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


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


Revisiting Sex, Drugs And Rock 'N'Roll With Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis grew up with a crippling fear of death. He thought he had purged it after learning about Einstein’s theory of relativity for a 2008 television drama. But today, as he ponders his forthcoming move into directing, the chameleonic actor behind Gollum and King Kong is worried that time is running out. 

“You just feel life speeding up,” he sighs. “It’s just that feeling that there’s so much to do and so little time to do it. So you go, ‘These are the projects that I really, really want to do. I’ve got to get these done.”

Possibly not coincidentally, the theme of time and how we use it also underlines his latest film, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. 

A passion project rooted in a conversation between Serkis and his actor/writer friend Paul Viragh in a Soho pub, the film, directed by Mat Whitecross, is a vibrantly scrappy and unvarnished take on the life of Ian Dury: the gravel-voiced childhood polio survivor who, backed by the Blockheads, achieved unlikely rock stardom with hits including Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick; Reasons To be Cheerful, Part 3; and the eponymous Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

“We were both big fans of the lyrics, and he was just such a striking, formative character in our lives at the time,” recalls Serkis, 45.

Indeed, Dury broke the mould. Here was a man in his 30s, with a withered arm and leg, who was boldly fronting bands at a time when the disabled kids that Serkis’s mother was teaching were being “shunned from society”. For an actor drawn to underdogs and outsiders, he was irresistible.

“I thought, ‘I look a bit like him, I could probably get my head around playing him. So what is the story? What do we really want to say with this film?”

The parallels between actor and character actually go beyond just looks. Like the musician, who died from cancer in 2000, aged 57, Serkis is an atheist and a jazz lover (he plays the tenor sax); he was also a visual artist, like Dury, before turning to acting (he still paints).

Key, though, and now central to the film, was his identification with Dury’s relationships with his father, and son Baxter.  

The singer/songwriter grew up with his mother and sisters, and rarely saw his father.  Serkis’s early years similarly included long periods of separation from his Iraqi father, who worked in the Middle East while the rest of the family lived in England. 

“The dad was the fantasy character that Ian emulated on stage but didn’t really know. So that, and looking at Baxter’s relationship with Ian, was something that was very much, for Paul (the son of a Hungarian father) and myself, about this sort of imagining what your father is like. Imagining this man who is supposed to be your role model.”

Although Serkis spent summers in Iraq, “it was strange and confusing (at first) to have this man turn up out of the blue at Christmas and assume control,” he says. “It’s very displacing. And I’m still fathoming it out.”

It is tempting to see the film as part of this process. In it, Dury, brilliantly embodied by Serkis, is pulled in different directions by his artistic drive and his parental obligations to Baxter.

“That’s what I feel was probably happening with my father,” Serkis suggests. “He created something that he was passionate about, he built a hospital in Baghdad that was very much part of his life, and I’m sure – I would imagine – he would have wanted to spend more time with us.

“But that was his reason to be here, in a way. And that is what the film’s about: you’ve got a very limited amount of time on this planet; how do you divide it up? How do you manage it?”

To play the singer, Serkis lost two stone, worked out on one side of his body, and learned to sing like him. “Ian was hairless, so I also had to shave. The most painful experience is having your inner thigh ripped of hair,” he says, wincing at the memory. “And your chest. Jesus!”

He wore a calliper until it became second nature, and got “really bad groin strain”. Combining this level of dedication with fatherhood can sometimes be difficult, he admits. 

“It’s that horrible thing of wanting to be present wherever you are, wanting to be in the moment, and so when you’re with your kids (he has three) you’re really with them and you’re not thinking about the role that you’re playing.

“ And I hate it, I absolutely despise myself, when it is their time, it’s precious time, and you know they’re growing up like that” – he snaps his fingers – “and you know you’re not going to have them for long, and yet you’re 12,000 miles away doing something that you’re there to do, and you’ve got to do.

“But then people do it every day doing different jobs. It’s not extra special because it’s artistic. But the thing is, you can’t switch it off.”

Recently, Serkis was in New Zealand wearing a Lycra performance capture suit to play Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s animated Tintin film. He will return there to bring Gollum back to life for Guillermo del Toro in The Hobbit.

“It’s going to be two films so I’m not sure what they have in store for me,” he says.  “But I had a meeting with Guillermo and he showed me some of the conceptual art for it and it looks amazing.”

In 2003, the role took him to the Oscars along with the rest of the Lord of the Rings team.

He will never forget it: three days before the ceremony, Bush announced the invasion of Iraq. Serkis could not believe that while other people were pulling out, they were still going to the awards. Photographs from the time show him holding a No War for Oil sign. 

“So that’s my only real proper Oscar experience, when America went into Iraq and Michael Moore stood up on stage saying, ‘Shame on you, Bush.’ Which I’m quite pleased about, really,” he smiles.

“There was only four of us – me, Lorraine my wife, Gael Garcia Bernal and his girlfriend – that stood up to applaud him. Everybody else was like, ‘You’ve got to be f******joking.’ Everybody else was booing him off the stage.”

His father, who’d been imprisoned by the Ba’athist regime, told him to stick to acting. Serkis, though, believes actors should be free to express their political views.

“It’s their job to,” he says, adding that he comes from a generation of actors that wanted to be more than just famous.

“I remember when first becoming an actor, the choices you made were so important about what you did. God, just to be able to do it and to get into theatre and be part of community theatre and all that, it had a purpose.

“You wanted to change society with it. It had real drive. Now,” he groans, “it’s almost been bypassed and it’s purely the 10% or the 5% of the top of the iceberg, which is the celebrity, that people aspire to. It’s extraordinary.”

No wonder a fearless character like Dury appealed to him. Rather than be part of the system, he rocked against it, sending out a message of self-empowerment and personal freedom.

“Dury said just stick to your own guns and have your own principles and your own ideas. It doesn’t matter. That’s what Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the song, is all about: the cake of liberty.” 

Serkis will soon be seen as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes 

This article first appeared in The Herald, 31/12/09