“You won’t like me,” Teresa Mendoza cautions viewers right at the beginning of Queen of the South, USA Network’s adaptation of the hugely popular Spanish-language telenovela La Reina del Sur (itself based on the best-selling novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, which is also what the USA series primarily draws from). But as Teresa starts to take us back and tell the story of how she rose from poor circumstances in Mexico to become a powerful drug lord in America, we actually do like her to some degree, in the same way that many viewers grew to root for a character like Walter White in Breaking Bad. It’s the appeal of that antihero archetype that has become in vogue on TV in recent years, but is typically seen through the lens of a male character. In Teresa, we get one of television’s rare female antiheroes, and the complexity of such a character was appealing to Brazilian actress Alice Braga, who plays her.
“It’s a very interesting character,” Braga told us. “She’s someone very controversial in the sense that she becomes a drug lord, especially since we don’t see many women in that position. … I love that she doesn’t victimize herself. There’s something that I always thought when I was playing her, which is that heroes are not victims. She doesn’t victimize herself or feel sorry for herself, and I think that’s why she becomes who she became.”
In addition to seeing who Teresa becomes in the beginning of the series, we — and Teresa — also see glimpses of her future “queen” self via an interesting technique that the series uses. Young Teresa, still on the run and struggling, sees in her mind, particularly during very stressful moments, her more mature self, who is urging her on to the success that awaits. This required Braga to play a few different stages of the character in a time-spanning story.
“I tried to understand how I would [go] from one to the other,” Braga explained, “and [I was] playing with different body language because it’s a completely different outfit, completely different posture and a completely different person. Because one is still a little bit naive, still more fragile and still a young woman just trying to survive, and the other one is a strong, powerful woman. I’m still learning how to figure out both of them, but it’s a nice challenge. … It was interesting to do something that we haven’t worked on the journey yet. The writers decided to change the story from the book, so there are some details from the book, but mainly they changed the story. I based myself 100 percent on the character that is from the book.”
Braga also took a little inspiration from the few real-life “queens” among drug cartels.
“I look at some [real women],” she said. “There is a film, Cocaine Cowboys. There is this Colombian woman that is a crazy woman, actually, It’s a very interesting documentary. I kind of looked there, but it’s a different soul from Teresa, so I just looked as research. There are not many [women cartel leaders]. You see all these cartel leaders, they’re male-dominant. There’s a few women, but it’s definitely a male world.”
Aside from having a woman as its lead, Queen of the South also plays with other traditional notions of Mexican drug cartels, especially as imagined in the minds of many American moviegoers who are used to things like Scarface (which is referenced humorously in the pilot). Teresa, when speaking to the audience, jokes about how Americans want to see slow-motion bullets and over-the-top deaths in their cartel dramas. And we get a little bit of that bone thrown to us early on before the brutally real drama kicks in.
“I think they tried to show the cartels in a different way,” Braga said, “especially because the story goes through a point of view of Mexicans. Even though we’re speaking English — which was a decision made by them because it’s for the U.S. — but I think it’s a different point of view from that. Definitely, we want to bring a lot of action. They want to bring excitement to the journey. I always try to bring discussions to the table and debate about not glamorizing violence at any point or putting this world as an amazing world to be involved. Especially because I come from Brazil, so definitely some scenes look like an action film because they created the story in a very nice way.”
Given the amount of action, Braga says she was prepared for all the running and multiple takes that may be involved. And she had fun doing it.
“For the action sequence, it was fun because I love doing it. It feels like Disneyland because I never do that at home, like running from an exploding car. I try to eat well and focus on warming up, saving my ankles so I wouldn’t hurt myself but it’s inevitable to do something. I kind of sprained my ankle once, and it’s normal. Once you’re a physical character, you have to give your soul and body to it.”
Queen of the South premieres June 23 on USA Network, and airs Thursdays at 10pm ET.
Check out an exclusive clip from the Queen of the South pilot: