Reluctant star just wants to be challenged

MADRID — Pilar Lopez de Ayala might be Spain’s most reluctant star. Since entering the Spanish filmgoing public’s consciousness in 2000 with “Hand in Glove,” she has appeared in only six films — an act of evasion that for most actresses might be the equivalent of career suicide.

“I’m not interested in playing stereotypes,” she tells Variety, with the implication that only stereotypical roles are available to a 28-year-old, raven-haired beauty.

Her exposure to Spanish audiences came early, beginning in 1997, when she appeared in more than 250 episodes of the high-school series “Al salir de clase.” But it wasn’t until the underrated “Hand in Glove,” in which she played a teen rebel sacrificing everything for love, that the critics took notice.

Her watershed moment, though, was playing Joan of Castile, the daughter of Spain’s Catholic royalty, in Vicente Aranda’s 2001 Renaissance drama “Mad Love.” The actress “brings a magnetic ferocity to Joan,” stated the Miami Herald in its review of the film, “it’s Lopez de Ayala show, and she’s relentless in her energy and passion.”

The performance earned her the actress Goya, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar, as well as the Silver Seashell at the San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival.

“Juana (aka Joan) was a difficult character to get right,” she says. “But the role involved a wonderful combination of femininity and strength.”

Following “Mad Love,” others would have struck while the iron was hot by weighing multiple offers and plunging into more work, but Lopez de Ayala took a break.

“I needed to pause and take stock,” she recalls. “I felt empty.”

That feeling of emptiness might not have been assuaged by the ill-fated “Bridge of San Luis Rey” (2004), her sole English-language work to date, in which she exercised a tasteful restraint that was absent in the rest of a star-studded cast that included Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro.

“I’m interested in self-control,” Lopez de Ayala explains, “in characters who say more than they speak.”

Claim to fame: Vicente Aranda’s 2001 historical drama “Mad Love”

Career mantra: “I’m always looking to play characters who have to fight against the odds.”

Role models: Juliette Binoche, Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert — “French actresses show such commitment to their roles. “

What’s next: “Thirteen Roses,” Emilio Martinez-Lazaro’s Spanish Civil War drama, and Jose Luis Guerin’s “In the City of Sylvia.”

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