By David Martindale Fort Worth Star-Telegram
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While we may be used to seeing men running the drug cartels portrayed on TV and in the movies, this new USA series features a Woman who is just as lethal as the men. In "Queen of the South" we meet Teresa Mendoza, the head of the largest drug cartel in the U.S. and Latin America.
J.R. Ewing's reputation as the biggest, baddest business hombre ever to hit the city of Dallas is secure. But it's worth noting that there's a formidable new power player in town.
Her name is Teresa Mendoza. She's the dona of the largest drug cartel in Latin America and the United States, and she has made Big D her base of operations. They call her "Queen of the South."
Hers was a perilous rags-to-riches saga: Naive Mexican girl falls for a drug runner, becomes the target of hit men (but cheats death ... and a rape attempt), thrives as a drug mule, then climbs through the cartel ranks, ultimately calling the shots as the most powerful woman in a tough man's world.
"Queen of the South", a brutal, bloody, bad-to-the-bone drama series that is also filmed in North Texas, tells the story of how she became that criminal "queenpin."
The series airs at 9 p.m. CST Thursdays on USA.
It stars Alice Braga in a chameleon role that most actresses would kill to get a crack at. Over the course of the 13-episode season, Teresa will go from unworldly and vulnerable to cultured and dangerous.
The petite Brazilian actress gets to do a little bit of everything in this, from wheeling and dealing in posh nightclubs to running and gunning in gritty urban wastelands.
Through it all, however, Teresa never loses her humanity. She didn't choose to live in this criminal world, after all. It's an existence that was thrust upon her.
COMPLEX CHARACTER Teresa is a role that Braga dreamed of playing for years.
"I read the book that inspired this show ('La Reina del Sur,' by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte) eight years ago," she says. "A friend gave me the book and told me there's a really beautiful story here, with a wonderful journey for a female character.
"So I read it and fell in love with it, wished I could play this character onscreen, but at that time Eva Mendes was going to do a film of it."
That movie never came to fruition. Instead, there was a telenovela starring Kate del Castillo that was a big hit for Telemundo in 2011.
Eventually, once there was a movement to make an English-language version, the producers approached Braga, whose films include "City of God" (2002), "I Am Legend" (2007) and "Elysium" (2013).
Braga didn't hesitate.
"This is very special," she says. "Teresa is a strong woman. I love that she is someone who was born in very poor life circumstances, but she is a resourceful woman and a resilient woman who, even though she was sexually abused when she was a kid, never allows herself to become a victim.
"It's also a very interesting acting challenge to make a character with many bad qualities likable, to make her someone people will root for. Yes, Teresa is a drug queen, but she's a different kind of drug queen. She never does something evil just for the sake of doing something evil."
Producer David T. Friendly, who played an integral role in bringing "Queen of the South" to TV, convincing the author that his novel would be safe in these hands, says that Braga brilliantly walks a tightrope with her good-side/bad-side performance.
"The show is not glamorizing Teresa's choice of getting into the drug business and the cartel world," he says. "It is her only method of survival, to participate in this process and to see if she can make it out alive while retaining her dignity as a human being.
"Alice makes you understand that and connect with Teresa. One of the things you hope for as a producer, but don't always get, is the kind of passion and commitment that she has shown."
It's worth noting that the USA series isn't an English remake of the telenovela. Almost everyone attached to "Queen of the South," in front of and behind the camera, is familiar with that show. But the Perez-Reverte bestseller was the true source material.
Most of the Spanish-speaking cast members, who include Joaquim de Almeida, Veronica Falcon and Justina Machado, point out that they read and enjoyed the book years before being cast in this series.
As for Braga, it was common to see her on set carrying her own tattered copy, which had many pages turned down and passages highlighted for easy reference.
She says that she never felt the need to meet with an actual drug dealer in the name of research because she could find out anything that Teresa might be thinking merely by cracking open the book.
"I played a nurse once and I hung out with a nurse for a while beforehand," the actress says. "But I didn't need to have any contact with anyone from the drug world for this, thank God."
Would that del Castillo were able say the same. In 2015, the Mexican actress made headlines for serving as the intermediary who arranged Sean Penn's ill-advised Rolling Stone interview with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the escaped Mexican drug lord.
CHOOSING DALLAS The "Queen of the South" pilot was filmed in Mexico City. After the show was green-lighted by USA, production moved to Dallas' South Side Studios, where such series as Fox's "The Good Guys," ABC's "GCB" and TNT's "Dallas" were filmed. More than six months of shooting began in October 2015.
There's a whole world, albeit an imaginary one, tucked away within the walls of the South Side Studios warehouse, located about a mile south of downtown Dallas.
The numerous sets include a swanky nightclub with a distinctive Latin flavor, a seamy gulag camp used in human trafficking and more than 30 feet of tunnel used for secret border crossings.