When you think Pedro Almodóvar, you think Rossy de Palma. The actress’ unconventional, but striking, beauty has often made her the most memorable player in the auteur’s works, from her uptight virgin in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to the heroine’s sister in The Flower of My Secret. In Julieta, which marks lucky number seven in de Palma’s collaborations with Almodóvar, she plays Marian, an overprotective housekeeper who looks after what she thinks should be her employer Xoan’s (Daniel Grao) interests. After meeting the title character, played in younger age by Adriana Ugarte, who is about to become the new mistress of the house, Marian reveals a secret that sets the entire plot into its tragic motion.
The usually glamorous actress – she’s been muse to designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier – is seen sporting a frumpy, matronly look as Marian, in a short salt-and-pepper wig and opaque dresses. But despite Marian’s ominous qualities, de Palma allows her unique brand of humor come through in line deliveries that lesser actors would’ve given little thought to. Marian is by far her most dramatic turn in any of Pedro’s works, and perhaps one that announces a new period in their thirty-year-long collaboration. It speaks highly about her place in the Almodóvar world, that it was de Palma who joined Pedro in New York City where the Museum of Modern Art was offering a complete retrospective of his work, leading to the premiere of Julieta. I sat down to speak with the iconic actress who ate colorful jelly beans as she spoke about her work.
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective celebrates Pedro, but it’s also a celebration of your career since you started making films with him. Are you excited to be a part of this?
I feel like we started yesterday — time hasn’t really gone by. The films themselves haven’t grown old. They feel new despite of the anachronisms that remind you we made them years ago. The characters are so fresh. They remain politically incorrect — which is something to be thankful for — they say whatever they want, and they have no worries. So there’s no nostalgia at all.
When you work with him how much do you feel as a collaborator rather than an actor he’s directing?
Oh, he’s directing me, he created the characters, but for example in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I was bored because my character drinks the gazpacho and falls asleep. When I got calls to let me know they needed me because the camera would do a traveling and they needed to show my legs I would say, “Pedro, this is a bore. I’m asleep all the time.” I became very obnoxious, even if he told me people don’t do anything when they sleep. So one day he told me he’d decided I’d have an orgasm while I slept, and since my character was a virgin it would serve her well because she was so dislikable. In Spain we say “ask and ye shall receive,” so it was good that I was obnoxious because I became a collaborator of this moment. Working with him is very open, but all the great ideas come from him. He knows very well what he wants, so all you need to do is give yourself to him.
Did you imagine yourself at the beginning that 30 years later you’d be a part of his legacy?
Not really. I don’t think he thought about it either. In the 80s and 90s we did everything without thinking about the consequences, whether bad or good. We didn’t think about money or celebrity like people do now. All we wanted was to have fun, to share, and create.
It sounds like fun. Everything is so calculated nowadays.
It was great fun! It’s important to be in touch with our intuition, and the unconscious which is what speaks to us the most in the artworld.
Besides Pedro you’ve worked with some of the greatest, so how is it different to work with him? I read once that you said your relationship was like a love affair — it needed to be reciprocal.
Yes, if you have a lover they have to desire you. If they don’t, there’s no point of getting in bed with them. I need to feel desired.
So there’s an unspoken language of sorts with you and him?
Yes. It’s like telepathy. Sometimes I feel I’m operated by remote control, I give myself very well to him. He’s so imposing, but since I’ve known him for so long I don’t feel like I’m in the presence of a genius. Other people who are new to working with him might be more scared of disappointing him. For me it’s also a game — we both need to be very relaxed. Did you see the look he gave me in Julieta? I trust him. This is proof that I abandon myself to him completely. With any other director I would’ve asked them what their problem was.
Marian is so terrible to Julieta.
She’s very bitter, territorial, she’s a person who probably suffered a lot. I think of her as a Greek chorus member who announces tragedy, she’s always thinking bad about others, she’s very dark.
At the New York Film Festival, Pedro mentioned he shaped Marian after Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Did he ask you to watch the film in advance?
No, I found out the whole Mrs. Danvers thing much later. He gave me no references. He knows so well what he wants, you have to be careful not to do a reproduction of what he says — it needs to come from you. He draws you a sketch, you eat it up and then unleash it. I didn’t really look for references. Everything was in the screenplay.
Did you like playing a villain?
I love villains, they’re so much fun. I’m very good in real life, so I like to compensate. I’m too good sometimes, I’m a softy. So I like villains to do in fiction what I can’t do in life.
Who are some of your favorite villains?
Tons, but I love Anjelica Huston in The Addams Family. I’d love to play a villain in a sci-fi movie, or a martial arts movie, I’d love to play the Madam of a brothel in a Bruce Lee-style film. Or something like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
You’d need to do lots of training for a kung-fu movie though.
Oh I have many villains ready to come out. I just need some stories and a producer.
You mentioned that Marian is like a Greek theatre figure, and in the film Julieta teaches Greek literature as well.
Yes, she talks about the guilt us women carry inside. She also talks about fatality, how we build our lives without thinking about it. I’m terrified of fatality. It’s something you can’t foresee, your life can be changed overnight.
Does making art help you deal with this fear?
No, no. You can handle fear better; fiction helps deal with your fear of death, or something bad happening to those you love. Art is therapeutic. It allows you to feel small and become aware of your insignificance. But how do you deal with fatality? It happens when you least expect it. We forget about it, but then it arrives and changes your life. Look at that Colombian plane that crashed with all the soccer players. A young man forgot his passport, he didn’t get on the plane and his father died in the crash. Forgetting his passport saved his life. It’s fatality.
Do you think art helps give you a sense of immortality?
You don’t feel immortal, but you definitely handle the unbearable lightness of being in a better way. If I wasn’t in the art world, things like sculpture, music and writing, I would have been a sad person. Even when you’re depressed, art takes you to poetry and things that make you feel better — or at least you realize sorrow made you create something, so it’s not that innocuous. It’s a universe of learning, empathy. I visit this world and live in the other.
You’re wearing Sybilla today, and you’re one of their muses. You’re also muse to so many other creators. Is that something you like?
I don’t tell myself, “I’ll be a muse. [Laughs] In Spain we have a mayonnaise brand called “Musa” and I tell people “if you want a muse, go find the mayo.” I like inspiring people because I am inspired by other people’s inspirations. Knowing that you inspire someone who inspires you is like love. We’re all noodles in the same soup, swimming happily.
What actresses are your muses?
I’m inspired by women. I created a spectacle called Resilience of Love which talks about how art helps us live, it’s like a balm that helps us understand life better. The show has references to Dalí, Lorca and Picasso, but most of it is dedicated to women. I feature Maria Callas talking about her sadness, Anna Magnani talking about her work, Ana Mendieta’s photography. It’s a universe of women that patriarchal society has ostracized, so this is the world that inspires me. I’m known as an actress, but I consider myself an artist. Actresses can be fragile and vulnerable, but since I work in other fields I don’t depend on that frailness. I love to act of course, but most of all I love to vanish; it’s more like a possession, I empty myself and let the character take over. There are actresses like Magnani and Meryl Streep who are timeless. I like actresses who are organic, the ones you feel you can touch onscreen.
You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but how would you define the “Almodóvar girl”?
When we first heard the “Almodóvar girl” thing we honestly didn’t like it, but as you grow older it’s very nice to be called “girl,” so we like it more and more now. But I have never analyzed it really. It’s not something that came from us, like people who call me “a Picasso come to life.” Picasso didn’t know me so he didn’t come up with it.
Your character in Broken Embraces is called Julieta. Can you talk about these connections that exist between Pedro’s films?
You’re right, I hadn’t even thought about that. The Julieta in Broken Embraces was a tribute to Julieta Serrano’s character in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, who shows up at Carmen Maura’s apartment. I think of Julieta as sister to The Flower of My Secret, the writer played by Marisa Paredes could very well be this mother trying to find her daughter. All of Pedro’s films are related, but some are like sisters. Like you mentioned, there are characters that could easily travel from film to film.
Thinking about the next 30 years with Pedro, would you like to become like the dear Chus Lampreave for example?
Of course, and if it’s not onscreen, let it at least be in life. We have a long road ahead together.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work with the OAfrica foundation?
I’m the ambassador for Spain, Margarita Missoni is the Italian ambassador, Victoria Abril is the ambassador in France, and Lisa Lovatt-Smith the founder who wrote a book that I believe is being adapted into a film. We just did an auction in Madrid, we have a big fundraiser in Paris in March, and it’s such a joy to be able to help Lisa. She’s such a modern heroine, I’m so glad you asked me about this.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was turned into a musical, would you be interested in revisiting any of the characters you’ve played for Pedro onstage?
We saw the musical in London and it was such a delight! I already did the stage version of Dark Habits. I played one of the nuns, I felt like a guardian of Pedro’s world because I was the only one who knew him in the cast, so I was making sure they made justice to him. Sometimes people get “Almodóvar-ian” wrong. I like guarding his legacy.
Julieta is now in limited release.