Penélope Cruz: ‘I start every shoot like it’s my first movie’

The actress speaks to EL PAÍS about her starring role in Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, ‘Parallel Mothers’

Penélope Cruz, pictured in Madrid his week.
Penélope Cruz, pictured in Madrid his week.Jesus Briones (GTRES)

One day many years ago, Penélope Cruz received the call she had always dreamed of, but refused to answer the phone. Why? She thought it was a joke. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, come on’,” she recalls. But her family insisted: Pedro Almodóvar really was waiting on the other end of the line. Could she please take the phone? To the teenager it seemed impossible: the director of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, the film that made her want to act in the first place, was asking after her? When Almodóvar congratulated her on some of her early roles, she had no choice but to concede — it was him.

That conversation would become the first of thousands, blossoming into a friendship and a close collaboration that is still ongoing, 30 years later. She was too young to appear in Kika (1993), he believed, but cast her for a few minutes in Live Flesh (1997), fitting in a birth scene that would become famous. Then promising talents, they both became stars. The electricity produced with him behind the camera and her in front crackled through All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006), and Pain and Glory (2019). Almodóvar then asked her to give birth again for Parallel Mothers, only now Cruz takes up most of the screen time. The resulting film opens on October 8 in the United States and Spain.

Penélope Cruz kisses the Copa Volpi on September 11 in Venice.
Penélope Cruz kisses the Copa Volpi on September 11 in Venice.ETTORE FERRARI (EFE)

“Actors look for challenging material, characters that are different from us and from what we’ve done before. In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to take on several complex roles. Many of them have been with Pedro,” Cruz, 47, tells EL PAÍS at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere. She became the first Spanish actress to win the festival’s Volpi Cup for best actress, adding this to her Oscar won for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

“Of all my roles with Pedro, it may be the most complicated,” she says of the film. “There is no rest on a mental, emotional, even physical level. It’s a non-stop rollercoaster, putting [my character] on the ropes,” Cruz explains of Janis, her role in Parallel Mothers. Janis is a resilient and imperfect woman – in other words, a human being. She throws herself into raising her baby, while also fighting for her grandfather to be exhumed from the mass grave where he was buried in 1936. “I think it’s important for this subject to travel around the world. As my character says, it’s about giving the relatives the chance of a dignified burial. How can you deny someone something like that?” she says, in reference to Spain’s many Civil War-era grave sites that remain untouched to this day.

The film is heartfelt, even more so for a performer who considers herself “intense.” “It’s a way of life that one does not choose. Maybe I feel the good things more, but the bad things are very, very close to the surface,” she says. “I am really affected by other people’s energy, so if a person enters a room and is not doing well and I know them, it sticks to me. Sometimes too much, and I wish I could put a little more distance between things. But I think that’s one of the reasons why I unconsciously chose this job. It’s not that I live out acting as therapy, but it’s a kind of relief,” Cruz added.

Pedro is demanding, but he explains what he wants so well
Penélope Cruz

Cruz has said she is ever grateful for the “luck” she had to star in two films, Jamón, Jamón and Belle Époque, in the same year, 1992. She has not looked back. The daughter of working-class parents, Encarna and Eduardo, from the Madrid suburb of Alcobendas, she broke Hollywood long ago and is now one of Spain’s most recognizable figures worldwide. “She may be the best-known Spaniard outside her country, apart from Real Madrid and Barcelona soccer players and, perhaps, Rafael Nadal,” wrote Esquire magazine a few years ago. Shooting in Spanish, English and Italian, she is the only performer with at least one award in Spain (Goya), Italy (David), the UK (Bafta) and France (Césars).

The success hasn’t calmed her nerves one bit. “I start every shoot like it’s my first film. And sometimes the first few days are a bit nerve-wracking. I’m afraid, insecure. But I don’t want to lose those nerves, because this job can’t be done otherwise,” she says. “No two people are the same, so it’s a bottomless pit of searching and learning, and that’s what I love the most. Sometimes the time when you are preparing the character makes you happier than actually playing her, or seeing the result,” Cruz adds. Her deep embrace of her alter egos takes time to let go: “It has happened that I have to take a moment and say, ‘This character has to get out’. Sometimes I feel like they have been inside me for months, and of course it affects and changes things.”

A role like Janis was particularly hard to let go. On set, actorly tears led to real episodes of sobbing. The austere plot also affected the shoot, with hardly anyone cracking jokes. “I don’t know if a character like this can be played without suffering, from a relaxed place. I only had a bad time the last week, when I was very emotional. Pedro was interested in shooting the moments before and after that explosion of feelings, and for that you had to go through the peaks. It was practically daily,” she explains. “He is demanding, but he explains what he wants so well. He takes care of you emotionally. It was a tremendous journey. Now, if he were to invite me onto another film in a few months’ time, it would just be a case of where do I sign up?” Cruz says. The bond she shares with Almodóvar is held with enormous trust, and the ability to understand the distinction between friendship and work: “We change a bit during the shoot. It’s not that we’re colder toward each other, but it creates a somewhat different relationship.”

It’s hard to believe that an Almodóvar film featuring Cruz and her Spanish actor husband Javier Bardem has never been considered. “It happened in Live Flesh although it’s true that we didn’t have scenes together. I think the three of us would like that, but it should happen naturally,” she says. Right now, she is busy with other projects. “My current mission is a documentary that I’m going to direct and which will take two or three years. I can’t say what it’s about,” she says excitedly, albeit somewhat mysteriously. In recent years she has spoken out about climate change and migrants’ rights, including support for the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, if one is looking for clues, and the shantytowns of Madrid’s Cañada Real, as well as Spain’s longstanding gender-based violence problem.

She has already completed filming on Yo soy uno entre cien mil (or, I am one in a hundred million) about childhood leukemia, and in a few months, a feature film by by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, Competencia oficial, will be released in Spain with Cruz at the helm. The timing is due to Covid-19, because the actress normally takes breaks between her projects: “I don’t usually shoot one film after another. I did it for 15 or 20 years, but once I had my children that changed: my priority is to raise them and have time for them”. No script can compete with that.

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