The 'Desperate Housewives' alum talks about her role in the adaptation of English author Evelyn Waugh's 1920s social satire, plus her politically-charged arc on Fox's 'Empire'
Eva Longoria is trying her hand at period drama. The former Desperate Housewives star makes her British costume drama debut on May 15 with the U.S. premiere of Decline and Fall. The show, which already aired on BBC One in Britain and domestically will air exclusively on streaming service Acorn TV, is a three-part series based on Evelyn Waugh’s (Brideshead Revisited) 1928 novel.
The series follows Paul Pennyfeather, played by British comedian Jack Whitehall, a young man who pursues school-teaching after being wrongfully expelled from Oxford University. Longoria costars as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a South American heiress residing in 1920s Britain, who draws Pennyfeather into a web of intrigue and romance when he agrees to tutor her son over the summer holidays.
Longoria can also currently be seen on Fox in a guest starring arc on Empire (her character Charlotte Frost premiered in the April 26 episode). We caught up with her on a break from shooting her Fox comedy pilot Type A to chat Decline and Fall and that Empire arc.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to Decline and Fall?
EVA LONGORIA: It’s always been my dream to do something with a British cast and something on the BBC, and I was like “Well, they’ll never cast me.” What role could there possibly be for me in Downton Abbey? Or something like that? So when this came along, it was almost like it was written for me, even though it was written decades ago. It was a South American woman who was living in Britain. I just read it — it was hilarious, it was so witty, like a lot of the British comedies are. It was a period piece, which I never get to do – so all of that. And then I was a big fan of Jack Whitehall – so, it was just a perfect combination of circumstances.
You mentioned a period piece was really a departure for you – did that present any new challenges for you or anything you hadn’t expected?
I got to play an accent. Not a British one, but I got to play a TransAtlantic accent, which was really typical of the women of the 1930s at the time. You couldn’t quite figure out where they were from, but they were worldly. So that was fun for me because I’ve always wanted to do that.
You said you felt as if the role was tailor-made for you. Period pieces are often very white-washed and we don’t see a lot of people of color, even though, of course, they lived and existed at that time. Was that something that made you gung-ho for the project?
The themes of this writer, of the novel — he dealt with a lot of societal themes. If you read him today, whatever he’s talking about then is so applicable and contemporary that you’re like, “Oh my god, he’s talking about racism, classism, sexism.” And he does it in a really comedic way, but an honest way. My character’s boyfriend — he’s a black man from New Orleans, and he shows up to this school in Wales and that was shocking at the time. And then my character dated a German man, a German architect. My character Margot really was color blind. She just loved interesting people, and that was rare for a woman at that time, to be that open with her sexuality.
Margot could definitely fit in with the ladies of Wisteria Lane – she’s a bit of a cougar, it’s rumored she murdered her husband, she’s rich.
Did you see a lot of parallels between her and the women of Desperate Housewives?
That’s so funny, I didn’t at first until you brought it up now, but yeah she could definitely hold her own on Wisteria Lane. She is like a period piece Gaby Solis.
You’ve done a lot of comedy, and Desperate Housewives could sometimes veer into satire, but did you find doing this very different brand of British humor challenging?
No, it’s actually my kind of humor. It’s a little more sophisticated and elevated. They really give the audience the benefit of the doubt, like, they let the audience find it. American comedies are a little more obvious and over the top and hit you over the head with the joke, with the laugh track and the “ba-dum-bum,” where English comedies lay out the lines and they let you find the comedy. And you’re like, “Oh my god, that was hilarious, did you just hear what he said?”
You got to really glam it up in period clothes. My favorite is the pink dress with the matching headdress from the second episode. Did you have a favorite or something you really loved about the fashion of that era?
Oh my gosh, that was so fun. I loved the hair. I really like that hair shape. I wore a wig the whole movie, but I loved that hair shape back then. That was really fun. The makeup I wasn’t a fan of. I mean, I’m not a fan of makeup of that era with that kind of pale, pale, pale face with the black, black, black eyeliner. To me, I’m like, I mean, it was of that time, but for me the fashion is what I love most about the 1920s.
Switching gears now to talk about Empire, I understand that you said “yes” before you even knew what the character was and got to be involved in shaping what she would be like. What attracted you to the show and what was important to you to be able to bring to it as you were working on developing who you would play?
I’ve known Terrence [Howard] forever and been a fan of the show. And I’m a fan of Taraji [P. Henson]. So, I just wanted to go and have fun. It’s a hit show, they invited me to come on, I knew the actors, and I’m at a point in my life and in my career that I want to just do roles that I know I’m going to enjoy, and I knew that was this role. And then secondary for me was, does this character move the story forward? Is she important? And she is, and you’ll see!
You’re an active and vocal Democrat — what it was like taking on a character so different from yourself politically?
Oh god, yes, she was so conservative. And definitely the other side of the political spectrum of my own views. It was fun because you like to play and explore things in your life that you’re unfamiliar with and then that makes it a lot more exciting to discover.
Did it give you more insight into the other side?
No. Oh, god no. I wish. I wish it did, but it didn’t.
You still have episodes left in this run, but is there any chance you’ll return in the next season? Or maybe direct an episode?
I would love to direct an Empire. It’s more shot like film. You have to have a film kind of approach to Empire, and the music is just such a big character. Yeah, I would definitely love to direct. I don’t know if this character is going to come back. We’ll see. I think it depends if my pilot gets picked up.