Eva Longoria Is ‘More American Than Bill O’Reilly’

The actress talks with Amy Wallace about brains, beauty, and the importance of giving back

Eva Longoria’s first big break came in 2004, when she was cast in the TV series that would forever change how the world thinks about American suburbia: Desperate Housewives. She was 28—a former beauty queen from Corpus Christi, Texas, who’d fallen into acting by accident—when she scored the role of Gabrielle Solis, the Mexican American bombshell who brings diversity (and lots of infidelity) to Wisteria Lane. For the next eight years she and the rest of the mostly female cast playfully examined why women do what they do and how society treats them when they do it. The series was both comedy and mystery, with a generous helping of soap opera, but it consistently explored issues that real women face (which may explain why, from 2006 to 2012, it was the most-watched comedy series on the planet).

Now 39, Longoria was the youngest member of the ensemble, which included Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher, and Marcia Cross. But she understood the rarity of a show dominated by women in their forties, and she felt fortunate to be a part of it. A self-described feminist who grew up in a family of strong women, Longoria has long put women’s issues at the center of her philanthropic work. Whether she’s raising money to help teenage Latinas get ready for college, collaborating with the Buffett family to enable female entrepreneurs to gain access to capital, or working with Eva’s Heroes—an organization she cofounded to enrich the lives of individuals with special needs—Longoria has been shrewd about using her onscreen success as an engine for change.

To say she’s politically active is an understatement: She began volunteering on campaigns in high school, went door-to-door for presidential hopeful Bill Clinton in 1992, and in 2012, served as national cochair of President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign (he received 73 percent of the Latino vote). Recently she returned to school, receiving her master’s degree in Chicano studies and political science from Cal State Northridge. She has also produced two documentaries that focus on the exploitation of migrant farmworkers—2011’s Harvest and this year’s Food Chains.

Given all this, you might think Longoria would have no time for acting. But she has a movie coming out this month: a drama about tensions at the Mexico border, Frontera, with Michael Peña and Ed Harris. And she says she’s currently developing another TV series, which she will produce and star in. Instead of complaining about the lack of opportunities, she explained over a late breakfast of huevos rancheros at the Chateau Marmont, she believes in creating her own. “I always say, ‘If you want to see your stories told, then tell them,’ ” she says. Isn’t that what resourceful women have always done?

You have three older sisters and nine aunts, so you were blessed with a lot of tough, Texan, Latina role models growing up.
Yes. Though it’s interesting because sometimes Latinas aren’t allowed to be strong. When I was getting my master’s degree, I took a Chicana feminism class, which was very specific to machismo-ism and all of these clichés in our own community. But now, with 40 percent of households having female breadwinners and, in the Latino culture, with the number of women going to college surpassing the number of men, the social construct of gender is being redefined every day—in a great way.

But it’s complicated.
To navigate being a woman is very complicated and hard. There’s no true GPS. You just close your eyes and hope you do your best. And I think you kind of step in shit when you start talking about it in an interview like this. I’ve seen some other people do interviews, and I hear what they’re trying to say, but in a print format sometimes it doesn’t come across, and I feel, Oh, God, that’s a land mine I don’t want to step on. But for me personally, I’m superindependent, I’m a feminist, I’m an activist, and I’m opinionated. At the same time, when I’m in a relationship, I love to feel like the woman. That’s where it gets complicated. Because it’s hard to let go of the reins in your personal life when you control them all day long. I always say, “I love for my boyfriend to pick the restaurants, as long as it’s one of these three restaurants and as long as it’s at eight and not at nine.” Luckily I have a great boyfriend [Jose “Pepe” Antonio Baston, the president of Televisa] who has no problem taking charge.

During your childhood, your father worked on the army base in Corpus Christi and your mother was a teacher for students with special needs. Was that because of your oldest sister, Lisa?
Yes. Lisa was a preemie. Her brain didn’t finish developing, and so it’s similar to if she had Down’s syndrome. She has about a fourth-grade education, and she’s just amazing—the light of our family. So my mom would go to school with her every day to the point where the teacher said, “Do you want to be my assistant?” She became a teacher’s assistant so she could stay in the classroom with my sister, and then she got her associate’s degree and then became a teacher. My mom dedicated her life to being Lisa’s teacher.

Was it difficult to have so much attention devoted to her?
Well, it’s easier, I think, when you’re the younger siblings because we were born into her world. It was all I’ve ever known. I loved my childhood. But because of that I developed an independence very early on. Like, “OK, got it. Mom and Dad are busy.”

I’ve read that you grew up without television. Is that right?
We had TV, but we had only three channels: ABC, NBC, CBS. So I grew up with Three’s Company and The Jeffersons, but I didn’t grow up with celebrityism, which is so overwhelming today.

How did you begin your acting career?
I didn’t aspire to be an actress. It wasn’t a childhood dream. I didn’t know what it meant. I got my college degree in kinesiology at Texas A&M University, and I was going to get my master’s in exercise science and sports medicine. But then I won a beauty pageant, and my prize package was a trip to L.A. to compete in a modeling and talent competition. It was just going to be a little vacation—until I won everything in my category and all these managers and agents wanted to sign me. I was like, “What’s an agent?” “What’s a manager?” And literally, I just took a left turn. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 17 years now!

You worked at Wendy’s in high school, taught aerobics, even learned how to change oil. What was your first L.A. job?
Because I had my college degree, I was like, “I’m not going to wait tables.” I went to a temp agency that placed me at a company that then hired me as a telecommunications recruiter. It turned out I was really good at it. I was 23 and I was making over $150,000. I used the money to pay my college debt. Then I took acting classes, got my head shots, bought a car—a little Ford Festiva.

Where did you live when you first arrived here?
I wanted my address to say “Hollywood,” so I looked only for apartments there, and I found this crappy one-bedroom with, like, three roommates. We were all aspiring actors. The building was at Sunset and Edgemont, and it was sketchy. I did extra work for two years. I think the first show I was on was Ally McBeal. Then I was in an Eddie Murphy movie, Bowfinger, and a lot of TV shows. Extra work means long days, but the highlight was you got fed. I would steal the fruit—put a banana in my bag. My roommate would take toilet paper home. It was horrible. One time I called home crying. I had no money. My mom sent me $20 in the mail. But I was born with optimism.

Do you think growing up with a disabled sister made you more aware of how fortunate you were?
Absolutely. I remember watching my sister take 20 minutes to tie her shoes in the morning. I saw what she had to overcome every day to brush her teeth, to put on her clothes. And I’d go, “I’m so lucky.”

You’ve been outspoken about immigration policy, specifically how the United States has handled the recent influx of Central American kids.
We can’t deny the fact that we have industries here in America that are completely reliant on immigrant labor. Do you want to pay $17 for a valet? Or $8 for a head of broccoli? Well, recognize that this is a labor force we need. Slaughterhouses. Obviously agriculture, which I have a new documentary out about: Food Chains. I was at the store the other day and I thought, “How is one avocado $3.25?” But it was organic. The other ones were three for a dollar. But when I tell people “I buy organic because that means a farmworker wasn’t sprayed with pesticides,” so many of them say, “I never thought of that.” You never thought of that? Everybody is so aware of what they’re putting into their bodies—gluten free, soy free, almond milk—but they’re so unaware where that food comes from. The people who feed the most well-fed nation in the world are going to bed hungry. What does that say about us as a nation?

Your views are clearly shaped by your upbringing in south Texas. But you only learned to speak Spanish three years ago. Tell me about that.
When I was growing up, my parents spoke to each other in Spanish, but they didn’t speak to us in Spanish because they were told not to. In school we weren’t allowed to speak it.

They wanted you to assimilate.
Yes, but we’re ninth-generation Americans. We never crossed the border; the border crossed us. We’ve owned the same ranch land since 1603. That’s a big faux pas to think “Latino” is synonymous with “immigrant” or with “not from here.” I’m not an immigrant. I’m more American than Bill O’Reilly. But America is the only country that promotes monolingualism. Here it’s English, English, English. Every other country makes their children learn a second language very early on. So as my political and social activism grew, I was like, “I really need to learn Spanish.” So I did.

How do you respond to those who say that actors should keep their political opinions to themselves? George Clooney, for instance: Who cares what he thinks about Darfur?
That makes me crazy because one of the hardest things in my life has been proving that I was smart. And yet the big misconception, whether it’s in philanthropy or political activism, is that you have to be rich and famous to make a difference. If you look at some of the most successful philanthropic foundations, that is just not true. Look at Susan G. Komen: She wasn’t a famous person; she was an ordinary citizen with breast cancer.

Are you saying your engagement predated your arrival in people’s living rooms?
There’s a misconception about me: “Oh, she’s a celebrity. Now she’s politically active.” I’ve always been politically active. I volunteered for campaigns when I was 17. I was going door-to-door and canvassing for Bill Clinton, and I loved it. We would register voters. My family supported the Bushes in Texas because of the ranch subsidies, so I knew that affected us. You know, Texas had the DREAM Act long before anyone else. Because of the nature of the border, I was very aware of how politics affected people.

I want to follow up on the idea that someone as pretty as you are had to prove you were smart. I don’t think it’s a “pretty” thing. I think it’s a gender thing. I think it’s a female thing. In my master’s thesis—I mean, I could send it to you, it’s 80 pages of boredom.
I doubt that, but OK. What was it about? At first I wanted to write about immigration because it’s so important. But Henry Cisneros, the San Antonio politician who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the ’90s and is an important mentor of mine, said, “Is immigration going to be your life’s work?” And I said no, that it would be education, particularly for Latinas. And I wanted to contribute to something that hadn’t been studied. So I asked my advisers, “What is lacking?” and they said nobody studies women in STEM professions, specifically Latinas in STEM.

Science, technology, engineering, and math? Yes. I interviewed Latinas who were working in STEM professions, and a lot of them told me they’d chosen those disciplines early on to counteract racism. They said they hated English classes because the judgments and grades were subjective. But you can’t judge me on my math. That’s not subjective. Two plus two is four. Prove me wrong! Conversely, though, I also interviewed Latina undergraduates who were pursuing STEM degrees, and they said they experienced way more sexism than racism. I asked them if they’d rather have a Latino teacher and they said, “We’d rather have a female teacher.” Regardless of ethnicity, they wanted a woman so they could look at her and go, “Oh, she did it.” I think that problem of “Oh, you can’t be smart” goes with being a woman. As in, “Oh, you have a vagina, therefore you don’t have a brain.”

You’re involved in so many causes. How do you decide where to concentrate?
I get invitations to be honored all the time: “We want to give you an award.” Usually they just want to use my name so they can raise money. Which is fine. But early on, when I had this platform of Desperate Housewives, which was a global success, I was getting “Please come to save dolphins in Japan” and “Stop sex trafficking in Thailand” and “Slow the spread of AIDS in Africa.” They’re all worthy causes and all very important. But you can’t do it all. So one thing I consciously did was to focus on humans.

Humans. That’s narrowing it down.
Let me tell you, in America there are as many nonprofits for saving puppies, dogs, cats, and fish as for humans or children. I don’t want PETA to jump all over me, but I just think, “You know what? I’m going to dedicate my efforts to human beings.” I thought long and hard about where I want to make a difference. That’s when I came up with the Eva Longoria Foundation to promote the education of Latina high school girls. I wanted to be efficient and effective, so that’s why I chose Latinas. Also, I am one. Then when I campaigned for Obama, I got to travel the country and talk to female small business owners. I heard about their troubles getting access to capital. That’s when I said I want to develop an entrepreneur program for women. Training, mentoring, networking, connecting. This is the program supported by Howard Buffett, Warren’s son. He’s not one to give away money. He likes sustainable change, like teaching a man to fish. He’ll go, “I’ll invest in a woman who wants to make money.”

I’ve heard you say that you think women are better at certain things than men are.
Women are better at humanizing issues and at communicating what is at the heart of these issues—you know, cutting through the rhetoric of blah, blah, blah. I was really lucky to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and somebody asked him, “Do you think a woman could be Dalai Lama?” And he said, “Absolutely, because women are just more compassionate.” He said the one thing every human being has in common is that we all come from our mothers.

That’s the perfect transition to something I saw you quoted as saying: that having children is not in your future.
I never say never to anything. At the time I said that, I wasn’t dating anybody. I’ve said, “I’m never having kids.” But you really can’t say that. It’s just not in my world right now.

The reason I found it relevant is that I was curious whether you’d diverted your motherly impulse into your activism.
I don’t think you have to have children to be maternal. I’m a mother to many. Ask my friends, some who have lived in my house: I’m a mother hen to the sorority house I keep. One had a baby and got married and moved out last year, and the other just got married last weekend, and now she’s moving. I’m like, “My birds are leaving the nest.” I’m so sad.

You supported Wendy Greuel in her run for mayor and Marianne Williamson in her recent congressional bid. Would you ever run for office?
Again, I never say never. I’m probably too sensitive to be in politics. It’s nastier than Hollywood. Meaner. I have tough skin, but I don’t think it’s that tough. I’ve always said the greatest role you can play in politics is as a citizen. I think people are misled to believe only politicians can be political. It’s not the case. You can be political. Anybody can.