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Penélope Cruz says just reading the script for 'Parallel Mothers' left her in tears

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Penelope Cruz, stars in "Parallel Mothers," the new movie written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. I know I'm not alone in thinking he's one of the best working filmmakers in the world. "Parallel Mothers" is on a bunch of 10 best lists, including our film critic's, Justin Chang. It has a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film. Cruz was named this year's best actress by the LA Film Critics Association. She's at the emotional center of several Almodovar films, including "All About My Mother," "Volver," "Broken Embraces" and "Pain And Glory." She became the first Spanish actress to win an Oscar when she won best supporting actress for her performance in the 2008 film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." She's also the first Spanish actress to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Donatella Versace in the TV series "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace."

The new film, "Parallel Mothers," is set in Madrid and revolves around two women who accidentally became pregnant. Cruz plays Janis, a professional photographer around 40 years old who's thrilled to be pregnant, although she's no longer with the father. Her roommate in the maternity wing is a teenager named Ana, who's filled with regret about having become pregnant. Their lives intertwine in increasingly surprising ways. In addition to telling the story of these two parallel mothers, the movie finds the parallels between the pain and necessity of being honest about your own past and about your country's dark past.

Penelope Cruz, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this film. I love your performance in it and your performance in so many other films as well. So thank you for coming on our show.

PENELOPE CRUZ: Thank you so much.

GROSS: You have two children. What did you discuss with Almodovar about how to portray the birth scene at the beginning of the film, which is such an important scene that kind of sets the tone for the rest of the film?

CRUZ: Well, we discussed a lot about it because it's true that Pedro is very open to the process being a collaboration and especially in that case since he has never given birth. He was asking questions to all of us, to the women around that have given birth. So he wanted to know all the details about the different ways that it could happen, different things that could go wrong. What about epidural or no epidural? 'Cause I was asking him all those questions. Like, we need to know specifics, you know? Like (laughter) I think I even wanted to know, like, how much are they dilated, like, in the conversation in the room before the next scene where they are already pushing? And I think that was a little too extreme for him, like, need to know, like, such specific details. But in my mind, you know, I needed to be really clear about, like, what moment of the process I was in. When the contractions are still happening, like, every few minutes, it's not like - when they happen, very, very - like, one after another when you are closer to the time where you have to push. So yeah, there were a lot of conversations about that.

GROSS: Did you draw on a lot of memories of your births when you were making that scene?

CRUZ: It's true that I try not to mix my own experiences that are related to people that I love in my life, but it's impossible not to. I try not to force it. I try, like, not to force the exercise of imagining your own kids or your own partner or your own mother or father in situations. I don't like doing that. But it's true that that window is always open. And if it's not forced and things come through, I think it can be OK as long as it's not used in a manipulative way, especially with my kids. I feel like that's sacred. It's a separate thing from any fiction. But of course, like you said, doing a scene where I'm giving birth, it was a very strong day where a lot of things, like, in my body, in my cells were remembering what I went through. And it was very emotional because of that reason.

GROSS: The movie also portrays just, like, the physical bond between a mother and her child and the experience of, like, touching a newborn baby and then continuing to, like, hold the baby after you take the baby home and what that feels like, like, the touch. How do you express that on camera? How do you express that emotion that - it's so interior.

CRUZ: Yeah, it's the strongest feeling that I have experienced. And it's true that when we were shooting and I saw the face of this little baby that was so tiny, of course, in that moment, I revisit all the emotions that I experienced in my own - the birth of my kids, which is like that first moment where you look at each other and you see those eyes and that soul and you feel like, oh, you already know that person. You cannot imagine your life without that person, even if you just met them. But I don't think you just met them. I'm not talking only about the nine months of pregnancy. You just feel like they've been forever with you, a part of you. So, yeah, that was, like, probably the most emotional moment in the scene is when they put the real baby on top of me. And the baby was so cute.

GROSS: Yeah. Whose baby was it? I always wonder, how do you get infants for a movie?

CRUZ: Yeah. And that baby was 1 month old, but it was very tiny, so it looked like a few days old. And the mother - and the mother and the father of all these babies that are in the movie, they were very - they were trusting us. Every time I work with children, I spend a lot of time with them, also with the families. I make sure that they feel comfortable with us, that there is no danger for them in any way, you know, with all the equipment around. Like, I like being with them as much as possible. The problem was that they could not take the babies away from me on the set.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think being a mother has changed your acting or your range of emotions?

CRUZ: I think it has changed everything in me, the way I see life, the way I feel things, the way I can never think about myself first and the way it affects my work for sure because I leave everything even with more intensity. I used to be working nonstop, like, since I was 17 or 18 until late in my 30s when I became a mother. And I was doing three movies per year, four movies per year, some of them very long, travelling nonstop. But I changed that rhythm when I became a mother because my priority is to be with them and to raise them and to - I just don't want to miss anything that goes on with them. So I feel very fortunate and very blessed, very lucky that I can continue to have my career combining my work with my most important mission, which is being a good mom.

GROSS: So I want to quote something that Pedro Almodovar says in the press kit for "Parallel Mothers." He said - and I quote - directing her - Penelope Cruz - "directing her has been a meticulous process where I needed her to surrender herself to me, as if in a state of hypnosis. I contained the flood of tears. Penelope's very emotional, and she would have been crying from start to finish, and she knew how to replace the tears with the exact amount of guilt and shame, in a state of constant alarm." What does it mean when he says he wanted you to surrender yourself to him as if in a state of hypnosis?

CRUZ: Well, I always do that when I'm working with him. Sometimes when I'm working with other directors and they don't want to rehearse, they don't want to block time to rehearse or, for whatever reason, it doesn't happen - because you go from one movie to the next. And I take the time to prepare with my acting teacher, and I love that time of research. But I don't work with my acting teacher when I'm with Pedro because I arrive to the set empty, from zero. I read the story. I start - of course, I cannot stop thinking about it after I read it. And I come with proposals or ideas of how I see it. But I come, like, really open to listen and to understand what he wants because he will give us that time. He give us - like, in this movie, it was, like, four months or more of rehearsals.

And it was very necessary in this case because Milena and I, we were so touched and affected by the script and the characters and what happens to them that we would start reading a scene with Pedro, and we would immediately start crying. And we could not control it. It was just moving so much inside of us. And he said, that's fine. I know we have to go through this process, but those are your own tears, and they are not the ones of the characters. And in my case, for Janis, we express ourselves in very different ways. My character is more - in a situation like the one she goes through, I would be crying, like, 20 times a day.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRUZ: But she doesn't. She doesn't. She expresses that in a very different way. And to get to that point where I could be able to do some of those scenes without exploding, without crying, without expressing those emotions in a way that is more familiar to me, that took time. That took time to just, like, go through things and digest things because Pedro has constructed something that is almost a thriller sometimes. It's almost film noir. It's almost like - it's such an incredible adrenaline ride. He could not have gotten that if all of us would have been in a state of - I cannot say despair because they are desperate, but the way they express it, they cannot - there cannot be a release in the form of tears, until that block in the movie where she decides to make a confession.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Penelope Cruz. She stars in Pedro Almodovar's new movie "Parallel Mothers." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Penelope Cruz. She stars in Pedro Almodovar's new movie "Parallel Mothers." She starred or co-starred in several of his films, including "All About My Mother," "Broken Embraces" and "Pain And Glory." In 2009, she won an Oscar for her supporting role in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," making her the first Spanish actress to win an Oscar.

I want to talk with you about another theme in the movie, and that is a much more political theme, and it has to do with reckoning with the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, in which the fascists won, leading to a decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. How political was your family when you were growing up? Because you were born the year before Franco died. So you didn't live under his dictatorship, but your family did, and everybody older than you did.

CRUZ: I was born in '74. And I mean, the rest of the '70s - too young to remember. But in the '80s, there was really, like, a feeling in the year of, like, chance for freedom, freedom of expression. Like, what would happen to me - and I don't say this because it sounds good because of my relationship with Pedro. This is very real. When I was in the '80s and I started to discover Pedro's films and watch some of his interviews - not so much the part of the Movida, you know, that I also didn't experience because I was very young. But to hear his message, I always saw him as much more than an amazing director, a genius director, but much more than that because I remember being very little and asking myself - feeling this man could be and should be our president, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRUZ: I would remember, like, being a little girl and seeing him also as some kind of political figure because it was so necessary to have somebody like that in those years, that through art and through his message was inspiring that freedom and those values.

GROSS: Yeah. Can I just interrupt and say that he was part of - he was a major part of what was known as La Movida, which was, like, the movement. And this was, like, after Franco's death, when artists were no longer going to be censored, there was this, like, outburst of new creative, lively art that - my understanding is - I know when I talked to Antonio Banderas, who's also worked with Almodovar, he talked about how this - this movement had, like, punk rock and sexuality, joy, color, LGBTQ characters, and Almodovar was famous for that. You know, he was one of the first filmmakers to have LGBTQ characters being just people, not like - this is a problem or this is an issue. They were just, like, people in the film.

CRUZ: Exactly. And that's maybe what I mean by that, that even if I was not part of the Movida, and Movida was - a part of it was really crazy. But there was something else behind it that was his message and what he was doing through his art, that was, like, so respectful and inclusive and revolutionary, you know, for those years in our country, maybe just not in our country, for the world to have somebody that speaks his mind like that and what he has done with women from the beginning, the respect and adoration to women, the understanding of women because he has been raised by very strong, incredible women, the mother, the sisters and neighbors. And he has been observing them, you know, as a little kid, always observing the secret conversations and the behavior. And so I was a little girl, but I was picking up all those things in him.

GROSS: You wanted to meet Almodovar so badly. You wanted to be in his films. You used to - when you were young - I don't know how old, you can tell me - you used to stand outside of his home, I guess, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Did you see him when you would - how old were you - did you see him when you were doing that? And did he see you? Did he think you were a stalker?

CRUZ: No. I mean, the first time, I was really obsessed with his films, so sometimes I would go to the cinema or to a bar, to a place. And I would say to my friends, you're going to see - we're going to see Almodovar today. I have a feeling. And they were like, oh, here you go with your, like, intuition thing, blah, blah, blah. And then he would walk in the door. And this happened like two or three times with him. But we would not talk because we didn't know each other. And I was too shy to come up to him and say anything.

And then he saw my first two movies. And he called me. And I was drying my hair at home. And somebody told me, Almodovar is on the phone. And, of course, I thought it was a joke because it was such a particularly specific dream that I've had for so many years. And they said, no, he's waiting on the phone. It's true. So I picked up the phone. And from hello, I felt like, oh, there was my long-time friend that I hadn't seen in a while. And we connected in an incredible way. He called me to go to his house to do the - to read some scenes for his next film. But he told me I was too young because I was always lying about my age at that point, saying that I was older. And he said, I will write to you another character in another film soon. And he put it in writing. He gave me a letter, beautiful letter. And then he called me for "Live Flesh." And "Live Flesh," even if it was 10 minutes in the film, it opened so many doors for me.

GROSS: So in Almodovar's film "Pain And Glory," you play the mother of a boy who becomes an acclaimed filmmaker in Spain. And there's a twist on that which I won't give away. It's a wonderful movie, and I want people to see the surprises in the movie as they unfold. But mothers so often figure into his films, and he seems to just have such deep emotions about mothers, and I assume about his mother. Did you meet his mother when you were playing his mother?

CRUZ: No, because she was not with us anymore, unfortunately. But I met her many years ago when they were giving an award to Pedro, and we all went to the ceremony with him. And, of course, I tried to spend as much time as possible with her. And we were talking about Pedro. And she started to cry talking to me. And she said that she was very emotional for how well things were going for him and for that award, and that she was terrified when Pedro decided to quit his job at the telephone company in the '80s, because she thought that was a really safe - a path for him and that he was risking everything, but that he was right and now he was happy doing all these movies.

And that, for me, that moment was such a gift, you know, to hear those words from her. It made me understand so much about his personality, his charisma. She was really funny. A lot of his humor comes from her. She's so original. Like, you never knew what she was going to say. And it's the same with Pedro. You go to dinner with him, and he's like - he could say anything. Like, he was going to really shock you at some point, but he doesn't do it on purpose. I don't mean in terms of like, oh, my - no, in a very refreshing, beautiful way because his humor is one of a kind. But yeah, that moment that I had with his mother really helped me to prepare later the role in "Pain And Glory" because I understood a lot about him and his childhood and his mom through that time we spent together.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Penelope Cruz. She stars in the new movie "Parallel Mothers," which was written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Penelope Cruz. She stars in Pedro Almodovar's new movie "Parallel Mothers." She's starred or co-starred in several of his films, including "All About My Mother," "Broken Embraces" and "Pain And Glory." In 2009, she won an Oscar for her supporting role in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," making her the first Spanish actress to win an Oscar.

You studied ballet for many years and started studying ballet as a child. Did you think you were going to be a ballet dancer? Was that your ambition?

CRUZ: Yeah - from the time I was 4, and I was doing many hours a week. I was asking my teacher to let me play Carmen at 4. I always had an attraction to twisted characters. She said, maybe you are a little young to understand Carmen.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRUZ: I said to her, no, but I do understand her. And why can I not play her if I understand her? When I was 13, I was in the theater school doing "The Maids" from Jean Genet. So always my tendency was that. So I hope someday I can do some version of Jean Genet - "The Maids" because I was so obsessed with it for so many years and still am. But in terms of the - my relationship with ballet - many, many years, I thought that was what I was going to do for - as a profession because I was training, like, 18 years of my life. But when I started to work as an actress, I realized that I had to choose one of the two because I didn't know that when I started to do some castings, I was going to get yes for an answer. I was really surprised and shocked. And then if you are a ballerina, like, that would take all your time and energy. It's the toughest thing that I have done. And I loved it. But this idea that I had that I could combine both was impossible.

GROSS: You know, I think of ballet as being so traditional and with a lot of things that you have to conform to. You have to do the steps a certain way. A lot of ballet teachers want your hair to be a certain way and your body to be a certain way. And the contrast between that and, say, Almodovar's films, where there are so many - such a wide range of characters who don't conform to social rules. And he loves those characters for that. So it sounds like two opposite ends of culture.

CRUZ: Yeah. But I think if I wouldn't have had that background and that discipline of the world of ballet - classical ballet - I don't know how I would have handled some of the pressure of some of the movies, especially being very young. I feel like everything seemed easier after coming from ballet. You know, when you are - like, your feet are bleeding, and your toenails are bleeding, but you have to keep smiling. Everything else seemed easier compared to that. But I loved it so much.

GROSS: Where did you grow up? And what was your neighborhood like?

CRUZ: I grew up in an area that is called Alcobendas and an area that is called San Sebastian de los Reyes. They are together, very close to each other. And I was all day from one place to the other, walking, school and ballet. And my mom had a hair salon. So I spent some time there observing all the women and spying their conversations, pretending I was studying my books. But I was really studying them because I was already very sure that I wanted to act. So I would - wanted to see who was lying, who was telling her secrets that - were not sharing with their husbands. Like - it was, like, a lot of drama always around from their clients. So it was - that's why I say it was like a first acting school.

GROSS: How much have you wanted an acting career in Hollywood?

CRUZ: Of course, I wanted to work also in America - in American movies. And I came here to study English when I was, like, 19. And then I came back. I was working more and more in Europe. But then I did a casting from there with Stephen Frears, who I was obsessed with because of "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Grifters." And I already had an agent at CAA. And he asked me to do this casting. And I got the part. So I came to America with a two-way ticket. You know, I knew when I was arriving. I knew when I was coming back home. And, in a way, I knew I needed that safety net of, OK, I'm going for this film. But then I started to do more castings, and I started to get more offers. And I've been able to combine both - I mean, my work in Europe and here from from my 20s. So I feel really, really lucky and grateful about that.

GROSS: You initially came to the U.S. to study in English. How did you study English? What kind of classes did you take?

CRUZ: Well, what happened is that before that, I studied French. And then I knew if I also wanted to work here, I had to do, like, an intensive, you know, year of English. And I came to Greenwich Village to live here. And I had a teacher, like, every day. And then I lived in London for a couple of years and kept studying. And then I was combining that with the work that I was doing in Europe and then with the movies that started to appear in America - the ones that I started to get offers for through castings. And so I started to learn English kind of late.

GROSS: Was it hard to learn it? English is a - I think a very difficult language. There's all these rules. But it's all these exceptions to the rule. So it's often, like, not helpful.

CRUZ: (Laughter) I was always fighting with all the teachers. That was the thing that was driving me crazy at the beginning. But no - why? Explain to me why. What is the logic?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRUZ: But I love this language, so - I just love languages. I love them so much. And I hope I can learn many more.

GROSS: So you're married to Javier Bardem. And you're both in new movies now. You're, of course, in "Parallel Mothers." And he's in "Being The Ricardos," playing Desi Arnaz. So how did you first meet? Did you meet on set?

CRUZ: So we met when I was 17 and he was 21, and we were doing our first movie together. So, you know, it's, like, 30 years ago that we know each other - long time (laughter).

GROSS: You haven't been married nearly that long. How many years after you met did you become a couple?

CRUZ: No, no, no. We've been together like 15 years. But we know each other for - you know, we've been friends before that.

GROSS: Have you worked together since becoming a couple?

CRUZ: We love working together - but not something that I would want to do every year. That is, like, once in a while. But I think he's such an incredible actor. I love working with him. And, of course, it makes all the logistics also easier. But we don't want to force it in any direction. If something else appears that is right and we feel is right and is the right moment, we will. But we are not trying to find things to do together all the time. I think, in a way, it's just, like, a natural reaction to protect the relationship.

GROSS: So you're in your 40s now. And for a lot of actresses, that has, in the past, meant roles are going to dry up because men always seem to have longer acting careers than women. And they were able to be, like, romantic leads at older ages than women. And I'm wondering if that's been an issue for you or if you feel like you're still getting roles that you want. And certainly, "Parallel Mothers" is an example of a role you really want, and certainly, the movie before that from, I guess, 2018, "Pain And Glory." So - but I'm wondering if that's an issue for you.

CRUZ: I feel like, maybe, as women, we have to stop putting it in those words because it is a way to feed that monster. I feel like, the last few years, I've gotten some of the most interesting characters that I have done in my career, at least interesting for me in terms of, like, the quality of the material. And it's something that probably has been changing in the industry the last few years. It still has somewhere to go. It's not, like, completely even or fair or equal. But it's on the way of improvement, I mean, in general. Because if - I'm saying about what is happening to me the last few years because I don't want to sound ungrateful. And it's true that I've been having, like, great opportunities. But there's still a lot to do in those terms in our industry and, I think, every other industry.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CRUZ: No, I thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation.

GROSS: Penelope Cruz stars in the new movie "Parallel Mothers," written and directed by Pedro Almodovar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS' "SESION DE FOTOS")

GROSS: After we take a short break, our film critic, Justin Chang, will tell us about his list of his favorite films of the year, which includes "Parallel Mothers." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.