“I think sometimes that’s harder, because sometimes it’s harder to laugh than to cry honestly. To do both things with honesty, that’s what we look for—some days that happens, some days that doesn’t as an actor. But to really have this contagious laugh—that moment of total freedom and to be totally present in that way where you can be so relaxed...” she pauses thoughtfully, “Maybe because the emotion of that laughter is more relaxed than the emotion of pain, I think that’s why it can be a little harder to transmit.”
There’s something ironic about the way a film must portray emotion. Take the sex scene— a depiction of what’s supposed to be the best of good times, yet, to create a compelling depiction of sex requires dozens of bodies on set, countless takes, and excruciating awkwardness—in two words, something of a bad time: “I always think there could be so many documentaries done about the way those scenes are filmed,” Cruz tells me cheerfully, “People would not believe it!”
Cruz has had several notable love scenes during her 25-year career. She was the first female Spanish actress to win an Academy Award for her part as the sex-bomb María Elena in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), played—with feverish chemistry—alongside her now-husband, Javier Bardem. Here Cruz was an enchanting, albeit somewhat frightening (and deliciously comic) embodiment of sexual passion.
In Penélope Cruz’s new film—Julio Medem’s Ma Ma—there’s an utterly raw and unvarnished scene wherein she has a mammogram—her bare breasts crushed beneath sheets of glass. This marks a memorable point in the career trajectory of an actress whose initial fame was catapulted by her naked, suckled-upon, 17-year-old breasts as the nubile Silvia in Jamón, Jamón (1992)—her first feature film. The wild eroticism of Silvia or María Elena now stands in stark counterpoint to the heart-wrenching candor of her character Magda in Ma Ma—a mother in a loveless marriage who is diagnosed with breast cancer.
While Cruz is still an incredibly beautiful woman, the scene is utterly devoid of sexiness, and is almost physically painful for the viewer, who is forced to confront an experience that most women have to go through. It, and several scenes like it in Ma Ma are difficult viewing, particularly for those with first-hand experience of cancer. Magda’s fear is palpable, yet the brave face, awkward questions, and pained responses of the medical professionals all ring true. Medem both wrote and directed the film, and Cruz took on the task of producer alongside her role as lead actor.
“I spent time with women that were with the illness,” Cruz tells me, ”or that had survived the illness and were ok, or ones that were in the middle of chemotherapy, and others that had lost their breasts and were trying to recover,” Cruz explains solemnly. “If it wasn’t for these women I wouldn’t have been able to really understand a part of what that illness is—because for me it was a fiction that I had to really jump in and 100% try—try to understand that pain and that fear.”
I ask her how difficult it is to disconnect afterwards from that sort of a fiction. “If you have the volume up for the whole day or a whole morning, sometimes you touch the limit and you get burned and then you cannot come to a place because it’s almost like the adrenaline goes so high, you can’t think straight,” she says. “I feel like for a scene where there is a lot of darkness or a lot of pain, you have to be regulating the volume up and down the whole time. I see it like cooking a soup. You are throwing all the ingredients—all these emotions, and all these colors, and all these layers, and then the soup will be ready at one moment and at one point, but you don’t have to rush.”
Famed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar— hero, friend, and collaborator of Cruz with whom she has completed five projects—is quoted as saying that Cruz was “born to be an actress,” and that she is so emotional that if she were in a different profession her passions would be a problem for her. When I put this to Cruz she emphatically agrees with Almodóvar’s assessment, but insists “I don’t look at the movies as therapy, because that would be selfish. We really do something better when we leave our ego at home.”
“People ask me if I was not afraid of looking bad in [Ma Ma] or Don’t Move (2004), or other films,” she continues, “where I’m older, or have to be bald, but how can I? I mean, I understand the question but how could I be worried about that if I am portraying this woman that represents all these other women that I was working with. You cannot be thinking about that. It is about something else much bigger than that.”
Our time together winding to a close—she in Madrid, in a garden during a break from shooting her current project, me in my lounge room in Los Angeles—I ask Cruz about an evidently good time she was filmed having at a U2 concert in Barcelona late last year—dancing on stage and partly climbing atop Bono, all whilst wearing a bad blonde wig and sharing a theatrical dispute with Bardem who donned a blue feather boa and cowboy hat for his part.
“I’ve been friends with Bono for 15 years and I love him so much, and Javier too. We were there and [Bono] showed us a bunch of wigs and costumes and said ok we start in one hour.” Cruz laughs—book-ending our conversation with mirth, “I’ve never been more nervous! More than any set, more than any movie—I have never been more nervous than there.”
This seems surprising given the 68 films Cruz has featured in—evidently she is not an individual accustomed to stage fright—yet it seems clear from both her oeuvre, and from her concert antics, that Cruz is oft willing to push herself out of her comfort zone—for good times, and for bad.