Pedro Almodovar's Women: The Two Faces of Julieta

Pedro Almodovar loves women. His films feature memorable female roles: look at Kika, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her, Volver, yet another great part for his protégé Penelope Cruz, and now Julieta, the titular protagonist penned for two fine Spanish actresses: Emma Suarez as the mature Julieta, and Adriana Ugarte, Julieta as a young woman. Based on short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, Julieta further illustrates Almodovar's literary bent--The Skin I Live In, for example was an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's revenge tale, Migale, but just right for his style, on the verge of melodrama. His women, in every case, are out there. Last fall, I had the opportunity to talk to his stars about working with this unique Spanish auteur, and how he prepared them for playing Julieta.

Penelope Cruz has said she would drop anything to work with Pedro Almodovar. Is that the general attitude among actresses?

Emma Suarez: He's an amazing director with an international career. So when you work with Pedro you know that film will get international distribution. Not all Spanish directors have that certainty. I have worked with many directors so I know very well what it means to go to Cannes. His movies start with a good script. You have a role. He wants everything and more. That means you also have to find more inside of you.

How did you prepare?

Each of us has to face the project from a personal place. I asked Pedro to give me references. It's not like you can naturally bring out that kind of pain, the kind he's interested in unearthing. Once the tears have dried, then you confront that place again. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking was the determining piece for me. I had a lot of time to prepare, to read and look at art. I looked at Lucien Freud.

Tell me about his casting you.

I have been working since 1979. Pedro was starting to make cinema then. I ran into him at John Waters' Pink Flamingos. At the San Sebastian Film Festival, he told me about this project. I got some scenes to read. By the third test, Pedro said, I like you a lot. When he told me he wanted to work with me, I was hoping for a comedy.

This film is not comedy, especially the relationship of mothers and daughters.

What Pedro's really after is the mystery of why we abandon the people we love. It could be your mother, lover, someone else. The key is abandonment. Pedro added that to the story. I think that for Alice Munro, this is more a mother- daughter story--and about the generation gap. But Pedro wanted to go deeper than that.

Almodovar treads a fine line between tragedy and melodrama. Is your character tragic?

I don't think this is a melodrama: Pedro was after was restraint. He wanted to keep things tight. This was difficult for me because the emotion had to be transmitted through the gaze, especially because the adult Julieta is mostly silent. Tragedy can be more spectacular. I don't think you have to be a mother to interpret mothers. The film is also talking about the passage of time, and ways in which the present forces you to look back at a past that remains in fog. Julieta's courage is that she knows she will go into this painful territory, and she goes there anyway. She doesn't have a choice. Maybe that is tragic.

Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta. Pedro Almodovar worked with her in an entirely different way.

How were you cast?

Adriana Ugarte: I did a reading and did not know who the director was. I just was told he was a famous, important director. When I was young, I didn't allow myself to dream one day I will work with Pedro.

How is it to work with Almodovar?

For me, it is an addiction to a drug. It's complicated not to fall in love with him. The process was great. Pedro did not give me any references. I did not read the Alice Munro stories. We wanted to make something new. We built the character together. I need to hear my characters in my dreams. I wait for her voice. When I read the script, I felt that Julieta is a pure woman; she does not prejudge, she is sexual. Maybe in the '80's we were more open-minded and relaxed with our bodies. In the train she enjoyed the moment. Sometimes in life you need to do that, to believe in another reality. I needed to be Julieta.

Does he have a special gift for understanding women?

Pedro gave me advice, when I had doubts about playing Julieta well. He said, "Perfection does not exist. But, you should always look for it. Stop crying. Try again." He's a magician. He can understand women in a deep way, because he is connected with Mother Nature, and the origins of life. Everything interests him: Your mouth. A baby. He focuses on everything.

Take me through one scene and show me how he directed you.

In the bath scene I was like a zombie; he directed me, "You are not sad, not dead, I want you to be empty. You have nothing inside. You don't have bones, muscles, or oxygen." This was a mix of very physical and psychological training. I am in the bath and the audience thinks Julieta is dead.

In your view, is Julieta a mother-daughter story?

It is about parents and children, family relations that are delicate and fragile. We think our family will not accept us in fear of the consequences. Maybe it is better to show yourself as you are, better to be sorry for the things you say than not say them. Relationships are not perfect. We try to create the perfect family, but all families have problems.

Is Julieta a tragedy?

If life is a tragedy, then this film is a tragedy. We decide many things but matters of love, health, we don't decide. We are trapped in our own drama. Julieta is a tragedy with hope.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.