Eugenio Derbez is scared. Very scared. You can see it in his eyes. You can hear it in the edge of nervous excitement that creeps into his voice as he slides into a seat at the Urth Caffé in downtown Los Angeles.
"I didn't expect this," he says. "I'm overwhelmed. And I'm excited, but at the same time I'm scared. Very scared."
In truth, he sounds more ecstatic than apprehensive, and with good reason. He has just arrived from an interview with Larry King. In a few hours he'll be flying to New York to be a guest on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show, on which he'll talk about his film "Instructions Not Included." The low-budget, bilingual comic drama, about a boyishly charming Acapulco playboy struggling with first-time fatherhood, that Derbez co-wrote, directed and stars in has surprised the industry, grossing $20 million in two weeks.
Suddenly, Derbez, 52 — who's so popular in his native Mexico that his wedding last year was broadcast on national television, but whose name would elicit puzzled stares from most Americans — seems to be on the verge of the stateside success he's been panting after for a dozen years.
He's even contemplating the once-unthinkable: uprooting his new bride, the singer Alessandra Rosaldo, and moving to L.A. so he can brush up his English and continue his long-planned conquest of the U.S. market.
"Instructions Not Included" is more than a personal triumph. It's shaping up as a commercial breakthrough for Pantelion Films, a 3-year-old joint venture of Lions Gate Entertainment and Grupo Televisa, the broadcast company that dominates Mexican television, and a cultural harbinger.
Entertainment companies, media outlets and advertising agencies have increasingly devoted resources to capturing a share of the growing Spanish-dominant and bilingual audience, but the objective has proved elusive. Several of Pantelion's previous releases, including "Girl in Progress" with Eva Mendes, "No Eres Tú, Soy Yo" (It's Not You, It's Me) — which also starred Derbez — and the Will Ferrell Spanish-language comedy "Casa de Mi Padre," underwhelmed at the box office.
With "Instructions," the company appears to have hit on a successful combination, both on screen and in its marketing strategy. Part of that strategy involved giving Derbez full creative rein, a Pantelion executive says.
"It's been his baby for years," says Paul Presburger, Pantelion's chief executive. From his years of working in film and television on both sides of the border, Derbez "knows what his audience is looking for."
Presburger says that Pantelion mounted a bilingual advertising campaign for the movie, both on Univision, the giant U.S. Spanish-language TV network, and with billboard, radio and print advertising in English and Spanish.
"The Latino audience is living in the Spanish-language world, on Univision," Presburger says, "but they're also watching everything else that the general market is watching." So far in the United States, the movie has been attracting a largely Spanish-dominant audience, Presburger says. "The reality is that the general market is fearful of subtitles."
But as the movie is released on more screens — it nearly doubled its number last weekend, to 717 nationwide, and will have more this weekend — it is reaching a larger general-market audience, Presburger says. The movie is scheduled to open later this month in Mexico on at least 1,000 screens, a virtually unheard-of figure in that country for a non-Hollywood blockbuster.
The movie adheres to a time-tested comic premise: After years of blissful, promiscuous hedonism as a Mexican beach bum, Valentín (Derbez) is forced to settle down and move to Los Angeles when one of his conquests, a free-spirited blond American named Julie (Jessica Lindsey), turns up at his front door and leaves him with his baby daughter, Maggie (Loreto Peralta).
"The film is slightly based on my life," Derbez concedes. "I was afraid of commitment. I was afraid of fatherhood. And it's ironic, but after my whole life being afraid of commitment, when finally we got the budget to shoot the movie, I faced my fears and I decided to get married."
Derbez has maintained at least one lifelong commitment: acting. His mother, Silvia Derbez, was a Mexican soap opera star, and her son started performing on television at age 12. "She was the queen of the soap operas in Mexico, so I grew up on the sets with my mom. Since I was like 5 years old I was in love with the set, with show business."
He started out landing roles in telenovelas and in a children's TV program. Later he graduated to Mexican comedy series, feature films and also did theater, which would lead to a career turning point in 2005 when he was cast in the stereotype-busting Broadway show "Latinologues," his first time acting in English.
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.
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.
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.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun