Elena Anaya Is More Than Skin Deep In Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar often walks on the perverse side in his films. But he's arguably never made anything quite so twisted as The Skin I live In. A typically sumptuous work that's constantly on the verge of straying into horror territory, the film reunites the Spanish auteur with Antonio Banderas, who parlayed his success in a series of early Almodovar pictures into a successful Hollywood career.

Back on native soil, Banderas excels as a brooding plastic surgeon who has found a way to toughen human skin while retaining its sensitivity using  animal genes. Flouting medical ethics, he performs experiments at home on a beautiful human guinea pig, Vera (Elena Anaya), he keeps locked in a room, turning her into the image of his dead wife.

Not for the first time Almodovar is playing with the theme of identity, and in a long flashback Vera is revealed to be not what she seems. Anaya, working with the director for the second time, following a brief appearance in Talk To Her, does a good job in a difficult role. Although seemingly acquiescent, she was told to imagine the mysterious Vera as a “wild animal locked in a cage, pacing from side to side, waiting, very patiently, for the smallest opportunity to escape,” Anaya says.

She wanted to play the character's weird arc from start to finish, but Almodovar told her to “take it easy", Anaya laughs. "I wanted to do everything. I'm so wild! I'm so crazy!” To perfect her performance, she had to shadow a male co-star, Jan Cornet, learning how he walked, how he moved, how he would hold a knife to attack someone, to the point, she says, where “I felt like a man.”

The actress gives a complicated and compelling performance, but admits that after the initial joy of being cast, she panicked. “I thought maybe [Pedro's] wrong. Maybe I'm not good enough to play it. You get afraid of everything.”

Almodovar's conviction that she was right for the part paid off: Anaya's enigmatic Vera combines beauty, sensuousness and danger, at the heart of a dark and blackly comic film that keeps you in suspense from beginning to end. 

The Skin I Live In is released August 26

A version of this story appears in the current issue of Dazed & Confused

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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