Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s stylish output is such that he’s almost a genre to himself. His latest movie, “The Skin I Live In,” is not only his first film with star Antonio Banderas in many years, but it also marks a certain return to provocative form, so deliciously warped are its plot pivots. At the core of it, though, is a stirring performance from Elena Anaya, who plays Vera, the mysterious captive of Banderas’ rich surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard. Revelations about the depth and nature of their relationship are a big part of what drive the movie, but it suffices to say that Vera’s situation is rife with layered trauma, making for a character with never clearly telegraphed motivations. ShockYa recently had a chance to speak to Anaya one-on-one, in her charmingly accented English, about some of the spoiler-ish specifics of her role, the comfort of her skin-tight costume and discovery of yoga for production, and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Pedro Almodovar is notoriously specific and detailed, but given that this movie has such enormous twists, I’m wondering if he prepared you at all for that, or allowed you to read and experience it cold, without any briefing beforehand.
Elena Anaya: Pedro spent like five hours talking to me about the project, and explaining to me what he wanted to talk about with this movie. And then he gave the script to me, and I was speechless. It got me — it had a deep impact. I was fascinated with the story. I found it so clever, so weird, so modern, and so risky. And when you have such a beautiful, complex part waiting for you to [tackle], it’s like more than a dream.
ShockYa: There’s this amazing balance of elegance and perversity in the film, and it obviously tackles a lot of big ideas. Thematically, what sort of things did Pedro talk about in that five-hour meeting, though?
EA: This film talks about many things, but if I should pick the most focused or important one, the one that Pedro put the most focus on, I would say it’s identity. He treated this as a very important item or issue that all humans have — and he brings up through this character, who has suffered a massive transformation but not [changed the core] identity. The identity is what saves her, and gives her a final exit. It helps her to escape. Identity and her incredible strength. He wrote this story about a survivor trapped in a jail, who suffered one of the most disgusting and biggest punishments I could ever dream of. She shows an extraordinary strength. So surviving would be another theme. And then revenge as well, of course.
ShockYa: Does Vera ever sway from a course of revenge?
EA: No, Pedro was very obsessed with that. He said, “Dr. Ledgard is very clever. If you show him just a little fang, he will not see the little kitty, he will see the wild animal waiting for revenge. So you have to be the most delicious cat, to cuddle.” So every time I was more being a leopard, he said, “Shhh, shhh, no. (Anaya shakes her head) I need a kitty. I want you to be the woman who is going to behave, and demonstrate that she’s not dangerous, that she’s never going to leave him or cheat on him.”
ShockYa: One of the shocking things about your performance, then, is that, as one watches the movie knowing some twists are coming but maybe not specifically exactly what, it seems to manifest in your body language some. You are that “kitty,” but at the same time you have to show without showing, I guess, an inner resistance or lack of naturalness and comfort with this femininity that Dr. Ledgard is foisting upon you. (laughs) Does that make sense?
EA: Absolutely, we worked with that. Dr. Ledgard changed Vera’s skin, but not the bones. This character practiced yoga seven hours a day, to be a warrior and feel good, and be able to get out of that fucking awful place for a few minutes every day, with the breathing and meditation. But I wanted to play this person who suddenly walks, and doesn’t walk like a woman. It was like showing but not showing, telling but not telling, and trying to be an actor playing another actor.
ShockYa: Right, you’re playing another part, very consciously throughout the film. Visually, the film is arresting — there’s an antiseptic quality to Dr. Ledgard’s house. But the bodysuit you wear is also striking. Was that described very early on in the script?
EA: You know, Pedro is not a person for improv. So basically I could say 100 percent of the things you saw in the film have been there for a long time. When I read the script, on the first page he describes a mansion so far from civilization, and then we see this person inside of a room with bars on the windows in this weird bodysuit — with covered toes and fingers, and all the way up to the neck. That was there since the beginning, and the process of creating that bodysuit with Jean-Paul Gaultier was amazing.
ShockYa: Was it at all comfortable?
EA: It was. Madrid was very warm in August, when we started to shoot the film. We thought I was going to be sweating and losing weight, but absolutely not. Sometimes when you are so [into] the story, you don’t feel cold, hot, sore or sleepy. You just get into the story. It just helped me very much every day, to live with that character.
ShockYa: You mentioned yoga. Was that new to you, or did you have experience with it before the movie?
EA: No, it was totally new to me. Before the film I didn’t know what asana was. Pedro practiced yoga with the same teacher that he offered to me to help prepare me for the film. And this type of yoga is amazing. Pedro is a little captive person too; he lives in his house with not a lot of interaction with the exterior. And I understood the character a lot through this discipline, Iyengar yoga, which is a special type. That was a trip — learning about the character through learning about how to breathe.
ShockYa: In the film’s press notes, Pedro talked about having many key references, but also trying to create a path free of visual references during production. Did he recommend any specific films to watch?
EA: Yes, he recommended “Double Indemnity.” We talked about the power of looks, and strong female characters, being able to just be there, [still], and look almost through someone. And I’d watched… “Eyes Without a Face” just before I read the script, in which I found a lot of parallels.
ShockYa: You’re traveling around to some festivals with this film, but what’s next for you?
EA: It’s the first time in 18 years that the last film I did is coming out with no other films waiting. But this is a film that took more time and effort than anything I’ve done before, and I didn’t want to be in a rush.
ShockYa: So does it feel like you’re on the precipice of something new and exciting? You’ve been in Hollywood films before, and in the States there’s a fairly arrogant assumption on our part that American movies are the “major leagues” as it were, a step up from everything. But are those types of movies even your goal, necessarily?
EA: I’m not a big blockbuster filmgoer myself, I tend to prefer older movies and more independent films. But that doesn’t mean those films are bad. I had so much fun doing “Van Helsing.” But it’s not the (type) of film I want to keep doing. But in Hollywood there are always fabulous, incredible films happening, as you point out. So it’s good you said it, because if I said it it’s different! (laughs) I thank God that this opportunity came to me after a few years of being an actress professionally, or at least trying. And so I’ll be so patient in the future, picking projects and seeing what’s next.
Written by: Brent Simon