Marking his return to the female-centric dramas with which the director made his name, Pedro Almodóvar stopped by Cannes Film Festival with Julieta. Adapted from a series of short stories of Canadian Nobel prize-winning author Alice Munro, the story follows a woman who recalls the pivotal moments of her adult life. We said in our positive review from the festival, “It’s charmingly self-aware in its use of kitsch and melodrama — almost to the point of self-parody — and, while small in scope, it’s also one of his lusher and leaner offerings.”
While at the festival, we got the opportunity to speak with Emma Suarez, who plays the older version of Julieta. We discussed shooting chronologically, only meeting her co-star once on set, the wide range of inspirations for the film, what the film means to her, and much more. Check out the conversation below and our interview with Adriana Ugarte here.
You and your co-star Adriana Ugarte both play Julieta, at different stages of her life. Did you work on the character together?
No, Pedro actually wanted to work with us independently. For one, the movie is supposed to be an homage to Luis Buñuel, specifically to That Obscure Object of Desire, in which Ángela Molina and Carole Bouquet also play the same character at different stages in life. Also it was our intention to show the passage of time. You have to keep in mind that this is a character who suffers a rupture in her life which became one of the defining experiences she’s had and transformed her into a different woman. So Pedro worked with us separately. The shoot took 12 weeks — we shot it chronologically. The first six weeks of shooting was done with Adriana Ugarte, while I did the next six weeks. Through it all, Adriana and I only met on one day.
For which scene? How do you think this approach worked out for the film?
It was for the scene on the train. At that point Julieta’s voice appears in the off, so they had to measure it to make sure the voice corresponds to the footage shot. But that was the only time we met together. I never met with her to observe the way she moves, walks or talks. I think that’s actually one of Pedro’s masterstrokes because you leave the film with the impression of having seen one Julieta and not two different actresses. It’s actually funny that someone said to me, “And in that scene with you on the train…,“ but it was not me they saw in that scene. I think that’s quite magical.
How did you feel when you found out you got the part?
I feel very grateful to have been part of Pedro’s world, to be able to see him work up-close. It feels like a gift to me at this point in my life. I’ve been working since I was 14, which means my professional career has run parallel to Pedro’s filmmaking career. I’ve been seeing his films along the way. When he gave me a call to say he’s interested in working with me, my first thought was actually how lucky of me to finally be in one of his comedies. Of course then they sent me the script and I realized that wasn’t the case. It just so happens that at that time I was reading these stories by Alice Munro (on which the film is based), so one might say there’s some serendipity too.
As for the role itself, I was very affected by the stories when I was reading them. So I felt a sense of responsibility when I knew I was engaged to take part in this voyage into complex regions of the soul. It’s quite a challenge for an actress. But when I’m able to perform and develop characters who are this complex, I believe I also grow in the process, both as an actress and as a human being.
What do you think the movie’s about?
I think Pedro has made a film that’s very complete. It deals with death, loneliness, abandonment, and the relationship between mothers and daughters. It talks about why we might end up abandoning someone and what it means for us when we abandon someone in our lives. It talks about the failure of love, about dreams that are not realized and powerlessness. We tend to think that we call the shots in our lives, but oftentimes life makes those decisions for us.
Have you been able to draw upon your own experiences to play this role?
I am a mother of two and I think if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to play this role the same way. Because that experience really allowed me to imagine what it would mean to me if one day my children abandoned me. For a mother to be abandoned by her own children without knowing why, there’s an intense sense of anxiety that I can totally relate to. I think the film deals with this generational gap between parents and their children as well as the lack of communication. Julieta is a fragile, vulnerable woman, someone who’s in mourning for the loss of her husband and wrecked by guilt because of that last conversation they never had. All that caused her dependence on her daughter, so eventually we see a change of roles where the daughter assumes the role of the mother.
Can you talk about the experience of working with Pedro Almodóvar?
Well, first of all, I’ve worked in cinema, theater, television since I was young and I’ve always enjoyed working on alternative or independent projects, things that challenged me. To work with Pedro feels like a recognition to me. I felt thankful when he called me for this part. But working with Pedro can be difficult as well, because he’s someone who’s very demanding. He’s not easily satisfied. Which is good, because it means you can trust the fact that he’s going to require more and more of you until he finds what he wants. Even then he sometimes keeps asking for more, because he’s trying to see what else he can get from you. It’s a marvelous way of working but you have to make sure you have a lot to offer, because he’s insatiable and you don’t always know what he’s looking for from the outset. So I made sure that I was extremely prepared. I didn’t want to disappoint him or myself, as his films are seen internationally. I asked him for references and read books like The Year of Magical Thinking, Other Lives But Mine, Alice Munro’s stories themselves. I’ve also watched movies like The Hours, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Rossellini’s films. I’ve studied the works of painters as well, and the film score by Alberto Iglesias also helped a lot. I did all that in an attempt to dig deeper into the world of anxiety and emptiness that Julieta lives in.