Spanish actress Elena Anaya is in an enviable position. After first working with Pedro Almodóvar 10 years ago in a small role in “Talk to Her,” the Spanish filmmaker responsible for creating some of cinema’s juiciest female roles asked if she’d like to take the lead in his latest, “The Skin I Live In” (La Piel que Habito), which will have its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival tonight.
Not without some resemblance to Almodóvar’s most famous muse, Penélope Cruz, Anaya seduces the screen in her Frankenstein-like complexity. In the film, heroine Vera Cruz is molded by Dr. Robert Ledgard, played by another Almodóvar discovery, Antonio Banderas, in his first role with the director since 1991’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990).
Ledgard, a prominent plastic surgeon who lost his wife in a fiery car accident, becomes obsessed with creating a new human skin that will look and feel like the normal epidermis, but would at the same time be an impenetrable shield. Ledgard has long abandoned scruples; now all he needs is a guinea pig and an accomplice.
On October 14, Sony Pictures Classics will open “The Skin I Live In” and the Film Society of Lincoln Center and iW will co-host Almodóvar at the Elinor Bunin Film Center in a discussion as part of the NYFF indieWIRE Meets series. The event is free and open to the public on a first come, first serve basis and will also be streamed live on indieWIRE.
In NYC for the U.S. premiere of “Skin” at the NYFF, Anaya met with indieWIRE to discuss her role, working with Almodóvar on 9/11, Banderas’ on-set hilarity and becoming a part of the Almodóvar family.
indieWIRE: What went through your mind when Pedro first called you about being the female lead in “Skin?”
Elena Anaya: It’s like a beautiful gift that life gives you and it was Pedro who gave it to me. It was little by little though, because first he called me and said he was thinking of me, but said he wanted to see me first in rehearsals. They were really auditions, though (laughs).
He said come on, let’s do it. One afternoon he gave me the script and he explained the film to me — and I loved it! I was wondering how far he would go with this film. I did the rehearsal after preparing three scenes and then we started rehearsing properly after that.
In the role, you play someone who receives a new appearance — new skin — a complete overhaul from your previous existence. The character must have seemed crazy when you read it on paper.
I just loved this role. This character is so complex with so many layers and so much to play with. There are so many things going on that there are no words to describe it. You just have to be there to see the transmission of her emotions. It was a trippy thing to play with.
I read that you had to go through Pedro’s mind to understand the character. Can you explain what you meant?
You know, when I read the script and started working with Pedro, I thought at the time that he’d been involved and living with these characters in his house for years. At a certain part, all the characters were like him. I can see him like Dr. Ledgard and like Vera Cruz. I could see him as like all these characters. You read the script, but it’s not just all written there. You go through the script and then ask questions and then you’re going through his mind.
He’s a very good storyteller. I took thousands of notes and all the details [I needed] to understand his Vera Cruz.
Did he give you cinematic references to help you formulate her?
Yes, we went through Hitchcock films and also I had actually seen [Georges Franju’s] “Eyes Without a Face” by coincidence before going through the script. It was like I had to see the film before seeing the script. He also had me watch [Billy Wilder’s] “Double Indemnity” to show this energy that those beautiful actresses had back then. They were femme fatales who had strength that radiated without moving their faces – or any muscles in their face.
In a way, that’s what a character does in those films. Who is in control of who? Who is actually the boss?
Vera Cruz has ulterior motives of her own, and is sort of an actress in her own right, is that a fair description?
I think the character at the beginning has a plan, and that plan is only to escape. And she learns how to escape for six years, while suffering all this crazy transformation. And once the moment is done, when the transformation happens and she realizes he’s done working on her, she then realizes, “This is the moment I need to act the way he wants. I’m not going to seem dangerous so he won’t kill me. I must act like a woman and make him believe that I’m his wife, doll, monster, toy or whatever he wants to get.”
And that’s when people think she has a crush on him, but I don’t think any of that is true. Pedro said that you need to cheat the audience in a way. You need to make the audience and Dr. Ledgard believe that you’re in love with him. You need to make them believe. Then suddenly [a surprise happens] and people will say, ‘She’s a liar.’ And that’s the biggest revenge, I think.
At a press conference in Cannes, Antonio shared that Pedro told him not to smile or laugh on set and I was wondering what kind of instructions he gave you during the shoot.
He didn’t tell me not to smile. You know, Antonio’s energy sometimes goes so high. He can be hyperactive sometimes. Antonio is so funny. He can do 10 things at the same time and he makes people laugh and can entertain all day. He’s like a boy playing with everybody and having fun with everybody. One day, Pedro said, “Don’t play, just do [Dr. Ledgard].”
There’s a certain atmosphere that always happens on any set. It’s the director’s atmosphere. If a director is nervous or wants to leave to go to a football match for instance, then the crew feels the same way. If a director is very into it, then the crew follows even if they don’t know it. And this is very true with Pedro. People respect him so much. When he arrives on set, people whisper, “Oh, Pedro has arrived…”
Was the atmosphere very different on “Talk to Her” compared to “The Skin I Live In” for you? Obviously you had a much larger role in this film.
The atmosphere during “Talk to Her” was very weird. It happened during September 11, 10 years ago when the terrorist attacks happened. All around the world, of course, people were in shock and sad about these crazy attacks. But we had to keep going. We only had this one day to shoot this scene in which I was getting married in this church.
He said, “The show must go on, let’s keep moving and shooting.” And the passion was there again. He said, “This is really disgusting what has happened, and we can go and watch the news and be in contact with the world later, but we must finish today what we need to film here.” And the energy was there again.
How was it working with Antonio Banderas and how did you both develop your characters’ rapport?
You know, we made a good team. I felt very comfortable working with him. He’s very clever, intelligent, very generous and those are very important qualities for an actor because if you don’t get feedback, you’re acting alone. And two actors working alone doesn’t make any sense. It was good, his energy and his way of making things easier and fun.
How was it witnessing Pedro and Antonio coming back on the set together after two decades?
I was expecting some magic after 20 years. Then it happened and we were all first in Pedro’s house and I was there when they met. It was simply like seeing two old friends reunite that have a past together and now both have different careers — but they’ve both made it and have big careers. They adore their jobs and take them seriously. Like Antonio says, “When I go to work, it’s not like a picnic; it’s work.” But they’re very good friends and it was excellent to see them work together again. I think Antonio’s excellent in the film.
There’s a song [I know] that says, “Twenty years means nothing.” And it was like yesterday when they finished “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Time had passed by, but they still have been together.
Pedro said that he doesn’t consider this film to be a thriller (in fact, he’s told journalists to not say that because they’ll be disappointed), but that he’s living in a “thriller period.” Would you agree with that description, or how would you describe the film?
It’s chilling. And it’s a film that remains with you. It’s not like a “fast-food film” where you go and then forget about it. It asks the audience to think about it. It gives something “extra.” It’s a mix of genres, like life. Life every day offers different kinds of genres and Pedro’s films are like that. One can be a comedy and others are different or a mix. He helped pave the way for this kind [of storytelling].
How was it wearing that body suit?
[Smiles broadly] I admire Jean-Paul Gaultier so much and we went to Paris to try it out. I loved it so much, but it was also weird being in this body suit with the nude color. I felt a bit like an undressed mannequin in a boutique, you know? But it helped me to relate which skin I was living in and which space I was in with Vera.
You’ve worked across a cultural spectrum with of course Pedro and others in Spain as well as Ruba Nadda in “Cairo Time” and Stephen Sommers in “Van Helsing” and others. Do you like working across borders and languages?
It’s good. All were very rich experiences working with different nationalities, but I don’t choose my individual roles based on where they’re going to be done, or which language they’re going to be in. I choose my roles based on the story.
After each film, you wonder what windows they will open. I’m not simply trying to work with the biggest, most famous directors in this country or my country, but just to see what happens next. I’m crazy to act again. I like it more than interviews [laughs].. No, I enjoy doing these too, it’s part of my job — but I really like acting.
How has the reaction in Spain been?
People got into the film there — it just opened recently, actually. It’s weird — recently when walking down the street, I had someone stop me and say, “Excuse me, can I help you?” [Laughs] And I hugged the person, that was absolutely a compliment that they could believe this happened. I get messages from people telling me the most beautiful things. It’s also beautiful being here in this country seeing people’s reactions.
I read that Pedro said that you’re part of “the family.”
I have a beautiful family, but it’s so wonderful to also be a part of his family. I’m excited.
Veteran members of his family have gone on to do other things in this country and worldwide and have become very famous, including Antonio and, of course, Penélope Cruz. I’d imagine that must enter your mind. Does the loss of anonymity concern you?
Pedro explained to me that by taking on this role, there will be a kind of no return. My character lives that journey of not being able to return and a in a way I do, too. This character has changed my life. I’m so grateful and proud to be here and I wish luck to myself too as far as how I can maintain my private life.