MIAMI, Fla. — An irresistible aura of danger and sensuality drifts over Kate del Castillo. It’s not so much her dark stare and rasping voice, or her silent commanding manner, or the way she strides in stilettos across a room. It’s her history, her celebrity, her characters, and the way her fierce look suddenly breaks into an angelic smile.
Del Castillo, one of Mexico’s most famous and controversial actors, shot to stardom in 2011 with her breakthrough role of narco queen Teresa Mendoza in the international television hit “La Reina del Sur.” It was the highest-rated series in Telemundo network's history and its season finale was the most-watched show for its time slot, including English language networks.
Now, eight years later, Del Castillo is in Miami Beach to promote the long-awaited sequel, "La Reina del Sur Season 2," premiering on Telemundo on April 22. (Telemundo and NBC News are part of Comcast-NBCUniversal.)
With Teresa Mendoza, Del Castillo defied the traditional telenovela images of helpless, weepy women needing men at their side. She changed the old female stereotype into a 21st century charismatic badass, a magnetic solo act who has since inspired a half-dozen dramas, including Fernanda Castillo in “Enemigo Intimo” and Aracely Arambula in “La Doña.” There’s an adaptation called “Queen of the South” on the USA Network and a new Jennifer Lopez vehicle for HBO on the life of Griselda Blanco, the Miami-Medellin cocaine godmother assassinated in Medellin in 2012. (Blanco was turned into a seductive heroine in the 2014 Colombian telenovela “The Black Widow” and in the movie “Cocaine Godmother” with Catherine Zeta-Jones.)
“Now we want to see independent women, strong women, and someone who doesn’t need to have a guy next to her in order to be happy,” Del Castillo says laughing. “They all are Teresa Mendoza wannabes.”
Her first stop is at the Eden Roc, where Telemundo is showcasing trailers of its 2019 premium series at an exclusive soirée for advertising buyers, clients and industry professionals of the National Association of Television Program Executives.
“La Reina del Sur” Season 2 is the main event. When the trailer bursts on the massive screen with a giant close-up of Del Castillo, there are gasps of excitement. To the beat of a heart-pounding Miami Symphony Orchestra soundtrack, scenes of action heroes explode on the screen with multiple shots of Del Castillo running, shooting and fleeing across eight countries.
When it’s over, Del Castillo quietly climbs on stage. She’s wearing an elegant, grayish pantsuit with a low neckline and palazzo pants, a contrast to the dozens of clingy, sizzling gowns other stars are wearing. As she steps to the podium, no introduction is needed. The room breaks into a buzz of applause and murmurs. She is the star of the evening, and she knows it.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Teresa Mendoza, about ‘La Reina del Sur,’ how challenging it was for me for many reasons,” she says the next afternoon, when we meet in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in Bal Harbour where she is staying. She comes late, bouncing in a zip-up jumpsuit, her trimmed fingernails enameled black, her hair flowing loose around her oval face. Del Castillo, 46, looks thinner than on screen and younger.
The new season of “La Reina del Sur” was even harder for her than the first. She struggled to make her character likable again. “Teresa’s a very flawed character. She’s a drunk. She has sex with married men. She traffics drugs.”
“La Reina del Sur Season 2” — a co-production between Telemundo Global Studios and Netflix — is set eight years after Mendoza disappeared into the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program for bringing down a Mexican presidential candidate. Hers was now a life of anonymity as Maria Dantes, raising her daughter, Sofia, in a Tuscan village. But her enemies won’t leave her alone and she sets out at all costs to reclaim her throne as la Reina del Sur.
The show, with its high production value, was filmed in eight countries and more than 300 locations.
Del Castillo felt pressure to follow one big hit with another. “The first one was so big and so successful,” she says, and she carried that weight. “At the end of the day, it’s my face there.’’
Fame and controversy
It’s no accident that in real life, Kate del Castillo sometimes resembles the character she created. Shortly after her triumph with “La Reina del Sur,” she made headlines in Mexico and the United States when her secret meeting with Mexico’s most notorious narco chief, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, was revealed. Mexican authorities vilified Del Castillo, even at one point accusing her of money laundering, and though she was never charged, her career took a dive and she could not enter Mexico for fear of being arrested.
Guzman, who had escaped twice from prison in Mexico, was finally captured in 2016, shortly after his meeting with Del Castillo and the actor Sean Penn, and extradited to the United States. His three-month drug trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn ended with his conviction on Feb. 12. Now, at 61, he faces life in prison at his sentencing hearing, scheduled for June 25.
Del Castillo, who has dual citizenship, returned to Mexico City last December to spend Christmas with her family. “I had the best time with my parents. I slept right between them. I needed that.” She also held a press conference to announce she was suing former Mexican officials for $60 million “in moral and material damages” because of what she calls “political persecution” against her.
“What’s horrible is they didn’t give me a chance to say I might be innocent,” she says. “It was hard times. I was going through a horrible moment. I think it was the worst of my life for me, for my family. I was scared. I was frustrated. I was mad.”
She will not talk about it now, tired of being asked the same questions, but she has acknowledged in interviews and in her 2017 Netflix documentary “The Day I Met El Chapo” that she and Guzman met in his hideout in 2015, when she arranged a meeting between Guzman and Penn, who was writing an article for Rolling Stone.
News of the secret meeting thrust Del Castillo onto a global media frenzy. She sat for TV and magazine interviews. Her life was threatened and her reputation damaged by gossip that she had a relationship with El Chapo.
“There was no relationship!” she says flatly when asked.
The El Chapo chapter began on Jan. 9, 2012. Del Castillo was at home in Los Angeles, posting messages on Twitter discussing social problems in Mexico. “Today I believe more in Chapo Guzman than in the government that hides painful truths from me, that hides the cure for cancer, AIDS, etc, for their benefit and wealth,” she tweeted. She then addressed Guzman directly. “Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool if you started trafficking with the good? Let’s traffic with love, you know how.”
Unbeknown to Del Castillo, Guzman had become a fan of hers after seeing “La Reina del Sur.” Through his lawyers, he offered Del Castillo rights to his life to make a movie or documentary. She grabbed the chance. But it all exploded in her face when their secret meeting was uncovered.
While her career suffered for a time, Del Castillo went on to produce and star in Netflix’s action-thriller hit series “Ingobernable,” (which means ungovernable) where she plays First Lady Emilia Urquiza of Mexico, who goes on the run and takes vengeance when she is wrongly accused of killing her husband.
Just two years ago, she finally agreed to star in the sequel of “La Reina del Sur,” which she had resisted doing for years. She now says, “I would love to be Teresa Mendoza all my life!”
Del Castillo holds little back. “I don’t regret anything because I’ve done so many stupid things in my life. But for all the good and bad things that I’ve done, I really, honestly, I don’t regret any of them.”
Through hard times, she leaned on her parents. “My parents have never judged me. They were really afraid for me but never said anything. They never questioned me. They never doubted me, which is everything. If the people you love don’t trust you … then what else do you have? In those moments, you feel you’re alone in the world. And I was basically alone if it hadn’t been for my parents.”
Del Castillo grew up in privilege in Mexico City, the oldest daughter of Kate Trillo and Eric del Castillo, a well-known actor, who instilled in her the love of acting and the strength to face success and failure. Since childhood, she was independent and intense. “Wish I had had more fun when I was a little girl,” she says.
'I am really not afraid of anything'
Talking about the last five years, she says, “With all that has happened … it’s not that I felt lonely, but probably in a way I did, because I was fighting against the whole world.”
“I’ve been married twice. Married and divorced twice. No children. But I have a dog.’’ She’s had Lola, a miniature pinscher, for 12 years. “She’s been my longest relationship.’’
When I ask why her relationships haven’t worked out, she throws up her hands. “I don’t know. I’m a mess.”
Del Castillo, who lives alone in Brentwood, one of Los Angeles’s priciest neighborhoods, would rather talk about her plans. “I don’t want to sit waiting for the best roles. I want to provoke them and I want to develop a lot of new things. And probably not only act. I have my production company so I want to produce like I did with ‘Ingobernable.’ I want to go out there and I want to live and I want to seek great roles and great projects.’’
She’s developing a dark comedy with a close friend, the Mexican journalist and feminist Lydia Cacho, who also lives in Los Angeles. “It’s a comedy but it’s like a very bitter comedy. I think I need something lighter. I want to stop killing people.”
With another Los Angeles friend, Jessica Maldonado, an entertainment correspondent for Telemundo’s “Al Rojo Vivo,” Del Castillo co-hosts and produces “Neteando,” a syndicated radio show and podcast on Entravision.
“Kate takes risks, doesn’t think of the consequences,” Maldonado said over the phone from Los Angeles. “With her, what you see is what you get. She has a passion for what she does. She’s honest, honorable and brave.”
“The reason I live?’’ Del Castillo asks. “Acting. That’s all I know. Well, and tequila,” she says, half kidding. “Tequila has become my passion.” (She has a stake in the tequila brand Honor del Castillo.)
But what would be the most liberating thing she could do?
“Writing, writing, writing everything,” she says. “Because I think it’s the only way to get there, outside, and to get to know yourself. Being alone for so long has taught me so much about me and so many different things about dealing with things outside. I have insecurities and I have a lot of other things, but I think because of me being alone for so long, I really am not afraid of anything.”