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Will Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In Be Elena Anaya's Path To Global Stardom?

Could Elena Anaya follow in the footsteps of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, and be the latest alumna of a Pedro Almodovar movie to make it big in America? Her role in the Spanish auteur's brilliant, weird new thriller, The Skin I Live In, with its demand for mystery, ambiguity, sensuality, physicality and danger, has certainly allowed her to give the kind of eye-catching performance that international breakthroughs are made of.

She had a taste of the Almodovar effect when her brief appearance in the director's 2002 Oscar winner, Talk To Her, caught the attention of the filmmaker Stephen Sommers, who then tapped Anaya to play Dracula's vampire wife, Aleera, in Van Helsing. There's a strong chance then, that her complex work as the enigmatic beauty whom Banderas's bonkers surgeon keeps locked-up as a guinea pig for his Frankensteinian experiments with transgenic skin – made by combining human and pig genes in the film – will elevate the engaging 36-year-old to a different level abroad.

“Almodovar opens a lot of doors,” Anaya acknowledged after the world premiere of The Skin I Live In at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “But I didn't have time to think about that. Honestly. You have to be very concentrated.” And it is not like she has much power (yet) over what parts she gets to choose from anyway - Almodovar had to make the first move – so  there is no career plan per se. “I can say 'Yes' and I can say 'No', but I can't say, 'I want to receive this project.' If a project comes to you, I think it's because there's a reason.” That said, she doesn't just passively go with the flow. “Some of the scripts it's better to say, 'Thank you, it was a pleasure to read it,' and that's it,” she laughs. Judging by the number of leading Spanish directors she's collaborated with, since her days at Madrid's Real Escuela de Arte Dram├ítico, it's unlikely that there can have been many duds.

The last time Anaya and Almodovar worked together, he had already filled out the cast of Talk To Her before approaching the actress, and the part he ended up offering her was very small. He was embarrassed, Anaya claims, but she was thrilled. “I said, 'You can ask me to be a microphone on a table and I'd be so happy to do it.'”

What no one knew at the time was that she would be shooting her scenes inside a cave on 11 September, 2001, as Chinese Whisper-like reports were coming in that made the attacks on America sound like the start of World War 3. In grand showbiz tradition, the show went on. “Pedro said, 'We are here, we need to keep shooting. I don't care if bombs are coming. We'll die, but let's die working.'”

Almodovar was impressed that she didn't crumble, says Anaya, and this could partly have been what appealed to him when he called on her to play the steely, patient heroine of The Skin I Live In. He told her she was perfect for the part and she would know why when she read the script. “It was true, and [the reason] belongs to us,” she said cryptically in Cannes. When we meet again in London, Anaya reveals (although I'm sure there's more to it) that it was connected to a role she played as a mother looking for her missing daughter in the psychological thriller, Hierro. “Pedro said that he could find all the different emotional notes he wanted for the character in that film. I said, 'That character has nothing to do with this one, but okay.'”

In general, Anaya, who was recently seen as a pregnant hostage in the French thriller Point Blank, and as one half of a sapphic one-night stand in Julio Medem's balmy love story, Room in Rome, purposely doesn't look for reasons why people want her. “I've been raped, I've been kidnapped, and I've been killed, many times. If every time I think about why they've given me the role when I read a script, I'll go f****** crazy. At 36 years old, I don't want that.”

Vera, in The Skin I Live In, is easily her strangest character to date, for reasons that it would be unfair to disclose. Suffice to say, she is not what she seems. Almodovar wanted her to be like a caged wild animal, so Anaya, who often borrows traits from animals while preparing her performances, used the Cheetah (Guapardo in Spanish) as inspiration. She also thought of a spider: “One of those animals that f***s and then eats her mate.” She laughs. “I'm not talking about my private life [indeed, she makes it clear when asked about her parents' separation during her   childhood that that is off limits]; I'm talking about this little animal that has to survive in a web.”

She is a dangerous object of desire in the film (and in real-life, too, potentially, given her 15 years of karate training), waiting to turn the tables, and for a number of scenes she had to be naked. The actress looks blithely at ease without clothes on screen – in Room in Rome, her “toughest” filmmaking experience to date, she is sans garments for most of the movie – but insists that she found the nudity challenging.

“I would be a liar if I told you it's very easy,” she says. “For me, it's very easy to be naked by myself with nobody watching me, but in front of a camera? Wow, it's super difficult.” She felt protected by Almodovar because it was clear that he was being careful about what he shot, and did not want to use the nudity as a “stupid tool”. 

Even so, “As actors we feel very exposed all the time when we act,” she says, “because it's our reality, it's our emotions, it's our life that is being given to the audience. And if you're naked, it's even more. So it's difficult.”

Still, her roles – from Medem's Sex and Lucia to The Skin I Live In and Room in Rome – suggest someone who isn't afraid to take risks. She has never backed away from something because it scared her, Anaya confirms. “A lot of projects scared me and I still said 'Yes'. That's what pushed me: the big jump with no net. Whoosh! I could get killed afterwards, but that's why I keep doing this crazy, amazing job. And when I lose my nerves, I think that's when I will lose my passion as well.”

Clearly she is well suited to Almodovar's world, where taboos are often challenged, satirised and tweaked. His cinema was initially a reaction to the repressive order that was overturned following Franco's death in 1975, and came out of a very different Spain to the one that Anaya, who was born three months before the dictator's demise (“Thank God I missed him”), grew up in. Her Spain was the one that the openly gay filmmaker had helped to define through his movies. He put characters pushed to the fringes of society because of their supposedly immoral lifestyles front and centre, making them a reflection of the country's new democratic ideals. 

What he was doing was “important for the world,” says Anaya, “not only for Spain. But especially, yeah, for a captive country with huge boundaries, where people were punished for everything because of this f****** dictator.” She suddenly pauses. “I don't know if I should be saying all these things,” she wonders. The Franco era was a long time ago, but it's a few days after the mass killings in Norway and she's afraid of the “crazy people walking the streets. After what happened in Oslo, phew! If I get killed, it's your fault.”

Luckily for her, it's the end of the interview. But not before she reveals that she is waiting to find out if she's got a part in a film to be shot in the UK with a  British director. Clearly, these are exciting times for the actress, who could be on the verge of becoming Spain's next big acting export.

The Skin I Live In is released 26 August 

An edited version of this story appeared in Scotland on Sunday, 21 August , 2011

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