “Instructions Not Included” in 2013. It became a surprise hit in both Mexico and the U.S. Courtesy of Pantelion Films

As an actor, Derbez has several films in the pipeline. First up is the faith-based Columbia Pictures drama “Miracles From Heaven,” scheduled for a March 16 release, which re-teams him with director Riggen. “It’s based on a true story,” he says of the film that stars Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah. “I play the Mexican doctor who treated this little girl with a terrible disease, and who used comedy with his patients, which is why Patricia said I was perfect for the part.”

And he’s shot the Warner Bros. sci-fi thriller “Geostorm,” directed by “Independence Day” producer Dean Devlin and co-starring Gerard Butler, Ed Harris and Andy Garcia. It’s scheduled for a January 2017 release.

“The move here has started a whole new chapter for me,” he says. “I’m starting a new career, in a new country, in a new language, with a new audience. For me, the U.S. is still the land of opportunity.”

A huge film and TV star in his native Mexico, Eugenio Derbez sets his new goal: conquering Hollywood By Iain Blair.

Given that sunny outlook, it’s not surprising that Derbez has few complaints about Hollywood’s perceived lack of diversity. “I know there’s a lot of talk about that and the Oscars,” he adds, “but over the past few years my friends like (Alfonso) Cuaron and (Alejandro G.) Inarritu and (Emmanuel) Lubezki have won all the top Oscars.” Lubezki just won a third consecutive cinematography Oscar, and Inarritu won his second director statuette. “The truth is,” says Derbez, “the Mexicans are cleaning up at the awards shows.”

What: Eugenio Derbez receives star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 a.m. March 10
Where: 7013 Hollywood Blvd.
Web: walkoffame.com