Interview: Carlo Mendez on his first lead role in the thriller Demise; “The challenge was making my character likeable.”

At the core of Demise, Yara Estrada Lowe‘s debut feature film, is a messy love triangle that allows the erotic thriller to lean into the campy, oft-unhinged sensibilities the genre can so continually give way to.

Subtlety is disregarded and melodrama is heightened, making for one helluva wild time.

At the core of the film is Caleb (Carlo Mendez, brother to Eva Mendes, for those playing at home), a supremely handsome Latino landscaper embroiled in a passionate love affair with Fiona (Crystal Hernandez), a rising fashion designer.  Their energetic love making opens the film, and all would appear well in their union if it wasn’t for the mention of Celine (Liz Fenning), Caleb’s wife, who he appears equally devoted to.

A husband cheating on his wife and the woman knowingly “the other” isn’t the easiest dynamic to navigate sympathetically, but Mendez and Hernandez manage to do so across the film.  Wisely, they never paint either as a victim, and Caleb never tries to reverse blame his situation on Celine when she inevitably finds out.

It’s through Celine’s discovery that Demise truly opens itself up to an unbridled temperament that audiences will either surrender to or not.  Her actions only help paint Caleb and Fiona in a better light, and whatever lunacy you expect Lowe’s script to entertain, it doubles in exaggeration with absolute glee.

From hereon there’s a variety of twists and turns that continually elevate Demise‘s campy unpredictability, culminating in reveal-after-reveal that speaks to a soapy, operatic personality Lowe clearly indulges in.

To celebrate the film’s release on VOD in the United States, Peter Gray spoke with lead actor Carlo Mendez about the pressure he felt in his first leading role, the challenges he faced in making his character likeable, and what he envisions for his future in the industry.

Demise certainly went in directions I wasn’t expecting.  When you first read a script like this, what’s your first reaction when you realise no character is safe? So to speak…

Yeah, that’s a very good way to put it (because) anything can happen.  You know, that’s the thing I liked.  That it was very unpredictable.  Lots of twists and turns.  When you watch a movie or read a script, you want some unpredictability.  I feel like a lot of movies nowadays you can kind of predict what’s going to happen.  So, what I liked about (Demise) was that I didn’t see (a lot of it) coming.

Speaking of challenges, your character, even though he’s doing something wrong, I like that there’s never a gaslighting approach to his situation.  He owns his shit.  How difficult is it for you to make someone like Caleb likeable?  He’s essentially “the villain”, at least initially.  Obviously the more things pan out, we barrack for him, but how do you go about injecting enough empathy for us as an audience to stay with him?

That’s a great question.  That was a challenge.  But it’s the way the director (Yara Estrada Lowe) wrote it.  That was one of the first things, when I booked the role, that I spoke about.  I wanted to make this character likeable.  I don’t want to make him, like you said, a gaslighter.  “Oh, you’re lying.  You’re crazy.”  None of that.  I didn’t want it to be just another love triangle or just another jerk of a man.  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s cheating on his wife.  So, the challenge was making him likeable, and she wrote it like that.  It was easier for me to come across like that.  (Caleb) really stands up to it.  He says he’s sorry.  He knows he made a mistake.

Yara having an acting background herself, do you find that made it easier to work with her as a director?

Yes.  100%.  Some of my favourite directors to work with are the ones who are actors or have studied acting.  It’s not that directors who aren’t actors don’t know how to get you there, but there’s an extra step with a director that’s an actor.  They know how to talk to you.  And Yara being a woman, there’s always that softness to the work.  She’s the first female director I’ve worked with, and it was amazing.  She came in and set the mood for the day.  She was awesome.  So there was immediate engagement for me.  And her being an actress meant she understood me and could put herself in my shoes.

I’ve been randomly rewatching Parks and Recreation recently, and you have a role in one of the earlier seasons of the show.  I was thinking, was there ever a particular genre for you that you were aiming to be in? A movie or a show that you were specifically striving for?

You know, in the beginning, I think, there’s no right and there’s no wrong.  I think being an actor who’s starting out, like me, to do comedy or drama, I want to do everything, because you’re learning what you’re good at.  I love doing comedy.  Comedy is one of my favourite things.  To make someone laugh or smile.

But I also think it’s important to not limit yourself.  Once you start working more you find that niche and you can hone in on what you really want (to do).  I want to do everything.  I look at Brendan Fraser or Harrison Ford, or Ryan Gosling, all these actors that can do drama, action, straight-up comedy.  They can go from A to Z.  I want to be an actor that people can see me as being comedic and goofy, but then can say “He’s very dramatic” or “He’s the big action guy.”  It’s fun to explore.

Being the lead in Demise, did you feel any pressure in setting a tone? Or just merely pressure on yourself in that you’re leading a movie?

That’s another great question.  I’m one of the leads, but yes there was some pressure because it’s the first time I placed a lot of internal pressure on myself.  I thought I have to be good and interesting, but without overdoing it or trying too much.

Some actors will make the mistake of trying too much in the beginning, but I had faith, and Yara had faith, and the producers had faith that everything’s going to turn out fine.  I just had to do my homework and really embody this character.  But there was pressure that I gave myself that nobody else have me.

It was just myself saying “You gotta be good.  You gotta be interesting.  But don’t overdo it.”  I feel I came across as happy on set, and I was excited, so hopefully it came across that way.

Going forward for yourself, is directing or producing something you see yourself doing, in addition to your continued acting?  Is encompassing more in the industry something you’ve thought of?

I think my main goal right now is I’m a specific stage of my career and I’m (still) becoming a working actor.  I think you just gradually gravitate towards producing.  I look at Mark Wahlberg or Brad Pitt, and they’re producing more movies than they’re in, you know? I think that’s just something that naturally happens.  Taking control and producing the ideas I have is something I’d love to do.  I would love to produce.  I think there’s a lot of pressure with directing and writing, so I think I would be more into producing.  But my main goal right now is just strictly act, act, act.

Looking at what drives you in this industry, is there a film that you saw that stands out as the one that drove you towards acting?

Since doing press for this, it’s funny what’s coming back to me as I think about films.  There’s this movie called Tuff Turf with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr., and it was the first movie I saw in the theatres.  And then I remember seeing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and that made me want to be an actor.  I remember thinking how amazing it was and that’s what I wanted to do.  And Harrison Ford is one of my favourite actors.

But I didn’t pursue acting for another, almost thirty years since I was a kid, but it was something that I knew I wanted to do.  And there’s nothing else that I remotely enjoy.

Talking about acting and starting later in life.  I saw an interview with Alan Ritchson where he mentioned that someone told him, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you haven’t made it by a certain age, don’t even try.”  Did you find any difficulty in starting later? Obviously this is an industry where you have to have a thick skin and determination.  Do you think you benefitted from being a bit older and wiser? Or did it make it harder?

I saw that interview, yeah.  Something that the casting directors were saying about you’ll never make it as an actor if you haven’t made it by the age of 35.  But that’s the beautiful thing about this industry is that there are no rules or limitations.  One of my dreams, which I didn’t fulfil, was to join the military.  But guess what? There is an age cap there.  You can’t be in the military after 35.  That’s a law, or whatever you want to say, that they’ve implemented.  I’m 45.  But there’s no such thing like that with acting.

Yes, certain people might tell you, “You’re too old for this”, but you keep going.  You keep knocking on doors.  You just have to build up a tough, tough skin.  And you don’t take no for an answer.  There isn’t an actor in history that hasn’t struggled.  That didn’t go years without acting work.  I don’t care who it is.  Whether it was Brad Pitt, or Tom Cruise, or Ben Affleck…they’ve all struggled.  They’ve all gotten to a point where they might be about to give up, but then, BOOM! A door opens and they get that next audition.  And that’s the audition that can launch you.

There’s no age limit.  There’s no limit when it comes to that one person believing in you enough to give you a job.  You just got to keep going, no matter what.

And I guess the good thing about being an actor is you can just make a military movie.  You get to do both.

(Laughs) Exactly, without getting hurt.

I watch so many movies in this line of work, so anything that truly surprises me is always a good thing, and, as I mentioned, Demise was unpredictable.  It’s wild.  It’s fun to see a movie having the balls to just throw everything at the wall and have fun with its premise.

Yeah, there’s no rules to it.  And that’s what I want people to understand with this.  Just enjoy it.  We shot this in 17 days as a smaller, independent film.  We just want people to enjoy it.  Have fun with it and forget about all the problems in their life.  Enjoy a movie for what it is.

I remember when I first saw it at the screening in the theatre, I was crunching my girlfriend’s hand because, well, it’s hard watching yourself, but there’s just so much unpredictability in the film.  And I love the reacting of hearing the audience gasp at certain things.  It was beautiful to hear.  That’s the reaction I want.

Demise is now available in the United States On Demand via Roku, Apple TV+, Vudu, Prime Video and Google Play.  An Australian release is yet to be determined.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.