Something strange happened to Penélope Cruz as she rehearsed on the set of “Parallel Mothers.” Whenever the crew would come to collect the doll she was using as a stand-in for a flesh-and-blood baby, Cruz tensed up. She became combative. It didn’t matter that it was only a toy — she refused to surrender her child.
“It freaked me out,” remembers Cruz. “When the prop department would take the doll, I went psycho. It was my baby. I felt something deep in myself that was like if you take the fucking doll from me, I’m going to hit you.”
That primal instinct and protective flame would serve Cruz well when it came to putting “Parallel Mothers,” the story of two women whose children are switched at birth, on the screen. The film, which marks her eighth collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar, is one of the most psychologically rich and surprising of their partnerships, a movie that seamlessly integrates elements of the thriller and melodrama genres with a story that is both deeply personal and intensely political. It was a tale that Almodóvar first spun for Cruz while they were doing a promotional tour for 1999’s “All About My Mother,” and one that gestated for two decades. At the height of the pandemic, when Cruz was locked down in Spain with her husband, Javier Bardem, and their two children, she got the kind of call from Almodóvar that she has received several times over their long friendship.
“He told me, ‘I’ve picked up the story again, the one I told you about, and I’m writing it for you,’” Cruz recalls during an interview with Variety in New York, a year and a half and one industry-threatening plague later. “In the middle of all that craziness it helped to have that on the horizon as a possibility.”
The wait appears to have been worth it. “Parallel Mothers” debuted to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival, where Cruz captured the best actress prize, and then resonated with audiences and critics again when it screened on the closing night of the New York Film Festival. The picture extends a creative resurgence for Almodóvar. After striking out with the 2013 farce “I’m So Excited,” one of the worst-reviewed films of his lengthy career, Almodóvar has made a series of pictures that are notable for their restraint and dramatic resonance. Those include 2016’s “Julieta” and 2019’s “Pain and Glory,” which scored Oscar nominations for best international feature and a lead actor nod for its star, Antonio Banderas.
“Pedro has entered a new period of maturity and mastery,” says Michael Barker, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Classics, the art-house label that will distribute “Parallel Mothers” (as it has all Almodóvar’s films) when it opens domestically on Dec. 24. “He’s toying with narrative in creative ways, and there’s something about Pedro when he’s working with actors like Antonio or Penélope. He understands and appreciates their gifts, and that allows him to push them in startling directions.”
Indeed, Cruz and Almodóvar have the type of deep and ever evolving connection between director and actor that places them in the cinematic firmament of screen partnerships, ranking alongside John Ford and John Wayne, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and Martin Scorsese’s collaborations with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. What makes their association unique is that there is a thematic thread through their work. In all their movies, with the sole exception of “Broken Embraces,” Cruz is playing either a pregnant woman, as she did in “Live Flesh” and “All About My Mother,” or a matriarch, a role she essayed so voluptuously in “Volver.” When Almodóvar needed to find someone to portray his own mother in the semi-autobiographical “Pain and Glory,” he turned once again to Cruz.
“Penélope is the perfect image I have of motherhood,” says Almodóvar. “But she doesn’t come out of the Spanish tradition of motherhood. In Spain, mothers are usually depicted cooking and cleaning and are often seen as a little bit fat. Penélope emerges out of the Italian tradition of motherhood. She’s sensual and fiery like Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren.”
Theirs is also a relationship rooted in trust, Cruz says as she picks at tuna tartare at Jean-Georges’ Mark Hotel outpost, where the actor, outfitted in a pink sweater and jeans, is, if anything, under-noticed by the crowd of ladies who lunch and other denizens of the 1%. Although she’s come to view Almodóvar as family, Cruz says they remain professional on set. There aren’t a lot of niceties or in-jokes, but the years they’ve spent working together allow them to be brutally honest.
“He’s never mean, but if I do a take he doesn’t like or if he feels like I’m not giving 100%, he tells me,” says Cruz. “On sets we change the way we act together. We create a distance when shooting, which protects the relationship. But even though to the outside observer, it may not look like I’m hanging out with my best friend, I know everything about him. I know when he’s in a good mood or when he’s worried. He cannot lie to me, and I’m the same way with him. I don’t even try.”
She even recognizes his peculiarities. Culinary delights are often front and center in Almodóvar’s films, be it the flan that Cruz’s character makes in “Volver” or the omelets she lovingly prepares in “Parallel Mothers.”
“In scenes where there’s food, Pedro likes to make sure we cook his favorite things,” says Cruz. “Then he can eat them after. It’s one of the only times on set that we do one take.”
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“Parallel Mothers” is a movie that uses the story of two contemporary women to try to make sense of Spain’s troubled past. The older woman, a photographer named Janis (Cruz), meets the younger one, Ana (Milena Smit), while they are in the maternity ward of a hospital in Madrid. Somehow, in an accident of fate and misfortune, their daughters get mixed up, sending the wrong child home with the wrong parent until their lives once again collide. (To say more would risk spoiling the film’s grand twist, and it’s a doozy.)
At least that was the premise that Almodóvar initially pitched to Cruz, though at the time he envisioned her playing Ana and not Janis. But in the ensuing years the director added another layer to the tale. In the finished film Janis is obsessed with finding the mass grave where her great-grandfather was buried after he was rounded up in the middle of the night and executed by Francoist forces, one of the thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War whose murders continue to reverberate through the generations. Though rooted in one country’s tortured history, Cruz believes the story resonates far beyond Spain’s borders, and it’s hard not to see parallels in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the debates around reparations for slavery in the United States, with Janis’ struggle for closure. How do we cope with a past that’s never fully past, the film asks.
“So many countries around the world identify with similar situations in their history that they are still dealing with in their present,” says Cruz. “Pedro talks about this in such a beautiful way. It goes beyond any single debate or any one society to become a matter of human rights.”
“Parallel Mothers” seems likely to land Cruz her fourth Oscar nomination, but if she makes the cut, she’ll almost certainly be in a crowded category, alongside such standout performances as Kristen Stewart’s shape-shifting turn as Princess Diana in “Spencer” and Olivia Colman’s anguished work in “The Lost Daughter.” Victory is far from assured. The film’s prospects are even more in doubt after Spain made the puzzling decision not to submit “Parallel Mothers” for the international feature prize. Rather, that honor went to “The Good Boss,” a Fernando León de Aranoa comedy that stars Bardem. Sony Pictures Classics’ Barker says the studio will instead push for “Parallel Mothers” to be honored for screenplay, direction, below-the-line work and best picture. A few years ago, that would have been a heavy lift for a Spanish film. However, the barriers that subtitles once erected between artist and audience have collapsed as the entertainment industry grows ever more global — “Lupin” and “Squid Game” are watercooler hits hailing from France and South Korea, and Boon Joon Ho’s “Parasite” swept the 2019 Oscars despite unfolding in a foreign language.
“The composition of the Academy has changed a lot,” says Barker. “It’s become more international.”
When Almodóvar first erupted on the Spanish movie scene, he portended a new era of liberation in a staid and deeply repressive cinematic landscape. His early films, such as “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” “Law of Desire” and “Matador,” overflowed with trans and gay characters and frank depictions of sex, all set against vibrantly colored backdrops that seemed to be transposed from Technicolor tearjerkers. It was that focus on communities that had been suppressed or persecuted under Francisco Franco’s fascistic rule that electrified a younger generation of Spanish film lovers, among them Cruz, who lied about her age as a teenager to watch “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” in the theater and then devoured the rest of Almodóvar’s oeuvre by renting videocassettes to watch on her family’s Betamax machine.
“When I saw ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’ it was like a revolution for me,” says Cruz. “It was revolutionary to have somebody so open-minded and so brave speaking his mind at a time when my country was changing so much. He was a figure that was representing that freedom of speech with an incredible intelligence and great sense of humor.”
It was his films that helped inspire Cruz, who initially trained in ballet, to move from dance to acting, and it was an early call from the director that helped convince her she had made the right choice. Impressed by Cruz’s debut performance in the passionate romantic drama “Jamón, Jamón,” Almodóvar initially called her to discuss a possible role in 1993’s “Kika.” He told her she was too young for the part but reassured her that he would soon write something else for her to play.
Their first venture, “Live Flesh,” featured Cruz only in a small role, but she quickly bonded with the filmmaker over the course of her eight days on set. Almodóvar was smitten and started thinking of ways they could extend their relationship.
“There’s something very particular about Penélope,” says Almodóvar. “She’s a very visceral actress. She brings a lot of truth to everything she does. She has this amazing capacity to mix humor and drama, and of course, she is incredibly photogenic. I saw all those qualities watching her that first time in ‘Jamón, Jamón.’”
As Cruz has matured as an actor, racking up an Oscar for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and nominations for “Nine” and “Volver,” her priorities have shifted. In her younger days she would hustle from job to job, making as many as three to four films annually. Now, with two young children, she prefers to shoot movies in Madrid during the school year or to make films in the summer when her family can be on set with her. And she’s learned to say no to projects that don’t fit in with her schedule.
“My priority now is my children,” she says. “I love acting, but I don’t feel a need to be doing it all the time. I was one of those people who would wake up in the middle of the night to answer emails. I had a deep relationship with my Blackberry. That has consequences, and that was not a rhythm I wanted to keep up.”
That attitude extends to the way she works on set and the boundaries she establishes between her work and personal life. Perhaps it was her dancer’s training, but she insists on being prepared. On some movies she’ll spend hours working with an acting coach. On Almodóvar’s films, the pair budgets extensive rehearsal time, planning out the different sequences meticulously before cameras ever roll. In the case of “Parallel Mothers” Cruz and Smit worked with Almodóvar, staging various sequences on the actual sets for four months prior to production.
“She’s an actress who really needs a lot of time to approach a character until she finally comes in contact with it,” says Almodóvar. “Antonio [Banderas] is different. He uses intuition and instinct. Penélope gets her confidence from rehearsal.”
“Parallel Mothers” contains wrenching scenes, in part because Cruz’s Janis is living with a secret so painful and damaging that her hardened facade threatens to shatter at any moment. But the actor was adamant that all that pain and trauma would not weigh on her after the director shouted “Cut.”
“In some ways she’s at one with her character and can get intertwined with that character’s emotions, but once she steps off set she is wholly herself again,” says Smit. “She doesn’t take the role with her.”
On set, Almodóvar kept pushing both of his stars to dial down their emotions, reminding Cruz that Janis, an orphan who grew up without parents, copes by suppressing her guilt and grief.
“The first time we rehearsed the script we could not stop crying, so it was about drying our own tears,” says Cruz. “When we were shooting, he would focus on the moments right before and right after the emotional explosion. Janis deals with her pain differently than I do. He didn’t want my tears to be on-screen instead of the character’s.”
Janis, like many Almodóvar protagonists, has a fluid definition of sexuality. When the film begins, she’s in a torrid affair with the forensic anthropologist who’s overseeing the excavation of her great-grandfather’s unmarked grave. When they fall out, Janis embarks on an unexpected relationship with another woman in her life, one that turns sexual after a lot of wine and an evening of confessions set to Janis Joplin’s cover of “Summertime.” As Cruz sits down with Variety, she is fresh off a Q&A session at the New York Film Festival where she was quizzed about Janis’ orientation — was she, one questioner wondered, hetero-fluid? Cruz laughs remembering the query and the rather academic terminology.
“In none of the hundreds of meetings we had about the script did Pedro or I look for a label about what happens to Janis,” says Cruz. “Never once. We didn’t need to. I don’t think it was the first time Janis was with a woman, but I also don’t think it was planned. It’s not are they this or are they that? With Pedro there are no labels, and I love that about him. That’s the way that I see life.”
When it came time to shoot the sex scene, Cruz reveals that Almodóvar, who made a name for himself testing the ratings board with explicit depictions of eroticism and whose films pulsate with “let’s get it on” energy, is unexpectedly demure. “He’s very protective of us and very respectful, but it makes him nervous shooting love scenes,” she says.
Like many people, Cruz says the pandemic has left her reevaluating how she lives and works. She’s focused on making and producing smaller films such as “On the Fringe,” an ensemble drama that is an opportunity to give up-and-coming director Juan Diego Botto, the son of Cruz’s first acting teacher, Cristina Rota, a shot. After directing 2016’s “Yo soy uno entre cien mil,” a documentary about childhood leukemia, Cruz is ready to go behind the camera again. She says she’s found her next subject and reveals the movie will also be a documentary, but remains mum about the specifics.
“COVID pushed me to start the documentary because it was another wake-up call to do the things you want to do in this lifetime because you never know,” Cruz says. “Don’t be waiting around.”
Cruz hasn’t entirely left the world of big-budget Hollywood moviemaking behind. She’s starring in “The 355,” a thriller about a team of female spies, in which she plays a brilliant psychologist who partners with field agents played by Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Fan Bingbing. When Chastain and writer-director Simon Kinberg reached out to her about joining the film, she had specific instructions about what kind of character she wanted to play. She was tired, she told the two, of seeing action movies where the lead characters are good at fighting, adept at using technology and speak several languages flawlessly. She wanted to play someone who was brilliant but also in over her head when violence erupts.
“Initially, we imagined the character being more action-oriented, but Penélope said she’d seen the stereotypical fiery Latina character, and she wanted to go in a completely different direction,” remembers Kinberg. “She wanted her primary concern to be the safety of her family. She’s a person who sort of resists the mission they’re on, and that makes it more interesting.”
Both Cruz and Almodóvar insist they aren’t finished collaborating. The director has flirted with the idea of remaking “Marriage Italian Style,” recasting Cruz and Banderas in the roles made famous by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
“It’s curious more directors don’t think of them as a couple,” says Almodóvar. “Right now, it’s more of a desire than an actual project.”
Cruz has some distinct ideas about the kinds of parts she wants the director to write for one of his greatest muses.
“Every single character he’s given to me was something new that he’s never seen me do before,” she says. “I want him to do more comedy. I would love to do something like ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.’ I’d be maybe even a little more scared to do something funny than something serious.”