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Isabela Moner talks new 'Sicario' movie, children's rights and playing 'Dora the explorer'

The young actress and activist plays the daughter of a drug kingpin caught in Mexico's escalating vortex of violence.
Isabela Moner, Sicario:Day of the Soldado.
Isabela Moner plays the role of Isabela Reyes in 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado.'Columbia Pictures

She's only 16, but Isabela Moner has already had a successful career in Hollywood. From the Nickelodeon TV movie ‘Legends of the Hidden Temple,’ to a voice over performance in ‘Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature,’ Moner made the jump to the big screen playing Izabella in ‘Transformers: The Last Knight.’ This year, she stars opposite Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin in ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado,’ which opens in theaters June 29th. The sequel to 2015’s Sicario, it centers around the war on drugs on the United States and Mexico border.

Moner plays the role of Isabela Reyes, a rich high school student who happens to be the daughter of a drug lord. When Alejandro (Del Toro’s character) kidnaps Isabela, tensions rise in an already hostile environment.

“Isabela goes through so many things. I think there is a lot of power in her. She is so young and already involved in this violent sicario and drug cartel world,” said Moner.

Luckily, her own life and trajectory has been so different from her role as a teen in Sicario. The daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, Moner said she's an example of how dreams can come true. "I am a girl from Cleveland, Ohio, that never thought she would be in Hollywood!”

The movie, which Moner describes as an intense, "stimulating thriller," touches on the drug cartels' violence and killings and the grim toll it takes on so many families — something not quite so apparent to the cartel owners' families. "It’s important for my character to see Mexico for what it was, her environment outside her mansion and security guards," Moner said. "I think if you want to have your eyes opened, and understand how these people [drug cartel families] live their lives, then you should watch this movie."

It's very common for the "narco" families, including the children, not to be aware of what's going on; "they only know that the income is steady," said Moner.

Most of her scenes in the movie are with Academy-award winning Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, whose character's family was killed by the drug cartel. Working with an experienced actor like him, she said, made everything much easier.

Image: Isabela Moner and director Stefano Sollima on the set of the movie 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado.'
Isabela Moner and director Stefano Sollima on the set of the movie 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado.'Columbia Pictures

Del Toro is very funny on set, said Moner. “He does have this serious persona —everyone thinks he's a very intense guy. At times he can be, because he looks very intense, but he is actually very sweet and light-hearted.” She also found a way to his heart — the acclaimed actor loves churros.

Del Toro gave her a lot of “consejos” (advice) and shared deep conversations with her during filming.

“There were a lot of moments where there weren’t any lines being said, and I feel like those were the hardest, and those parts, we really had to dissect. But, honestly, him and I, we had a great time, and I think it shows on camera,” said Moner.

The multi-talented actress, singer, dancer and ukulele player is a passionate advocate for children’s rights, especially the right to a quality education and a safe childhood, as she outlined during a speech at the U.N. World Children's Day.

Moner said she sees it as a privilege to be able to use her visibility for a good cause.

“I have been working with UNICEF Peru a lot. I am aiming to educate children, mostly because once adults reach adulthood, your views are shaped," she said. "With children, you can really teach them, you can open their eyes to what is really going on. The only way we can open their eyes and free them is by educating them. A lot of my charity work is focused on that.”

As for upcoming projects, Moner will be starring in the live-action feature Dora the Explorer, based on the Nickelodeon animated series. “I am very excited to bring Dora to life...Dora was an amazing role model, especially for me, as a Latina; plus it’s filmed in Australia, that cannot be a bad thing.”