Elena Anaya: Pedro Almodóvar’s latest muse
The striking Spanish actress Elena Anaya stars in Pedro Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In.
While Pedro Almodóvar was writing his latest film, the weird and wonderful thriller The Skin I Live In, he found himself thinking of Elena Anaya.
The striking Spanish actress had spent three days on the set of his 2002 Oscar-winner Talk to Her. Her performance in that film flashes past in seconds, but the impression she made on her director, one of the best in the world, lasted rather longer.
When his new screenplay was finished, Almodóvar summoned Anaya, now 36, to his Madrid office and talked her through the plot, inspired by an outlandish French novel by Thierry Jonquet.
“Pedro is a very good narrator,” says Anaya during a recent visit to London, “and I was fascinated. He knows the characters so well they are like extensions of himself.”
He spoke about an eminent plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard, whose wife commits suicide after suffering disfiguring burns in a car crash. He talked about Ledgard’s quest to create a fireproof artificial skin and his search for a human guinea pig on which to test it. He mentioned Buñuel and Hitchcock; Frankenstein and Peeping Tom; Prometheus and Galatea; Dolce & Gabbana. He didn’t stop talking, says Anaya, for “five or six hours”. Then he handed her the script and asked her to play his leading lady, Vera.
Anaya is no newcomer to cinema. She has been acting for half her life – brave, brilliant and in the buff in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia; dumbing down and vamping up in Van Helsing (“not the type of film I love to watch,” she says); dazzling as a French gangster’s moll in the recent Mesrine. But even as she was saying an excited yes to Almodóvar, a dark thought rushed through her mind.
“If I don’t do this well, my career is over. If I mess up an Almodóvar film, I would have to hide for the rest of my life. And then I said to myself, 'I think it’s better not to think about that’.”
She needn’t have worried. Her performance, in a masterful film that takes Almodóvar’s obsession with sexuality, gender and the immutability of identity to the most baroque extremes, is a career-making moment. It is hard to discuss her character, a cipher who Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) keeps prisoner in his mansion, without spoiling what she describes as “the beautiful secret” of the film.
“Pedro told me: 'Your character is a very good actor,’” she says. “'You have to cheat Ledgard and you have to cheat all of the people who are watching the film.’”
But her talent for conveying almost wordlessly the complex interior life of Vera is key to the success of a work that balances the hysteria of its plot with the immaculate control of its film-making. So, too, is her skill at bending herself into yogic knots while wearing only a flesh-coloured body stocking.
Before filming began, she rang Penélope Cruz, an old friend and the star of Almodóvar’s last two films, Volver and Broken Embraces, “and she gave me nice recommendations for how to deal with Pedro”. Her advice, says Anaya, was to the point: “Just be very obedient and don’t make him mad.”
Obedient? Even in a bracingly short dress and towering heels, Anaya exudes the prim politesse of an air hostess. However, as a teenager, the daughter of an industrial engineer and a housewife, she was expelled from her private Catholic school. A brief, rare scowl clouds her face when I mention this.
“That is just a stupidity that happened to me. The school lost a very good pupil that day,” she pauses, then laughs. “And they were nuns,” she adds, as if that explains everything. “Very angry nuns.” That sounds like the title for an Almodóvar film.
The Skin I Live In is showing at the IFI Dublin, www.ifi.ie
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