Last January, the Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez traveled to Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival with his wife, the actor and singer Alessandra Rosaldo, and his little daughter Aitana Isabella.
It wasn’t the first time he’d attended the annual two-week affair. The first time, in 2007, Derbez was part of the cast of the mainly Spanish-language film “La Misma Luna” (Under the Same Moon), directed by the U.S.-based Mexican Patricia Riggen, in which Derbez shared credits with Kate del Castillo. It was his first encounter with a dramatic role for Derbez, who’s widely regarded in Latin America as one of the top comic talents of his generation.
The second time Derbez visited Sundance was in 2021 for his work in “CODA” as Bernardo Villalobos, the music teacher of a young Massachusetts woman in a family of deaf mutes who heard, spoke and dreamed of becoming a singer. The AppleTV production won the Grand Jury Prize in Drama at Sundance, in addition to the awards for Best Direction in a Drama, the Audience Award for American Motion Picture Drama, and the Award for Best Cast. “CODA” went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Siân Heder and Best Supporting Actor for Kotsur.
His latest film “Radical,” directed by Christopher Zalla, in which Derbez stars as an inspirational elementary school teacher in a violent Mexican border state, brought the actor to Sundance for the the third time. His presence was marked by great expectations, since in addition to being the protagonist of the film he also is one of its producers, alongside his partner in the production company “3Pas Studios,” Benjamin Odell, and the writer Joshua Davis. The big-hearted movie surprised nearly everyone by winning the “Festival Favorite Award,” one in a string of tributes that includes the Audience Award at the Hola México Film Festival in Los Angeles.
“The film never ceases to surprise me,” Derbez told the Los Angeles Times en Español in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “And I tell you this because you never know what is going to happen with a movie. I’ve made movies that I think are going to be wonderfully good and suddenly you say ‘Mmm.’ It is so difficult to make a film because you don’t know where in the process you can go the other way and it is no longer what you expected.”
“‘Radical’ was a film that was designed to be a small film, more of a festival film, and suddenly it gained impressive strength.”
— Eugenio Derbez/ Actor y productor
But with “Radical,” Derbez said, the opposite has happened.
“Radical was a film that was designed to be a small film, a film more like a festival, and suddenly it took on an impressive force and seeing how people leave each screening, they leave touched, they leave thinking, crying , inspired, hopeful, many leave angry, but wanting to help, it is a cocktail of emotions that continues to surprise me,” Derbez added.
Despite his vast popularity in Mexico, switching his acting career to this side of the border hasn’t been easy for Derbez, who in 2016 received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His stateside breakthrough occurred with the 2013 release of “Instructions Not Included,” a low-budget, bilingual comic drama that Derbez co-wrote, directed and starred in, about an Acapulco playboy struggling with first-time fatherhood. “Instructions Not Included” set a record for a Spanish-language movie in North America by grossing $44.5 million, one of the highest totals ever for a foreign film.
“I believe that I am someone who has a lot of determination to get there,” Derbez said, “but from 2007 when I made ‘La Misma Luna’, which was my first serious work, to this moment, there was a moment in 2011 when I said ‘No more, I’m going to give up on the American dream,’ and I gave up on the American dream because I thought it was never going to happen. I said, ‘I’m tired of breaking into something that will never happen,’ and I abandoned it. But then with ‘Instructions Not Included’ I came back.”
Today, Derbez is experiencing countless satisfactions with “Radical,” whose fact-based story is set in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a Mexican border town where negligence, corruption and violence by drug cartels reign.
Precariously located in the middle of this bleak reality is the José Urbina López primary school, known as “the school of punishment,” where Sergio Juárez Correa, a newly arrived teacher, surprises his colleagues by testing a radical method to awaken the curiosity and potential of his students, while demonstrating the genius of one of them, Paloma Noyola, played by Jennifer Trejo.
On his first day of classes, the teacher puts textbooks aside in favor of interacting with his students and challenging them in unorthodox ways to think for themselves. His approach adopts a method of “minimally invasive education,” pioneered by Sugata Mitra, a computer scientist and retired professor of educational theory at Newcastle University in England, that allows students to draw on their own curiosity and self-learning to solve problems.
Sergio Juárez Correa learned about this method through a video that he saw on YouTube and after analyzing it he decided to put it into practice. Although he didn’t know if his methods would work, he was able to obtain his school director’s support.
In the film, director Zalla shows how the teacher, despite knowing the multiple deficiencies to which his students are subjected — such as the lack of computers and their hardscrabble surroundings — persuades his students that they have one essential asset: potential.
The movie’s plot was inspired by a 2013 Wired magazine article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses,” which details the method that the real Sergio Juárez put into practice. A decade later, things at the José Urbina López school have not changed much. Sergio Juaréz is still teaching there, but the electricity is still intermittent, there are still no computers because they continue to be stolen from the “computer lab,” Internet service is limited, and many of the students arrive at school hungry because their families are very poor.
Many may wonder why conditions at the school remain so dismal, including Derbez himself.
“I am going to give you the saddest answer you have ever heard,” Derbez replied when asked. New computers keep getting stolen. When the school gives iPads to each individual student, the kids’ parents often sell them to buy food and pay their rent.
It’s a problem for many schools not only in Mexico and Latin America but around the world, where millions of children don’t have the opportunity to study at all, Derbez said.
”There are so many countries that have a precarious education, but one of the things that the director wanted to reflect with these scenes are stories that they told us as children, like that boy in the Mexican national team shirt who had to take care of his grandmother and did not even have the possibility of going to school,” the actor said.
“Many leave school in the middle of the year; this child didn’t even have the chance to go. And in the film it is seen that when he no longer has to take care of grandma, he appears at school considering that, ‘Now, I can be part of this.’ A very strong scene without dialogue that touches your heart very strongly.”
In 2012, Derbez was watching the news on television while eating dinner at home, when he saw a report on Paloma Noyola Bueno, the brilliant 12-year-old girl from Matamoros whom some had christened “the next Steve Jobs.”
“I wanted to know more because they didn’t say much, they just made the note,” added the Mexican actor.
Years later, the journalist Joshua Davis, who wrote the Wired article, crossed paths with Derbez.
“He came to offer us the rights in case we wanted to make the film of her story. And what I loved was discovering that not only was Paloma the protagonist, but that there was a teacher behind her who had taken her there and to a whole group of students,” Derbez said.
For Odell, Derbez’s partner with 3Pas Studios, buying the rights was an excellent idea and the opportunity to bring an extraordinary story to the screen. Odell and Derbez have known each other for two decades, and Odell knew that this was the type of story that his partner would be passionate about telling.
“We bought the rights to the article nine years ago, and little by little we built it and waited for the moment to release it, and here we are,” Odell said.
The moment for making “Radical” also was ripe because “CODA” had raised Derbez’s international profile in a dramatic role. Odell remembers telling Derbez 20 years ago that, “You are capable of doing anything, but they only let you do comedy.”
“But what I finally saw in this film was what I always felt about him, and I am very proud of everything he has achieved,” Odell said.
Derbez also saw his character in “Radical” as an opportunity to counter the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Latinos and Latin Americans.
“And that’s why I said ‘I have to tell this story,’ because when I came to this country to work, I realized that they always gave me the same roles, that of a drug trafficker, that of a criminal, that of a bad guy, a villain,” the actor said. “Whenever they were looking for a villainous antagonist, it had to be Latino. And I said, ‘It’s time to change that narrative for something positive. We Latinos are much more than that and that is why I decided that, within my possibilities, I was going to try to tell stories that talk about good Mexicans.”
The real-life Paloma Noyola grew up living with her family in the middle of a garbage dump, where her father worked as a pepenador, a garbage collector. But her extraordinary intelligence earned her the maximum score of 921, number one in the entire nation, in the Enlace test, Mexico’s version of the SAT.
“Jennifer Trejo, who plays Paloma, was very excited to have met the real Paloma to ask her what she was like at her school,” Derbez said, “because Jennifer is very outgoing and talkative, but not Paloma, she was very introverted. At school she hardly spoke, she didn’t like to socialize, she was a very hermit girl, an introverted girl who was immersed in her world, who was even a victim of bullying, because she was the daughter of a pepenador and lived in the garbage and she constantly arrived smelling like garbage, and they bothered her for that.”
Like two of the film’s other student characters, Danilo Guardiola, who plays Nico, and Mía Solís, who plays Lupita, Trejo had no prior acting training. Their performances grew out of the direction and guidance they received from Zalla and their interactions and improvisations with Derbez.
One of those scenes involves a classroom exchange between Derbez and Guardiola, in which the teacher advises the student on how to overcome his shyness toward Paloma, and the boy responds with a plot-twisting revelation. The scene, which may have seemed like a simple set-up that could be achieved with a few takes, ended up lasting almost 15 hours.
For Guardiola, that scene was a little strange, but yielded great emotions.
“At first we were sticking to the script and suddenly Eugenio tells me, ‘I’m going to increase the intensity a little bit, play along with me,’” Guardiola said. “And suddenly he escalated and escalated the intensity and when I realized he was crying, I couldn’t believe it. And at the end of the scene everyone approached me.”
Guardiola joined the cast of “Radical” in a very curious way. His father worked for a casting agency and was in charge of putting up the posters and signs in the streets that announced ‘Children are wanted for a casting.” One day, after returning home from work and seeing his son playing video games, the father told him, “Stop wasting time there, come with me.”
He took Guardiola to the casting office, where the director watched the boy audition, liked his style and recruited him.
“One of the things the director wanted was not to have actors, but rather that they were fresh children, who were not corrupted, and that helped a lot to the naturalness of the film,” Derbez said.
Trejo, Guardiola and Solís all intend to pursue film careers.
“We have learned too many things and also the quality time that the three of us have spent has been very fun,” Trejo said, adding that the sense of believing in ourselves, “sometimes it is something very cliché, but it really helps us to use it to go very far.”
Working with these children was a very emotional and powerful bonding experience for Derbez, right up until the final scene in which the students take the Enlace exam.
“That last scene for me was very hard and very emotional because it was precisely the children’s final scene,” he said. “That, if I’m not mistaken, was the last day or penultimate day but it was my last scene with the children, because the children were going to leave from there and we weren’t going to see each other for a while. So after having been seeing them daily and becoming a practicing family, having connected very well with them and when they knew that that was going to be the last scene they started to cry. We had to wait for them to calm down so we could film that scene, because they knew it would be the last time we would possibly see each other.”
Although some Angelenos had the opportunity to see the film at the Hola México Film Festival and the Newport Beach Festival this year, its premiere last week at the Regency Bruin Theater in Los Angeles drew hundreds of additional viewers.
Among the guests at the premiere was filmmaker Patricia Riggen, who cast Derbez in “La Misma Luna.”
“I never will tire of thanking Patricia,” Derbez said. “Patricia, who was not so contaminated by my career because she lives in the United States, was the one who offered me this role in the film and from there I began to do dramatic film roles in the United States.”
Labor union leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who also attended the premiere as a guest, said the film touched on the important issue of educating children to be tomorrow’s adults.
“When we have education, ignorance is eliminated and when ignorance is eliminated, hatred is also eliminated against what women and immigrants suffer,” she said. “Education, we could say, is salvation.”
For Derbez, this year’s releases don’t end with “Radical.” He recently announced the fourth season of his family’s reality TV show “De Viaje Con Los Derbez”
“You can already see it on ViX in the United States and on Amazon Prime in the rest of the world,” the actor said, a smile on his face.