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Why Last Night is a new morning for Eva Mendes

Eva Mendes has been typecast for her looks but in her most recent films, the actress strips away the glamour to focus on her talent. Kaleem Aftab meets her

When Eva Mendes asks which of the four main protagonists in her new film, Last Night, I most associate myself with, it feels like a trick question. None of the leads in this relationship drama are particularly attractive or stoic when it comes to affairs of the heart.

In Massy Tadjedin's cautionary tale on the morality of relationships, a married couple, Joanna and Michael Reed, played by Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, have hit a cul-de-sac after four years living a seemingly perfect New York life. They have an amazing apartment and great jobs but, crucially, they have become bored of each other. When Michael goes away on a business trip, both partners are tempted by the chance to have a one-night stand: Michael by his attractive work colleague Laura, played by Mendes, and Joanna by an ex-boyfriend played by Guillaume Canet, who she bumps into on the street.

It's not exactly a great hand, choosing between cheating husband, cad, temptress or frustrated wife. When I say "Canet" as the best of a bad bunch, Mendes replies, "Oh, a bad boy." Before I have a chance to protest, she flashes her diamond smile, chuffed with having put the inquisitor on the spot.

The actress puts forward a more diplomatic response when the tables are turned, saying: "I immediately connected to all of the characters and to all their situations. I think most movie-goers will connect to a little bit of each of the characters because we have all kind of been in somewhat similar situations. I'm confident that we have all been in these situations or know someone who has and so can relate to all these situations, especially if you are of a certain age."

As for the part Mendes plays, Laura, it's an intriguing depiction of the "other woman" that veers away from cliché. Her intelligence rather than her looks are her strong point, and Laura is played more as the girl next door than a vixen. It was this that the 37-year-old states was her major input into Laura.

"My only trepidation with my character was that on paper she read as a seductress," the Miami-born star of Cuban heritage reveals. "So when I got together with the writer-director we spoke about how to approach that character, and that it would be very boring and one note for me to simply play her as the other woman. She completely agreed and we stripped this character down and we did some different things, such as I don't have any make-up on in a couple of scenes in the film."

The actress has herself been in a relationship with the film-maker George Augusto since 2002, and despite being with him for almost a decade has no plans to marry her beau. Indeed, she doesn't believe in marriage, which given how Last Night depicts matrimony, seems perfectly sane.

Mendes seems especially proud about playing Laura, mostly because she is not playing a role that makes her look like she's stepped straight from a catwalk on to a movie set. Although it has to be said that Mendes simply not putting on make-up is a bit like having a Ferrari race against a Skoda and stipulating that the supercar can only use first gear. At the end of the day, it's still a Ferrari.

The actress looks a good decade younger than 37. Unsurprisingly, she is the face of cosmetics company Revlon and was recently given a role as the spokeswoman for Thierry Mugler's Angel fragrance. Mendes started her career as a model, and her entry into acting came via appearances as the eye candy in music videos: Will Smith's "Miami", "Se a vida é (That's the way life Is)" from the Pet Shop Boys and Aerosmith's "Hole in My Soul". After appearing in a TV movie, her first big break came playing opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day.

In her recent choices, the female star seems to be getting ready for the time when she won't be able to play parts that rely on her looks. Recently, she says she has turned down bigger paydays to concentrate on playing more character-driven roles. Up to now her beauty has been a major factor in the characters that she has played, whether it is in comedies such as Hitch, or thrillers such as Training Day. Indeed, in The Other Guys the joke is that her husband doesn't recognise how "hot" his wife is.

She wanted to avoid this sort of typecasting when playing Laura in Last Night. "In the opening scene I might have a little powder on my face and that was it," she says. Seeing me look bemused at the details of her beauty regime, she explains. "That may not sound like a big deal, but these are things that really help create a sexuality in my characters. My hair, which as you can see today is naturally really big, we straightened it, tucked it behind and took away all the sex."

She admits that the lack of make-up in no way made her feel unsexy. It seems almost strange to hear an actress admit that she is good-looking. But Mendes seems cut from a different cloth: she even spoofed her sultry reputation by making a "sex tape" for the web channel Funny or Die. In the skit, the actress turns the tables on those scouring the internet for sexy images of her, jesting that she is now putting on sale her own sex tape, which turns out to be a tape of the adhesive kind. It's a joke not entirely without basis as Mendes already sells her own line of bed linen and recently revealed that she will soon start selling plates.

The actress seems happiest when talking about her clothes and looks. She chats freely about the decision to wear a slip rather than a swimming costume in a pivotal swimming-pool scene. It's no wonder that cosmetics firms want to endorse her, given how easily such chat slips off her tongue.

The decision to seek smaller roles seems conscious and tied in with the fact that in 2008, the actress checked into Utah's Cirque Lodge, famous for being where Lindsay Lohan was treated for abuse problems.

Her publicist said at the time, "Eva has been working hard for the past year and made a positive decision to take some much-needed time off to proactively attend to some personal issues that while not critical, she felt deserved some outside professional support. Out of respect for Eva's privacy, we do not wish to discuss further details."

The stint seems to have worked wonders. The actress has made her best choices on roles in the past couple of years, playing a prostitute in Werner Herzog's reinterpretation of Bad Lieutenant. In the Will Ferrell comedy The Other Guys, Mendes plays Dr Sheila Gamble, a parody of the cliché of the "perfect woman": great-looking, intelligent and a homemaker.

If there is a common theme in her recent choices, it is that all of her characters appear to be in fractured relationships. When I posit that this may be because directors are increasingly concentrating on failed romances, she retorts, "There have always been break-up movies, I don't think there has been more lately. My favourites are Crimes and Misdemeanours and Interiors, I don't know why it is all Woody Allen at the moment!"

She has also stepped behind the camera to make a short film titled California Romanza, starring Christina Ricci. So we'll soon be able to compare her with the New York director.

One of the most interesting projects that Mendes has on her to-do list is a biopic: "Julian Fellowes wrote a script for me based on the relationship between Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, and as Julian Fellowes wrote it for me I couldn't say no to it."

The script is titled Greek Fire, based on the book by Nicholas Gage, which the actress has said she has become obsessed with. She will play the celebrated soprano in a part that will surprisingly need no singing as it concentrates instead on how Callas gave up performing for love. Typically, it's another role for Mendes that concentrates on the costs rather than the benefits of being in a relationship.

They are still looking for a director to attach to the project and so in the meantime, Mendes has signed on to another, smaller project with a female director. She is currently shooting See If I Care, directed by Patricia Riggen, which co-stars Patricia Arquette and Matthew Modine and is the tale of a 13-year-old coming of age.

On screen at least, it's safe to say that Mendes has also come of age.

'Last Night' is out on 3 June