Take one: an attractive woman gets into a taxi in Paris and, upon realizing she’s a foreigner, the driver gives her the full chauvinist treatment: he talks to her badly, takes her the long route and throws her change in her face.
Take two: the same woman gets into another Paris taxi. The driver realizes she’s foreign and starts rolling out his repertoire. The woman yells and the driver quickly takes her to her destination and says “merci mademoiselle” when she pays.
The first woman was the Natalia Verbeke of three years ago, when she had just landed in the French capital in pursuit of an international career. The second could be the Verbeke of today. It’s not that the Argentina-born actress is trying to suppress her natural sweetness — she’s just learning to live in the city.
Helping her out has been her friend Carmen Maura. After starring together in The Women on the 6th Floor (2010), Verbeke’s first French movie, they began going for lunch together and the Spanish star showed her how to avoid being pushed around by waiters. They went shopping together and she became respected by the sales assistants. “Natalia has a wonderful thing: she can do both super-sexy and a maid,” Maura says. “In this country it is very difficult to achieve recognition if you’re Spanish, but she will manage it, because she is really professional, really hardworking and, most importantly, really normal.”
Verbeke has a possible TV show on the horizon in Spain, but with the industry seized up back home, she is focusing her efforts abroad and has an Argentinean production and a French one lined up. In France she has also found fame in the series Jeu de dames, a kind of Gallic Desperate Housewives in which she plays a lesbian in love with the main character. The experience provided her with a further example of French chauvinism. “I was playing a South American woman, I didn’t know exactly from where, and when I asked the director, he said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter from where!’.”
She first knew she wanted to be an actress while watching Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind on TV as a four-year-old in Buenos Aires. “I didn’t know what being an actress was. But I saw that magnificent woman with so many wonderful dresses and men who loved her like crazy. A courageous woman. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to be that.”
At 11 Verbeke landed in Madrid, where her parents had moved in search of a better life for their children. She attended ballet classes and studied hard, scoring highly in her university entrance exams. “Great, you can study telecommunications,” said her parents. “No, no, I’m going to be an actress,” she replied, much to their disappointment.
One of her fellow students at theater school was future star Eduardo Noriega, with whom she has worked more than any other actor: in Nadie conoce a nadie (1999), Carretera y manta (2000) and The Method (2005). “She had a maturity that made her stand out,” he recalls. “Not to mention how beautiful she was. Half the school was in love with her. I couldn’t make advances, because she started going out with a student from my class.”
Natalia was discovered by Teo Delgado, cinematographer on her first film, Un buen novio (1998), and son of agent Alsira García Maroto, whose portfolio at the time included clients such as Marisa Paredes, Viggo Mortensen, María Barranco and Candela Peña. After that, though, her career stalled for a year: “I wanted to separate myself from the sexy girl, which is what I played in my debut, and only Lolita roles were coming to me.”
Fame arrived out of the blue, when someone stopped her in the street to ask for an autograph just after the Spanish release of Son of the Bride, her first Argentinean film. “It’s something that still makes me feel strange, but it’s always good to feel they love you,” she says.
At the 2004 European Film Awards in Barcelona, she bumped into Antonio Rubial, at that time right-hand man of agent Katrina Bayonas, and explained to him that she wanted to work with someone young, who understood her language — someone like him. She joined him at the Kuranda agency and it was he who pushed her into starring in The Women on the 6th Floor, even though she was already heavily involved in the TV series Doctor Mateo.
Verbeke is a “safe bet,” he says. “Because she is impeccable: professional, punctual, is great with everyone and never causes problems. And that is growing more and more important, because the golden age where anything went and it didn’t matter if the actor was half-crazy and subjected the crew to their whims doesn’t work anymore. You have to be good actors and, what’s more, good professionals. And that is very easy for Natalia.”