Slowly, Derbez's stateside career gained momentum. He played a migrant worker in "Under the Same Moon," a store owner in "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and a gardener in Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill."

At the same time, likely unbeknown to most of his English-speaking followers, he was starring in "La Familia P. Luche," a dysfunctional-family TV comedy that is one of the most popular programs in Mexico.

After his mother died in 2002, Derbez took stock of his life and realized he'd grown bored. He resolved to take some new risks, including studying English so that he could land jobs in Hollywood.

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A key to the new movie's comic appeal, and its ample pathos, is the rapport between Derbez and Peralta, who turned 8 while the film was being shot. Derbez says the role originally was written for a boy. But after a casting search failed to turn up a blond, blue-eyed boy or girl who spoke perfect English and Spanish, Derbez in desperation started posting the role's job description on his Twitter account.

That yielded Peralta, a Mexico City resident who picked up English during summer camping trips to the U.S. and whose screen presence evokes a less self-conscious Dakota Fanning. The chemistry clicked immediately, says Derbez. "We were like, really, a father and a daughter."

Initially, Derbez didn't want to get behind the camera, because he thought it would be tempting disaster to direct and act simultaneously. But when he tried out other potential directors, he says, they wanted to change too many things in the script.

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Eventually he realized he had to direct it himself, whatever the risks. Those included a scene in which his character leaps from a 13-story balcony into a swimming pool, and another sequence in which he's attired as a clown.

"Imagine me like a clown and saying, 'Do this! Do that! Blah, blah, blah!' You can't have authority when you are dressed as a clown."

On the contrary: The clown prince of Mexican comedy is becoming an authoritative figure in Hollywood.