'Dora' Star Isabela Moner on Playing an All-Too-Rare Happy Teenager and the 'Sicario' Scene That Made Josh Brolin Cry
Dora and the Lost City of Gold star Isabela Moner couldn’t wait for the chance to play a well-adjusted and upbeat teenage character for the first time. Taking on her first starring role, the Peruvian American actor understands the significance of not only playing a happy and optimistic teenager, but also a Latina heroine who’s an icon for children around the globe.
“Directors and writers seem to think that only one kind of teenager exists: the angsty and sassy one with attitude. It’s fine to an extent, but it just gets boring as an actor," the 18-year-old Moner tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I was really excited to try something completely different. With Dora…I just wanted to make her feel like you snatched her out of the animated show and brought her into real life.”
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Moner’s 16-year-old depiction of Dora centers on her mother (Eva Longoria) and father (Michael Pena) who go missing shortly after they send Dora off to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in Los Angeles. As Dora explores the uncharted territory of being a teenager in high school, mysterious forces compel Dora, Diego and a few of their classmates to return to Dora’s native Peruvian jungle in order to find her parents and the fabled Incan city of gold.
In 2018, Moner played Isabel Reyes, an integral character in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and in retrospect, Moner now recognizes how antithetical that experience was to her time as Dora. Isabel began the film as the defiant teenage daughter of a drug cartel kingpin and quickly became a kidnapped pawn in the United States government’s manufactured war between drug cartels. As Isabel went through one horrific experience after another, she eventually reunited with the puppet master behind it all, Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, who was forced to confront the trauma he’d caused the young girl. The scene proved surprisingly emotional to shoot.
“I do remember Josh crying afterward,” Moner explains. “He was very moved, and I felt like we shared this really cool connection in the helicopter. We didn’t say a lot in between, after or during, but it was a really, really interesting experience.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Moner discusses the process of learning the indigenous Peruvian language of Quechua, her bonds with her Sicario and Dora co-star Benicio del Toro and her Transformers: The Last Knight and Instant Family co-star Mark Wahlberg, as well as her reflections on Day of the Soldado.
Is the Wahlberg family following you from movie to movie?
(Laughs.) Mark has my mom’s number, and I’m assuming it’s them scheming or something. He texts all the time, and he actually wanted to be in the movie Dora. I was like, “Well, do you speak Spanish?” and he said, “No.” So, I was like, “Well, it might be a little difficult, but I’ll try to work it out.” And then his nephew (Jeff Wahlberg) ended up being a part of it as Dora’s cousin Diego.
When you were voicing Kate — a friend of Dora’s in the 2014 animated spinoff, Dora and Friends: Into the City! — could you ever have imagined that you’d be playing the titular character in a live-action film just a few years later?
No! I was like nine, and I was literally just doing voice acting on the side. I was doing the show Evita, and Broadway never pays enough. So, I was just doing the voice of one of the friends, and I think hearing Dora’s voice every day helped me prepare while doing my own voiceover and responding to her. And here we are — I hope there’s no bad blood between that Dora (Fátima Ptacek) and I. I actually know Fátima; she’s great.
I was really taken by Dora's optimism and overall state of happiness. As interesting as Isabel Reyes (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and Lizzy (Instant Family) are, was it a welcome change of pace to play a teenager who's not angsty?
Yeah, right? It was actually kind of a relief because, usually, those are the roles that I’m offered. You’d be surprised…. Directors and writers seem to think that only one kind of teenager exists: the angsty and sassy one with attitude. It’s fine to an extent, but it just gets boring as an actor. So, I was really excited to try something completely different. With this opportunity as Dora, the script itself already had that wit in place — that self-aware kind of humor that was a bit meta for the world it took place in. I just wanted to make her feel like you snatched her out of the animated show and brought her into real life. I wanted to do exaggerated facial expressions like Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell.
Because you’re playing a teenage version of a beloved seven-year-old character, was it a challenge to portray the character as people know her, while still leaving room for your own imprint on her as a teenager?
The character from the show was very simple. The show itself has a pretty normal and plain structure. I think what made it so beloved was the fact that Dora and her adventures were iconic. She also taught Spanish, and all the characters on the show were pretty nostalgic. By bringing all of those elements into the movie, I feel like I just had to take her key traits — like her optimism, intelligence and sense of adventure — to the big screen, and then do my own thing with the rest of it, such as her comedic timing or believing the ridiculous things she says. The tough part was not making it seem sarcastic because it could’ve easily been taken that way.
Even though Dora is nine years older than the animated version, she’s never left the remote jungles of Peru. Naturally, she’s not going to mature at the same rate as most teenagers because she doesn’t know what a prototypical teenager is supposed to be like.
Yeah, the whole dynamic and joke of it is that she’s exactly the same. The only thing that really changes is the environment that she’s placed in. So, that was where I got to play a little bit. When the school bell rang, Dora was like, “What the heck is that? Is there something wrong?” So, little things like that helped keep her the same even though she’s a teenager.
You learned the indigenous Peruvian language of Quechua for this movie. Since you’re already bilingual, did you pick up on it rather quickly? Apparently, studies show that bilinguals have an easier time learning a third language.
I would definitely agree with that. I really recommend that everyone speak at least two languages. I worked really hard when it came to memorizing the Quechua and really getting the pronunciation down. I am half-Peruvian, and I didn’t want to disappoint my family. All we had was a recording from a professor at San Marcos University. When I needed help with other words that we wanted to add to a line, I would have to call my aunt in Peru and ask her to translate for me. Only a few of my grandparents actually speak Quechua and most of them only know dirty jokes. (Laughs.)
Dora is a fish out of water during the first act. When was the last time you felt like a fish out of water?
In the industry, I guess. There’s just not a lot of well-rounded or multidimensional roles for people like me. Usually, my roles focus on the fact that I am Hispanic, and that’s great and all, but it would be really nice to play a role that’s written to be ethnically ambiguous. That’s what I love about Dora because you kinda forget that she’s this Latina icon in the movie. You just look at her as this really intelligent and adventurous explorer. The whole point of this movie isn’t to make a big statement about race; it’s simply to bring a positive message about being yourself no matter what the circumstance. It just so happens that it’s also a wonderful movie with representation. Hopefully, it’s going to change stuff in Hollywood. It’s little steps, but we’ll get there.
The world and Hollywood are two very different entities, but are you optimistic about the direction that Hollywood appears to be heading in, especially since the industry can no longer perpetuate the fallacy that diversity isn’t bankable?
Hollywood and the world are quite different things. Hollywood represents the world that we wish existed; the world represents something that we wish it didn’t. The more that these Latina heroines exist…or movies like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians…the more that everyday people will feel inspired, and I think that’s the whole point. After watching Selena with Jennifer Lopez, I felt more inspired to be a singer, and I felt that maybe this was possible for me — along with the Britney Spears and Avril Lavignes of the world. I learned to embrace my culture in my music, while in a world that tells me to be ashamed of it, especially nowadays in this climate. It’s really difficult. So, hopefully, this movie brings joy and a sense of pride to those who watch it.
Once Dora moves to Los Angeles, she says hello to everyone at school, only her greetings are unanswered. Most midwesterners or southerners who move to Los Angeles can certainly identify with this experience. Since you’re from Cleveland, could you also relate to Dora’s unreturned hellos?
(Laughs.) Definitely! I remember my first time in New York, when I came from Cleveland, and I was smiling at everybody. I was so confused as to why the adults looked like robots. They were just doing the bare minimum. I was always so confused why no one was enjoying walking down the streets of New York. So, yeah, I could definitely relate to Dora in that moment.
When Michael Pena, as Dora’s father, was doing his rave music performance, did you and Eva break at least once?
Oh, yeah! Eva and I were trying so hard not to laugh and just keep a straight face. I think you can see me smirking in one of the shots, for sure.
What was your favorite set piece to shoot?
I really enjoyed the big water slide that they built for after the scene where we’re about to drown. They built it on a soundstage, and we had to go down it at least 30 times. It was so fun every single time. You just never get to do that for your job. And it was clean, too! (Laughs.) Us and our stunt doubles were the only ones who went down it, whereas water parks are terrifying because you don’t know if they’re clean.
What comes to mind when you reflect on Sicario: Day of the Soldado?
I was super, super young to be doing a movie like that, and being exposed to all the hard work that I had to do…all the physical demands…and really not being around many people my age, I felt like I was kind of already in that environment. In the scenes where you hear gunshots, the bullets were made to mimic the real sounds of the guns. It is acting, but to a certain extent, you believe it at the end of the day. I just took all of that and really felt it. Looking back at it, it’s really interesting how it affected me emotionally and mentally after being a part of that film.
There's a standout scene when your character, Isabel Reyes, shared a helicopter ride with Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver in Soldado. The traumatized look she gave Graver cracked his arrogant shell open for the first time, revealing genuine regret for the innocents he’s hurt. What do you remember most about the day you shot the helicopter scene with Josh?
That movie wasn’t full of too much acting direction. I think it was more the scenarios that were explained because of not being shot in chronological order and there being so many little twists in the movie. I do remember Josh crying afterwards. He was very moved, and I felt like we shared this really cool connection in the helicopter. We didn’t say a lot in between, after or during, but it was a really, really interesting experience. It was very different from Dora. (Laughs.) That’s the fun of it all…acting. Specifically with my career, I’m confusing many people, and I like it that way.
Did you get to work with your other Soldado costar, Benicio del Toro, on the set of Dora, or did he do his work separately in a vocal booth?
He did all of his work separately in the vocal booth, but what’s funny is that at the premiere of Day of the Soldado, he told me that they [Paramount] had reached out to him to play Swiper. And he’s like, “I’m gonna do it for my daughter and for you as well. I’m excited,” and I’m like, “It’s going to be great.” After hearing his Scarface-esque voice that he does as Swiper, he’s just so funny. I love him. I saw him at the premiere again with his daughter, and he was so excited to introduce his daughter and I. He’s just the sweetest man. Him and Danny Trejo have these tough exteriors, but they’re both warm and cuddly people. And Danny Trejo is my height; I was really surprised. [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted just a few hours before Danny Trejo rescued a special-needs baby who was trapped in an overturned car in Los Angeles.
Every time actors reunite, be it you and Mark Wahlberg on Instant Family, or you and Benicio on Dora, we tend to think that somebody called in a favor, but that’s rarely the case, right?
Yeah, it never works like that. Usually, it’s like, “What a coincidence…here we are.” For Instant Family, I did a self-tape because I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t really reach out to Mark, and Mark didn’t reach out to us until things were getting negotiated for the movie. We weren’t sure it was going to work out because there was something conflicting with the schedule. So, Mark called up my mom and he was like, “Listen, we’re gonna treat her right and make sure this is a really great experience for her. Just let her be a part of this movie.” And that was the only contact we had prior to filming. But, yeah, it’s just pure coincidence that all of this happened, especially with Jeff (Wahlberg) being Diego. Jeff has never really had any help from his family in that sense. I don’t think he wants it because he wants to prove himself to be what he really is. I think he’s super talented. There’s something about that family; there’s just really good people in it.
Lastly, what’s your favorite story that involves you and Benicio in the freezing desert of New Mexico?
(Laughs.) My favorite story was probably the scene that we did with the deaf farmer, where they did sign language together. My reaction in the movie was my real reaction to it. I was just in awe of it all. That’s probably my favorite moment in my entire career. I just think Benicio is such an amazing actor. He’s definitely one of my biggest inspirations along with Natalie Portman.
by Sheraz Farooqi
by Graeme McMillan