MEXICO CITY – Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez jokes that it took him no less than 12 years to become an overnight sensation.
The real punch line is that it took much longer.
The writer, director and star of the surprise Hollywood hit "Instructions Not Included" was a virtual unknown with the general U.S. audience, where the film debuted on Labor Day weekend. Its success was shocking, climbing into the top five box office earners with only a limited release.
It has pulled in more than $43 million so far in the U.S. alone, and roughly the same in Mexico. It cost just a bit over $5 million to make.
The story of an Acapulco playboy whose former lover dumps a baby at his door, "Instructions" unfolds as the Derbez character goes to the U.S. to find the girl's mother and becomes a successful movie stunt man and devoted father in the process.
He said the idea for the movie came to him 12 years ago but he couldn't get the money to do it until recently.
"For Americans it was like, 'Where did this guy come from? Why are people going to watch him? Why are people going to his movies? Who is he?'" the 52-year-old Derbez said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But it's been a long time I've spent nurturing this audience in the United States."
Many of those fans are Mexicans who migrated north. Derbez rose to stardom at home in 1992, when he was given his own TV show in Mexico. It was a time when rural Mexican families were increasingly settling in cities such as Atlanta, New York and Denver. He became the homeboy of the homesick.
A true Mexican knew Derbez's most famous characters and their catchphrases. There was Armando Hoyos, the arrogant intellectual with magnifying lenses who made up his own dictionary definitions and shouted, "Shut up! Don't interrupt me!" And there was El Lonje Moco, the Booger Monk, a nose-picking hunchback who tries to tell scary stories but always loses his way.
"La familia P. Luche," a "Munsters"-style sitcom about a dysfunctional family whose entire world and wardrobe is covered in fluorescent fake fur, became a hit on the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision in the mid-2000s.
"It turns out that the best hook to draw people into the movies was what I did on TV," Derbez said.
Derbez was born in 1961 to an entertainment family, his father a publicist and mother a telenovela diva. He started acting in telenovelas, but didn't find himself as an actor until he turned to comedy in the late 1980s, joining the cast of "Anabel," a popular sketch comedy series.
"He developed his own style," said Anabel Ferreira, the star. "He doesn't imitate anyone."
Derbez began to realize his power for drawing Latino audiences in the U.S. in 2005, when he made an appearance on a Spanish language radio station in New York, begging listeners to go see him in the play "Latinologues," about the Latino experience in America. The tickets sold out.
"He would bring the audience who would normally never go to Broadway," said Rick Najera, playwright and creator of the show. "He became, for a lot of immigrants, a beacon of hope."
Nearly 17 percent of the people in the U.S. now are of Latino heritage, the U.S. Census Bureau says. As a demographic group, Latinos buy nearly a quarter of all movie tickets and are a growing audience, according to the Nielsen firm.
But the industry continues to typecast them. Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexican ambassador in the U.S., recently complained that he would like to see Mexican megastar Salma Hayek play a scientist instead of a drug cartel queen, her role in Oliver Stone's "Savages" last year.
Derbez played a gardener alongside Adam Sandler in "Jack and Jill" and an awkward Mexican cousin in the one-season TV sitcom "Rob."
The late Mexican-American actress Lupe Ontiveros, who was in "As Good as it Gets" and "Selena," often said she played a maid 300 times in movies, TV shows, plays and commercials.
Najera, author of "Almost White," a book about Latinos in Hollywood, says the group needs to "have control of our own stories and tell them our own way."
"Instructions" is a mainstream story about family and parenting.
"It's a movie where people can see a Latino in the U.S. who is neither poor, nor miserable, nor starving. It's a Latino who goes to the U.S., doesn't speak a single word in English, and yet does well," Derbez said.
The film was ignored by mainstream movie reviewers, but it became the largest Spanish-language premiere in U.S. history, then broke the record as the highest-grossing Spanish-language film, beating Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth."
"There are many people who want to meet with me right now," said Derbez.
He was careful not to reveal what's next. He said he is reading several scripts and wants to do a family project. He has fathered three children, now all actors, with three different actresses. He will start shooting the Mexican version of television's "Saturday Night Live" soon.
Pantelion Films, the joint venture of Lions Gate and Televisa that distributed his movie, has just released another bilingual, bicultural film, "Pulling Strings." It's a romantic comedy about a mariachi trying to persuade an attractive U.S. Embassy official to reconsider his visa application, which she rejected. It ranked among the top 10 its first weekend.
Derbez, meanwhile, is so popular in Mexico that the media giant Televisa aired his wedding live last year.
Mexican comedian Omar Chaparro, Derbez's best man, says his friend is showing Hollywood the way to reach Latino audiences.
"Derbez has set a before and after for all of us," he said.
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