In the ecstatically reviewed Sundance coming-of-age drama Coda, Eugenio Derbez plays a small but crucial supporting role. His Mr. Villalobos is the high-school music teacher who identifies and nurtures the singing talents of the film’s hero, Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a deaf family who finds herself torn between her obligations to them and her dreams of singing professionally. Derbez’s character is plucky but gruff, possessed of an irrepressible joie de vivre but zero tolerance for bullshit. It matters most to him that Ruby learn to perform Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” with utmost seriousness.
Directed by second-time feature filmmaker Sian Heder, Coda is a small movie by almost every measure: an intimately observed $10 million remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, whose protagonist is played by relative unknown Emilia Jones and whose biggest star is Marlee Matlin, the deaf author and activist who won the Best Actress Academy Award for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. Which makes Derbez’s measured performance in the film all the more surprising. The Mexican actor-writer-director-producer, 59, is a certifiable superstar, having achieved a level of personal popularity, television ubiquity, and reliably boffo box-office appeal in Mexico on a par with Kevin Hart’s in the U.S.
The Derbez en Cuando and La Familia P. Luche star first crossed over to U.S. screens with Instructions Not Included, the 2013 dramedy Derbez co-wrote and directed and starred in, which took in over $100 million globally to become the top-grossing Spanish-language film of its era. In recent years, he has built upon that cross-border renown, starring in the 2016 Lionsgate comedy How to Be a Latin Lover (opposite Salma Hayek) and an Overboard remake (as a foil to Anna Faris), both of which delivered respectable multiples of their production budgets.
But to prepare for Coda (which arrives on Apple TV+ on August 13), Derbez put his myriad projects on hold and worked for three months with the instructor who taught Ryan Gosling to play piano for La La Land, intuitively seizing on Coda’s potential to bring him to a discerning new Stateside audience. Over Zoom, Derbez discussed the odd experience of watching his breakout Sundance film — which won the Grand Jury Prize, the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and the Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award and sparked a bidding war that ended in a festival-record price tag of $25 million — languish unseen for three-quarters of a year because of coronavirus-related release delays.
You’re so successful in Mexico. You have your pick of TV and film projects. But here you are in this little film. How did the script cross your desk, and why did you decide to say yes to it when the role isn’t nearly as big as your last couple of Hollywood projects?
I knew about this project three years before. I had a deal with Lionsgate, and they had this project there. I heard about it, and some executives told me about it and I read it and I loved it. But I thought it was probably too dramatic for the type of movies I usually do. So I decided not to do it.
Was the script more straight-ahead drama than what we see on the screen?
It was more dramatic, but I saw that it had potential to have some comedy. The last movie I directed, called Instructions Not Included, was probably more drama than comedy, so that’s why they offered me this one, because they said, “Probably you can find more comedy and make it another kind of Instructions Not Included thing.” But at the end, I didn’t. I passed. But I was always regretting it. I was doubting always if I did the right thing. Then when it finally came back to me by accident, I immediately said yes.
You worked with the teacher who taught Ryan Gosling to play piano for La La Land?
Yeah, I took piano lessons with her for three months, and I had to learn three — no, four — songs. Then also I had to learn how to teach singing lessons. I was learning the scales, Da da da da da da da da, learning how to breathe, learning how to teach. It was really hard. For me, doing a movie like this one, especially a dramatic role, is really, really difficult. I really invested all my time. I stopped everything I was doing, and I just focused on learning the piano, the lines, trying to find the character.
I felt it was very interesting to make this character that looked mean, but at the same time, you end up loving them because they care. That was my intention — to make a music teacher that was mean because he was not playing around.
Coda premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which was where you debuted two films in 2007: La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon) and Sangre de Mi Sangre.
It was crazy. It was insane. I was born and raised in Mexico City; I did my entire career in Mexico City. I feel bad saying this, but I was very successful. I had my own TV show. Imagine, I don’t know, Adam Sandler or Jimmy Fallon, all of this victory, and one day saying, “I quit. I’m going to China. I’m going to shut down my career in the U.S. I’m going to start all over again in China, and I’m going to be acting in Chinese and Mandarin.” So that’s what I did all of a sudden. I was really successful. I was at the top of my career, and everyone was like, “What are you doing? I mean, you have everything in Mexico. You are the king in Mexico. Your shows are the highest ratings. Why are you going to another country to start all over again?” But it was really interesting to me to take this leap of faith and this challenge.
How did blowing up at Sundance change your career choices going forward?
When I was doing my television shows and I was at the top of my career, nobody wanted to hire me to do movies in Mexico. Every time I was trying to be part of a production, they were like, “You know, we can’t hire you because this is a drama. People would laugh the minute they see you.” So they didn’t want to give me an opportunity. But all of a sudden, in 2007, I did a play on Broadway. I was trying to start to cross over in the U.S. I did a TV movie, and Patricia Riggen, the director of Under the Same Moon, and Ben Odell, they saw me. They loved what I was doing there. And they didn’t know my background. They didn’t know I was a comedian!
For some reason, both movies ended up at Sundance. And then Sangre de Mi Sangre won the Jury Award. After that, my entire life changed. In Mexico, they started giving me opportunities.
At what point did you decide, I’m going to move to the United States? What was your strategy?
After 2007, when both movies succeeded at Sundance, I started going to the U.S. and mixing my career between Mexico and the U.S. I was shooting my shows all in a row, so I went half-and-half [from] 2007 to 2011. I got an opportunity with Adam Sandler with Jack and Jill. In my role in that movie, I ended up marrying Adam Sandler. Well, the female version of Adam Sandler. But [Jack and Jill] didn’t go well, so I thought that was my big opportunity. Nothing happened. Then I did a show on television with Rob Schneider called Rob on CBS that aired just after The Big Bang Theory. I thought, “Now, this. Finally, I’m going to make it.” And nothing happened.
After Rob in 2012, I said, “Okay, no more. I quit. I did already television. I did movies with Adam Sandler. I entered Sundance Film Festival with movies. I quit. This is not going to happen. I tried. I’m happy, but I’m going back to Mexico to do my TV shows. The movie that I wrote, that I wanted to direct, I’m going to go back and do it. I’m going to quit the American dream.” And in January 2012, I quit.
I go back to Mexico. I shoot my movie Instructions Not Included, and a year and a half later, it became the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever worldwide. My life changed again. The agents called me, and they were like, “It’s now or never.” That was the point where I really shut down my office, my production. I quit the company I was working for. I said bye-bye to everything in Mexico and started a new life in the U.S. in 2014. And here I am.
How to Be a Latin Lover and Overboard were both made for pretty small budgets, and they did well compared to how much money was spent. But they weren’t quite the smash success of Instructions Not Included. So what is it like to go from having been such an enormous star in Mexico to having to pay your dues?
It’s the price when you are trying to conquer a new market, a new audience. Now, I would like to go and do more movies like Coda, honestly. But I have this struggle all the time with the studio because of course they want me to do commercial movies, funny movies. I want a little more of drama, movies with more story depth, meaningful stories. So I’m trying to find this balance. I think I’m getting there.
How has your enormous audience from Mexico factored into what you’re doing in this country?
Let me tell you what happened: All these people that were watching my shows in Latin America, when they moved to the U.S. as immigrants, they told me, “I remember I watched you when I was in my country.” Also nowadays, and for the last 20 years, my shows have been rerun on Univision. So all the Latinos, not just Mexicans, that live in the U.S. and watch Univision watch my shows every week. I didn’t know that I had an already big audience in the U.S. There are millions and millions.
You have a production company called 3Pas.
3Pas in Spanish means “guts.” When you make a decision, it’s with your guts. That’s why our logo is intestines.
Right now we are producing an Apple TV+ show in English. Well, it’s 70 percent English and 30 percent Spanish. It’s going to be released in October, I think — Acapulco. Right now, I’m in Mexico City doing two seasons of LOL. It’s a franchise that Amazon is doing all around the world. We also shot a film called The Valet that we’re producing with Hulu in the United States. The other Apple show is with the Tannenbaums, the producers of Two and a Half Men. We have another project with the Tannenbaums, too, and with Netflix, called Loteria.
Have you watched Money Heist from Spain or Lupin from France? We’re happy because, back two, three years ago, English was the language that was ruling. But nowadays with all these platforms, you can do a series in French or in Spanish or in whatever language, and it can travel around the world if it’s a good series.
To bring it back to Coda, you got such nice reviews out of the festival. What has it been like for you to get such a strong reaction and then have to wait this long for the movie to come out?
It’s been weird, really weird. When we learned about what happened at Sundance, we were really happy, and everyone was asking me, “When are they going to release?” I was like, “I don’t know but probably in February, March.” Then in March, “Well, probably April, June, somewhere around here.” It’s been hard to wait, but at the same time, I suppose they’re aiming for the awards season.
Any concern about showing American audiences a new side of you in front of the camera?
I’m really excited. I’m also nervous, honestly. People, especially my audiences, are going to watch me in a different way. So I’m glad they’re waiting. Yeah, there’s expectation, a lot of expectation. I’m happy!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.