Eva Mendes has quite the introduction in the kinetic action-thriller "We Own the Night" as party girl Amada Juarez. Dressed in provocative lingerie...

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HOLLYWOOD — Eva Mendes has quite the introduction in the kinetic action-thriller “We Own the Night” as party girl Amada Juarez. Dressed in provocative lingerie, Amada and boyfriend Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) get hot and heavy to the pulsating beat of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

Although not in the “Lust, Caution” category, the erotic sequence in the film, which opened last week, does involve nudity for the 33-year-old actress and some very R-rated heavy petting.

“I was really nervous about starting with a strong sex scene,” says Mendes, who was born in Miami of Cuban parents and raised in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. “But she’s a lot more than that, and people will see that.”

Written and directed by James Gray (“The Yards”), “We Own the Night,” set in New York in the late 1980s, revolves around Bobby, the black sheep of his family. Instead of becoming a decorated cop like his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and father, Burt (Robert Duvall), Bobby is the manager of a successful disco. He and Amada are the darlings of the scene — they drink, smoke marijuana and snort cocaine with abandon. But when Joseph and his crime unit take on the Russian drug dealer working out of the club, Bobby and Amada are caught in the middle.

Fight scene wasn’t easy

Mendes admits she doesn’t shy away from nudity in movies.

“I think I have a much more European approach to nudity,” says the actress, who admires European directors including Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. “If it’s relevant and not exploiting me, I’m OK with it,” she says.

Doing an explicit love scene was nerve-racking. “This was actually my first love scene,” she says. “I’ve avoided it quite nicely. You do the best you can do. James Gray made me feel really protected, so it was me, Joaquin, the director and the cameraman and the director of photography.”

She found doing an explosive fight sequence with Phoenix much more emotionally and physically racking. “I almost prefer doing a love scene, as long as it’s coming from love, than doing a scene where we are hitting each other and screaming obscenities at each other and really going to that place,” says Mendes.

“We rehearsed and talked about the fight, but what we didn’t do is really block the scene once we started fighting, because we wanted it to go where it naturally went. We ended up falling behind a lamp and you can’t even see me. It was so real.”

And depressing. “I went home and I couldn’t shake that off. It was really an ugly place you don’t want to go to; it’s like having the worst fight with a loved one.”

Director “lucked out”

Gray admits he wasn’t familiar with Mendes’ work before approaching her for the project. “Sometimes you take risks with actors,” he says. “But I really feel with her I lucked out in a really good way. She has wonderful emotional intelligence.”

But Mendes did not initially accept Gray’s offer. Most of her roles have been the “girlfriend” part, and while Mendes has brought an intelligence, spirit and independence to the characters, she wasn’t looking to play another one. She turned down “We Own the Night” for a year.

“Then James made three different passes at the script and gave me the last pass,” she recalls. “My character was a lot better, and by then Joaquin was attached. I ended up saying yes almost reluctantly, but it has been the most amazing experience of my life.”

Mendes says she always trusts her “no” reflex. “I drive my agents crazy,” she says. “I say no to a lot of things. I could certainly be out there a lot more, but I feel if I am not out there the way I want to be out there, what’s the use in working?”

The word “no” wasn’t in her vocabulary when it came to working on the comedy she just wrapped: writer-director Diane English’s updated version of Clare Boothe Luce’s classic comedy “The Women.”

Mendes plays the conniving Crystal, the role Joan Crawford portrayed in the 1939 movie — a brazen beauty who steals the husband of Meg Ryan’s character. Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Jada Pinkett Smith and Debra Messing also star.

“I came from working on ‘We Own the Night,’ which was an all-male cast, into working on ‘The Women,’ ” Mendes says, laughing. “You would think I would be wanting to look good at rehearsals for the boys, but I never cared more about how I looked than with the girls. We would all come in our cutest casual outfits at rehearsal, and we would spend the first 15 minutes complimenting each other.”