After a talent manager sees her photo in a friend's portfolio, Miami-born, L.A.-bred Mendes, a marketing major at California State Northridge, drops out of school to go on auditions. "I never did drama in high school or anything," she tells the Toronto Sun in 2003. "When you grow up in L.A., everybody is either a wannabe director or a producer or has a friend – so I got a lot of, 'Your look is interesting, you should be a model or act,' and it never caught my attention."
Mendes lands her first major movie role in Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (right). "Brilliant film," Mendes jokes. "Brilliant! It was so bad...I was so ignorant that I didn't even know acting was such a craft and that you have to work at it. I saw myself on the screen and I thought, 'I never want to feel this way again'...talk about overacting." That same year she appears in A Night at the Roxbury before 2000's Urban Legends: Final Cut.
Mendes has a star-making nude scene as Denzel Washington's (right) wife in Training Day. "After Training Day came out, people were not only recognizing me, they were responding to my character," she tells New York's Daily News. "I appreciated that because I went totally naked for the role – emotionally and physically – and the response felt amazing." In 2003, Mendes plays a detective opposite Washington in Out of Time.
Mendes joins Halle Berry as the new face of Revlon cosmetics, where she will appear in commercials (left) and advertisements. "One of the perks of being a girl is playing with makeup and I take full advantage of that," she says in a statement. "This will be an ideal relationship for me!"
After starring in John Singleton's 2 Fast 2 Furious with Paul Walker, Mendes costars in Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In the film, which opens at No. 1, Mendes plays a federal agent opposite Johnny Depp (right). That same year, she switches gears for the Farrelly Brothers comedy Stuck on You with Matt Damon.
Mendes is linked to costar Matt Damon, but she adamantly denies all reports. "I'm in a committed relationship, which I don't talk about, so people make up things," she tells Cosmopolitan of her longtime boyfriend, filmmaker George Augusto (left). "None of it has ever been true."
"There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it," Will Smith tells the Birmingham Post. In comes Mendes, cast as the object of Smith's affection in Hitch (right). They are the first minority actors to play leads in a hit romantic comedy (the film opens at No.1 and grosses more than $179 million worldwide). "In Hollywood logic, to pair a black woman and a black male makes a black movie. A white woman and a black male becomes a little controversial. It's much more acceptable to have a Latin woman with a black male," Mendes tells L.A's Times.
Mendes plays Billy Crudup's (left) temptation in the romantic dramedy Trust the Man, costarring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Although she's often cast as "the girlfriend" in small supporting roles, Mendes makes it a learning experience. "It's one of those things where I don't have an ego about a lot of stuff," she tells San Jose's Mercury News. "I don't want to be the best person in the scene. I feel like I want to be the least-talented person in the scene, because I learn so much more and it elevates my game."
Mendes graces the cover of Cosmopolitan, which names her its Fun Fearless Female of the Year. "I took a risk with acting," she tells the magazine. "You just always have to take risks. I always go with my gut, and it's always right. People are scared to do that." In the coming months, she stars with Luke and Owen Wilson in The Wendell Baker Story and Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider.
Mendes stars in the crime drama We Own the Night with Joaquin Phoenix (left), but admits to Hong Kong's Prestige magazine that she rejected the role for six months before accepting it. "I really wanted to work with those people, but on paper my character was a very stereotypical girlfriend role Puerto Rican with a little attitude," Mendes says, adding that filmmaker James Gray changed her mind by rewriting her character.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett Collection; Everett Collection; Jemal Countess/WireImage; Everett Collection; Everett Collection; Sony Pictures