44TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
VOLVER: An Interview with Penelope Cruz
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NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
October 23, 2006
PENELOPE CRUZ RETURNS TO PEDRO IN FINE FORM
If any one director has been the cornerstone for Penelope Cruz's career, it's Pedro Almodóvar. Spain's top director makes a powerful stew, one of humorous and deadly serious scenarios spiced up by a taste for the surreal and complicated narrative. Her work for Pedro is a far cry from some of her more pedestrian English-language fare; in fact most of her best work has been among the many foriegn-langauge films she's done in Europe and elsewhere.
When Cruz began with Pedro she was only 17 and a complete novice to acting and filmmaker. Now, at 32, she turns in as a tour de force performance for the master visionary as a mother coping with some pretty strange and desperate circumstances in "Volver"--the film that was the Centerpiece for this year's New York Film Festival, the 44th. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Cruz talks about working with Almodovar amd going over her character.
"Volver" is receiving some of the best reviews of Pedro Almodóvar's career.
Penelope Cruz: Pedro gives a great lesson on how it's possible to make a successful movie without the typical love story, without a bunch of explosions, without typical violence, and without things that are directed only to a teenage audience. Pedro never treats his audience like they're stupid and people really value that he gives them credit. He connects with people everywhere, of any age, of either sex, and of any culture. We've gone to many countries with this movie, and it's amazing the response to it. Everyone I've talked to loves "Volver," including teenagers.
Just as Raimunda makes a personal transition to maturity by taking on the responsibility of running a restaurant, you seem to be making a similar transition by playing a mother.
PC: I'm 32, I'm still a young woman, but I feel like I am making a transition in playing characters that I couldn't have played 10 years ago because of many, very real reasons. I was happy that I finally could play a mature woman, because I started working when I was a teenager and always was playing characters according to my age. I can play this mother of a teenage girl because my character gave birth when she was only fourteen. It had to be a young mother with a daughter who can wear her clothes. She's the most emotionally demanding character that I've ever played, but I was ready to play her. And I'm thankful. I'm going to be seen in this role by many people because it's Pedro's movie and he has such a big audience everywhere.
So you think it will be really helpful to you in getting roles you weren't considered for before?
PC: It's a push for me in that direction. I am already noticing in what is being written about the film that it has opened people's minds and imaginations to what types of roles I can play. They say, "Oh, we didn't know that she could do that kind of character!" What I love about Pedro is that he gives you a character to play before you ever played such a character. He does it with all his actors. He's done it with me the three times that I've worked with him. He's done great things for my career by having the faith to place much responsibility in my hands with those difficult characters. I love the fear that I felt on the set of this movie, the terror of knowing about the huge amount of responsibility I had and how it was going to be a challenge every minute of every day to play this character. That is what I love about acting.
What did Pedro knew about you that gave him faith to cast you as Raimunda?
PC: To play Raimunda, an actress would need to show all her different sides and all her vulnerabilities and strengths. Pedro always said he needed somebody that could have a little bit of those opposites in her. He chose me because he knows I can be very strong for some things and very vulnerable for others. He knows I cry a lot, even sometimes just from watching a TV commercial, and that I also can be extremely strong if I need to be. I am the first one surprised by those reactions sometimes, but he knows me very well and he knew that I was going to understand every side of Raimunda.
As in the case of Raimunda's husband, the men in "Volver" are superfluous, even disposable. The leads are four females from the same family—Raimunda, her sister [Lola Dueñas], her daughter [Yohana Cobo], and her real, or ghost, mother [Carmen Maura]—and even the main supporting roles are women as well. Was working with a community of actresses helpful in playing a woman who surrounds herself with females?
PC: It's great to play a character like mine in a movie that is an homage to women, to motherhood, to women's solidarity, and to a family of women. It's not just the four women in the family, but women neighbors and women throughout the village. It's so needed to have more movies like this about women, and more female characters like Pedro wrote. I'm very honored to play one of these women in this movie, and it was special acting with all those other talented actresses. Carmen Maura is a legend and it was a thrill to make a movie with her.
What was it like witnessing Pedro and Carmen reunite after 17 years and what was the dynamic like?
PC: At some of the first rehearsals, I felt like a spy, you know? I was trying to focus on the scene, but I kept looking at them, like, "Wow, this is such a legendary couple and they've done seven movies together, and now they haven't worked together in almost twenty years and I'm witnessing this moment." I felt like a member of the audience, so that would take me out of the rehearsals a lot. It was very interesting to see how very easy it was for them to work together again. After all that time apart, they were still speaking in the same language and communicating at the same level about work. I realized that when two people function well together at work, it doesn't matter if they're not hanging out the rest of the time or hadn't seen each other for years. What they had before was still intact.
How was it to for you to rehearse and prepare for the film with Pedro?
PC: He's very specific and demanding, but I love that. If he doesn't like something he tells you, "Ok, that's not the way," but if he sees that the way and you found is right, he says, "Ok, don't forget that--that's the path for the character." So he's always guides you with the truth. We did a lot of work at his office at the table, all of us and him, reading the scenes, talking about the script and our characters. We didn't act a scene until months later. Just reading and talking.
To feel at east doing what Raimunda does, I had to do a lot of work that you do when living at home, not when you are living in hotels. I had to go back to all of that, which was great for me. I took cooking lessons because I had to become very professional, cutting vegetables and all that. And I took lessons from flamenco singers because Raimunda sings a song and I had to pretend it was me singing. And because Raimunda works as a cleaning lady, I cleaned my house a lot, which made my family very worried.
They thought I had a fever or something because I would go to their house and say, "Give me your broom, let me do your dishes." It wasn't because I don't like cooking or cleaning, but that I am always so tired when I arrive home at the end of the day making a movie. Pedro wasn't telling me to do any of this, but I knew I better know how to clean well the floors when I got to the set or he was going to be so angry at me.
So I did all this and in the afternoons I would go with Pedro and we'd do casting, including for my daughter. Yohanna and two other girls made it to the final auditions and I was there for that entire process. It was amazing to see casting from the other side because I remember all the times I had auditioned and had such nerves and fear and energy from being in that room.
Pedro wanted to show an emotional connection between you and the women played by Anna Magnani; and a physical connection between you and Sophia Loren, when she was young and when she played mothers. To do that, he deliberately emphasized your breasts as a tribute to mothers, and to show that whatever their class, they can be sexual.
Did that make you feel self-conscious?
PC: In truth I couldn't pay attention to where the camera was pointing because I had so much to worry about in every scene, as significant as how my character survives life. I had to do the most difficult things I've had to do in my entire career so I concentrated on my work and had total trust in Pedro.
He didn't do anything without a good reason--a lot of thought went into everything. For instance, we found the look of the character only after months of rehearsing. We started trying on straight skirts and cardigans and Pedro told me that I was too slim. He wanted my character to have big hips so he instructed me to eat everything I wanted and not lose weight. I was so happy to eat all this Spanish paella and I asked my mother to prepare all these fattening dishes. I also ate whatever I cooked. (It was delicious, which is why I haven't cooked since.) My character gave birth when she was fourteen so there is a good reason for her to look like that.
Once you began shooting was it difficult to navigate your character through all the genre and tone changes?
PC: After three months of rehearsing, I had all the information I needed about Raimunda; I felt that I had made the connection to her and understood what I had to understand to play her. So I had to forget about work and technique and all of the intellectual process of finding the character and just play her. There were days when we were touching three different genres in one day.
For instance, I was doing comedy, then drama, in the morning, and then melodrama, and comedy again, in the afternoon. To do this, I had to just take care of one action at a time. That made sense because that's the way Raimunda lives her life. If not, she would be dead. She has no other choice. She has so many problems, so many things to take care of, that the only way to survive is by taking one action at a time. And that was only way for me to do this character. Because on the days that I didn't do that, I felt so overwhelmed. I would have been completely blocked and paralyzed so if I didn't do one thing at a time. It didn't matter what I would be doing after lunch, maybe it would be comedy again, but all that mattered was what I had to do at that moment. It helped me a lot realizing that's how Raimunda lived her life.
You said that Raimunda the most emotionally demanding part you ever played. How did you see her?
PC: I feel she's not crazy, but she's emotionally up and down. What a roller coaster she is emotionally! I was able to find order in her chaotic behavior and I could identify with her in those terms. Something very traumatic happened to her in regard to her father when she was a teenager, so you have to imagine what this girl looked like and felt like when she was a teenager, living in that house with that father and that mother. And how did that make her father feel, and how that make her mother feel? Something bad happened, but she hasn't become a victim and she hasn't exterminated her sexuality, which can happen to a woman who has gone through what she did. But she didn't and she's not a victim.
Your character doesn't allow herself to be a victim and is triumphant, but don't you think she is damaged including sexually, where she can take sex or leave it--witness the night her husband must take care of himself because she's too tired and uninterested.
PC: That's the only sexual encounter that she has in the movie, apart from hearing about her past. The behavior of her husband is disgusting, particularly when she's been working twenty hours and is having all these troubles with her family. What he does beside her in the bed is one the funniest scenes ever written, I think. It was difficult for me not to laugh because I could hear the actor. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him. I thought, "This is so great." But I felt so sad for Raimunda in that moment.
She is damaged, she is damaged, and she has reasons to be. There are so many things that she doesn't want to look at and when she looks at them she breaks down. When her mother comes back to life, she gets the opportunity to think things through and resolve issues. I think what happened with her mother hurt her even more than what happened with her father.
Her mother was the person she believed in and then she lost that trust. When she thinks that her mother is gone forever and they will never get the chance to resolve those issues, she walks around with the heavy weight. But when her mother comes back to life, all those things that happened with her father, her mother, and her own daughter and husband can be resolved. By confronting those things, she finds a peace that she has not had since what happened to her as a teenager. She is damaged because of those things, but she manages to keep going. That's what I love so much about her.
When Raimunda's daughter tells her she killed her husband, the girl's stepfather after he made sexual advances toward her, Raimunda immediately accepts her story and disposes of the body with extreme practicality.
PC: All of her past comes back because of what happened between her husband and her daughter. Then when she's cleaning the blood, somebody is at the door; and the neighbor comes by with problems; and then there's a phone call; and there are more problems. It's like that for days. I was scared because I didn't know how do you go from that scene to another scene to another scene and, as I said before, the tone really changes so much.
Some of those scenes had to be funny without us trying to be funny—as an actress, you are aware of what is wanted, but you have to forget it. The genius of Pedro is that he can make you accept all of those transitions and that all these things could happen to one human being at the same time in her life. Raimunda finds a way to handle it all because she has no other choice. She has to be practical. She has to find a way to hide the body. She has to protect her daughter. She has to solve her problems. There is no other way to do it.
Raimunda has such a chaotic, busy life, yet every morning she takes time to make herself up to look beautiful.
PC: She has four jobs a day, but she takes her 15 minutes in the morning to put herself together to create an image of how she wants to see herself. I know a lot of women like that in the outskirts of Madrid. I've hung out with a lot of women like that because I come from a lower middle-class family. I didn't grow up with a lot of money. My parents had to work very hard to raise us.
The area where Raimunda lives is similar to where I grew up. Actually, where my grandmother was living is where Raimunda lives in the movie, so I've been very much in contact with that kind of reality and know those Spanish women. There is meaning behind Raimunda getting her fifteen minutes in the morning and putting herself together in the way she wants to be perceived, even if it is to go to the airport and clean the floor of the bathroom there. I know a lot of women like that and I love them and I respect them because they respect themselves. So when people ask, "How come Raimunda is a housewife and a cleaning lady, yet has on eyeliner?," I get annoyed. It's such a crazy thing to ask! I feel it's like an insult to that kind of woman and to that kind of job.
There is Oscar buzz for "Volver." You remember when you were on stage when Pedro won one of his previous Oscars. If his name wasn't there in the envelope, would you have called it out anyway?
PC: No. No. You have to stick to the rules. But I was very happy that it was his name. I screamed. I couldn't control myself because I was so happy for him. When he was talking, I just wanted him to say everything that he wanted to say but then they started with the music and he kept saying funny things. He's always funny giving those speeches. He's funny all the time.
You've won awards internationally, but are you excited that your name has come up in regard to a possible Oscar nomination for Best Actress?
PC: I never know how to answer to that. I don't want to pretend to be cool and say, "Oh, I don't care about that," because that's not true. Of course, it would make me very happy if the film wins Oscars. I want Pedro to get everything he deserves. And in regard to me, it's exciting but at the same time we all know it's better not to think about it too much. You shouldn't expect anything because it's not something that's solid. I tell you that it's difficult not to think about it when people mention it to me twenty times a day. So twenty times a day, I think about it.
As Pedro has explained, you haven't had the critical success you have deserved in American films because of the frivolous way the media perceived you when you were offscreen and in front of the cameras with Tom Cruise.
PC: For me to respond, I'd have to hear his words. Because the way Pedro speaks, there is always what he's trying to tell you as well as something else—and as a result, he's not always quoted correctly. He knows that we are great friends and that I am strongly loyal to the people that have been good to me and he's one of them. So that's all my answer to that.
I've done 30 movies in Europe and only about five here in America because my career here is younger. I think I'm going through a normal process. I don't see anything strange in that. Hopefully I can find material here that compares to what I do in Europe, while continuing to make films there. I can say that the things that worked and the things that didn't all have meant something to me. Everyone I worked with taught me something important, and I'm very grateful for every opportunity that people have given me because they have gotten me to this movie today.
Well, even if you don't find anything worthwhile in America, Pedro says he is eager to work with you again.
PC: Has he told you something? He gives me little hints, saying he's thinking of making a movie and there this character and that character, but he never says anything more. So I only find out he is thinking seriously about casting me when I do interviews. If he really wants me to be in another of his movies, that's great news!
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