Actress Inma Cuesta is in a minibus on her way to the north of Madrid. She’s chatting with the rest of the troupe from the musical ¡Ay, Carmela!, which she has been touring around Spain since April. They’re polishing a few details of the show, such as the moment when a fascist character jumps into the audience and Carmela (Cuesta) has to point him out. In the last performance, however, she pointed in the wrong direction. “I went out without contact lenses and I couldn’t see a thing,” says the actress, who is shortsighted.
“I started in the musical Hoy no me puedo levantar without glasses,” she explains later in her dressing room at the Alcobendas municipal theater. “One day I put on contact lenses. Suddenly I could see the faces of the audience — so I decided to take them out again. I also work without them because they dry my eyes out a lot. And I always cry, whatever it is I’m doing.”
She cries, and she makes you cry, too. Cuesta has a face for drama. Perhaps that’s why she says she doesn’t recognize herself in her next film, Tres bodas de más, a wild comedy, out on December 5, in which she plays a hopelessly romantic scientist who gets invited to the weddings of three ex-boyfriends.
Director Javier Ruiz Caldera admits he wasn’t sure about her after the first round of auditions. “It wasn’t that we didn’t like her. We wanted comedy, and all that dramatic power scared us,” he says.
We wanted comedy, but all of her dramatic power scared us”
Cuesta’s deep and dark stare first graced the screen in the second season of state TV network TVE’s Amar en tiempos revueltos in 2006, when she played a singer. A year before she had been an unknown. In 2005 she was chosen from 1,300 people to co-star in Hoy no me puedo levantar, the stage musical based around the songs of 1980s Spanish rock group Mecano. “It wasn’t difficult to choose her,” says show creator Nacho Cano. “She had three important things: heart, beauty and magic. And she sang very well [...] She was a diamond in the rough. With that pure look, like Penélope Cruz. Both of them have piercing stares. They have very Spanish faces, like the ones on the [old 100 peseta] banknotes. I’m glad to have given her her first break, as I did with Penélope.” (Cruz’s first role was in a Mecano video.)
Born 33 years ago in Valencia but brought up in Arquillos, Jaén province, Cuesta always wanted to be an artist. The eldest of three children born to an upholsterer and a housewife, she grew up painting, singing and acting, going on to study at Córdoba’s School of Dramatic Arts.
Her first big year was 2011, when she became one of the highest-grossing Spanish actresses, starring in three films. Two of them — Daniel Sánchez Arévalo’s Primos and Águila Roja. La pelicula, the big-screen version of the historical TVE series in which she has starred since 2009 — were among the top-10 highest-earning Spanish films of the year. For the third, Benito Zambrano’s La voz dormida, she was nominated for the Goya Award for Best Actress, while her co-star María León scooped Best Actress at the San Sebastián Film Festival and the Goya for Best Newcomer.
In 2012, Cuesta featured in three of the year’s biggest releases: Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, Alberto Rodríguez’s Unit 7 and Daniel Calparsoro’s Invasor. She didn’t play the lead in any of them, but she was a talisman. Between them the three films earned 39 Goya nominations, eventually taking home 12. “She is a multitalented actress,” explains casting director Luis San Narciso, who first spotted her on stage in Hoy no... “She is a master of drama and comedy; she sings, dances. She has the greatest close-up in Spanish cinema.”
Although now at the height of her career, Cuesta says she’s not even sure how long she will continue in the profession. “I just don’t know,” she admits. “You might end up becoming a mother, or you might go on a trip to the Congo. You just don’t know how your life is going to change.”