TV’s deadliest new drug kingpin is a petite young woman as ruthless as Walter White and as charismatically conniving as Pablo Escobar.
Meet Teresa Mendoza, the drug lord (lady?) at the heart of USA’s addictive new narco-drama Queen of the South. As played by Brazilian actress Alice Braga, Mendoza is a deceptively cunning survivor, a doe-eyed orphan who rises through the ranks of a Mexican cartel to become the most powerful figure in the world’s most dangerous business.
But like all cocaine-fueled fairy tales, Teresa’s rags-to-riches story comes to a violent end, just like it did for Escobar, for White, and for the modern-day crime lord with bizarre real-life ties to the fictional Teresa: El Chapo, the infamous Mexican cartel leader.
Queen of the South, based on a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (which itself was loosely based on real-life drug trafficker, Marllory Chacón), was previously adapted for TV in Telemundo’s La Reina del Sur. Mexican-born actress Kate del Castillo played Teresa in the 2011 series but her ties to the drug world eventually transcended the screen. She became texting buddies with El Chapo and introduced him to Sean Penn, who made him the subject of a fawning Rolling Stone cover story.
Executive producer David Friendly has distanced Queen of the South from the dubious, surreal ties of its telenovela predecessor—“it really had nothing to do with our show,” he’s said—and Braga, the 33-year-old Brazilian actress bringing the role to American audiences, swears no association as well. (Though she graciously calls Del Castillo a “wonderful actress” whom she’d “love” to meet one day.)
Instead, Braga stresses how deliberately she, Friendly, and the show’s writers have gone about toeing the line between entertaining U.S. audiences and glamorizing Mexico’s very real, ongoing epidemic of drug cartel violence.
“It’s a massive issue that we have in Mexico now. It’s very sad and upsetting and it’s been like this for years,” she says. “A hundred percent that is something that I always try to connect with the writers. [It can] either be honest to what we see nowadays and become a statement or a revelation, almost like a document of what we’ve seen, or [we can] freely create a journey for this character where this drug world is just in the background. But we never glamorize it.”
In the show’s pilot, we first meet Teresa at the height of her power, in a sleek white suit ascending the stairs of her decadent mansion. Glamorously, and daintily, she takes a sniff of her own cocaine—then suddenly is hit by gunfire which sends her crashing to the floor, bleeding and seemingly lifeless. (Not so glamorous anymore, true to Braga’s promise.)
As we slide back in time to find out how Teresa’s life brought her to that fatal afternoon, her story takes on a new, unexpected dimension. Unlike the kingpins of other prestige dramas, Teresa doesn’t rise to power through greed or an unquenchable ego. She’s forced into the drug trade by necessity. She stays in it in order to survive.
Teresa is born poor, loses her family early on, then falls for a drug runner named Guero, a kind and genuinely loving man and her best bet for a life out of poverty. At least, until he starts stealing from his boss.
Just like real-life cartel lords, Guero’s boss punishes not only him, but also everyone he loves. Soon, Teresa is running for her life and, to her own surprise, proving incredibly resourceful at it. She kills a man who rapes her, holds others at gunpoint, steals money, and successfully fights to stay alive.
Teresa is an anti-hero, a now well-worn trope on TV—but she’s also a victim, in a way that sets her apart from any we’ve seen before. Braga says that conflicting dynamic within Teresa between killer and casualty is what fascinated her.
“[Teresa is] an anti-hero, but also a hero,” says Braga. “She’s hero of her own life because she never victimizes herself. If she did, she would die before she even made it to the U.S.”
“Her whole life has been very hard,” she continues. “She was sexually abused, she never had a family, so she always had to take care of herself. Those are things that make her the hero. But then she becomes a drug lord, which is not exactly a good thing to be.”
Braga is exuberant in conversation, openly thrilled about landing her first starring TV role in the U.S. She made her feature film debut at 19 in Fernando Meirelles’s earth-scorching City of God, which became a “life-changing” gateway on the road to Hollywood. In time, she began co-starring in blockbusters like I Am Legend and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, along with quieter roles in dramas like David Mamet’s Redbelt and the Jack Kerouac adaptation On the Road.
Now, she’s the lead in a summer USA drama, an accomplishment she credits in part to one “pioneer” in particular: her famous aunt Sonia Braga.
“She’s a very important actress for Brazilian cinema and even in the U.S. as a Latin actress,” says (the younger) Braga. “There weren’t many opportunities for Latin actors. Then she did The Kiss of the Spider Woman and got in touch with a bunch of filmmakers here. Getting the chance to kind of follow her path, it’s a big honor.”
Though Braga only just settled down permanently in Los Angeles after several years of traveling back and forth between film shoots and Brazil (she speaks Portuguese, though she’s also fluent in Spanish thanks to a year spent shooting in Mexico), she’s well aware of the diversity crisis in American media.
While the Academy slowly comes around to the notion of inclusivity, television has evolved more rapidly. Shows like Queen of the South, which employs almost all people of color in its cast, are bringing much-needed opportunities for nonwhite and foreign actors to bring their gifts to the States.
Braga says being a part of that movement—hers is one of still only a few shows headlined by a Latina actress—has been gratifying.
“It’s wonderful for all of us to see ourselves on the screen,” she says. “It’s so necessary for [Latino actors] to have the chance to do it. Things are changing because we’re such a massive part of the country and I think the more the better. It’s beautiful to honor this audience.”