Dallas serves as the backdrop for action-packed new USA series ‘Queen of the South’

Alice Braga stars as Teresa Mendoza in Queen of the South, which begins its 13-episode first season tonight on USA.
Alice Braga stars as Teresa Mendoza in Queen of the South, which begins its 13-episode first season tonight on USA. USA Network

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 premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday 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 Pérez-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 Pérez-Reverte bestseller was the true source material.

Most of the Spanish-speaking cast members, who include Joaquim de Almeida, Verónica Falcón 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” Guzmán, 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.

Friendly, whose films include My Girl, Big Momma’s House and Little Miss Sunshine, says Dallas was the ideal choice for the show for several reasons.

“One is that Dallas has a wonderful tax-incentive plan that made the city very attractive to us — I’m not going to lie about that,” he says. “Another is that we wanted a U.S. city close enough to Mexico, where drugs and people, as in human trafficking, could conceivably be imported and exported under the radar.

“Also, Dallas, we felt, is such an attractive city visually.”

Friendly says that an unexpected additional benefit was the quality of the North Texas crew.

“Our line producer, a fellow named Bob Wilson, found the best people at every position,” he says. “To get that level of professionalism outside the state of California was a nice surprise to me.”

It has been estimated that production of Queen of the South will bring an economic impact of about $40 million to Dallas.

Braga, who is in practically every scene, didn’t get to know the city as well as she would have liked, because most of her waking hours were spent on the soundstage.

“It was almost 24/7 working,” she says. “But I really enjoyed Dallas because the people were so sweet and kind and welcoming. When my dad visited me, he completely fell in love with Dallas. He said people were so nice and kind. And the local crew became really good friends of mine.

“I lived on the south side, near Lamar, very close to the studio. It was great to live there, close to downtown, but I went all over the city. Dallas has so many great art museums and it was nice to visit them when I had days off. If we’re lucky enough to get a second season, I hope to get to see more of the city.”

Her favorite memory of Dallas might be spending precious free time at White Rock Lake.

“I would take my dog there to the dog park and he completely loved that place,” Braga says. “That was my favorite part of my days off, taking my dog to that beautiful park.

“Not very drug queen of me, is it?”

Queen of the South

  • 9 p.m. Thursday
  • USA