Even if Carmen Maura has won more Goya awards than any other Spanish actress, she will forever be associated with her seven movies with Pedro Almodóvar. From the moment they teamed up on 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls Like Mum, their movies galvanised and liberated the youth of a country reeling from the strictures of Franco's dictatorship.
"When I first acted with Pedro nobody had heard of him then!” Maura explains with her natural gusto. “I was a lead actress in the National Theatre in Madrid and this was his first film. Everybody said to me, 'Why are you working with this guy?' I gave him a lot of support when he was starting out.”
Maura is the last one to sing her own praises. She just tells it as it happened. Although the vibrant 66 year-old rarely gives interviews, when we meet to discuss The Women on the 6th Floor, she opens up about everything, from how she fell out with Almodóvar to how she no longer needs a man in her life.
Initially we bond over the fact that we both have a chambre de bonne, or a maid's room, in Paris. (As in the film, maids used to live in small, unheated rooms on the top of the apartment blocks where they worked.) Like so many other Paris-dwellers Maura, who has maintained a residence in Paris for more than 20 years, has strung the rooms together to create an apartment with panoramic views, in the Marais.
“Ah it's a very beautiful view,” she enthuses. “On one side I see La Bastille, and on the other the Eiffel Tower.” Does she have a maid? “No, no, no, no. Many people still have maids, mostly from Eastern Europe, but they now have their own apartments. I don't need one; it makes me happy that I can do the housework myself. But In Madrid it's impossible. I have someone coming every day but in Paris I am free. No family, no children, nothing. Just me and my apartment.”
Maura's new film is set in 1962 during Franco's dictatorship when Spanish women worked as maids in Paris to support their families back home. The film's director Phiippe Le Guay's family had one such maid whom he came to love. Ultimately he has made a comedy about cultural and class difference.
“When I met Philippe four years ago he had a different script,” Maura explains. “It focused on a boy who loves Spain. Philippe met all the actresses in Madrid but it was hard getting it financed. So he decided to make the story about a grown man instead of a boy. With the casting of Fabrice Luchini he got a French producer so the film could go ahead.”
Even if her part is supporting, Maura was impressed by Le Guay's love of Spain and of everything Spanish. “He got so excited about it and it was a real source of motivation for me. I also liked the idea that I would mix the two languages for the first time: French and Spanish, and to work with French actors in Paris.”
Although the cultural difference is exaggerated for comedic effect – with Luchini and Sandrine Kiberlain as the stuffy French bourgeois couple alongside the Spanish maids as girls who want to have fun – there is a truth to the comparison she says, even when it comes to Spanish actresses.
“Usually we are more relaxed; I think we are more generous with the camera, more spontaneous, simple, and straightforward. All crews say that. 'Ah, the Spanish women are and down to earth'. That's generally true for Spanish people as well.”
Descended from artists and politicians – even a former conservative Spanish prime minister – Maura grew up in as part of a well-known Madrid family. She recalls having a love of performing from an early age.
“I used to put on plays with my girlfriends when I was seven. I was the director, I wrote the script and I would play the lead, generally the female villain of the piece. I would always give myself strong women's roles. But when I started out as an actress it wasn't premeditated, I never planned out my career. I just arrived home and told my husband I wanted to be an actress. That was a disaster.”
It wasn't only her lawyer husband Francisco Forteza, with whom she has two children, who objected. “Everybody in my family. My mother cried, my brother said 'You are a whore!'” she recalls in disgust, blowing out air through her pursed lips and raising her hands. “But this was one decision that was very good in my life, even if my marriage only lasted another year and it was very hard for 10 years and it was a struggle with children. If I had seen a film about my life, about what was going to happen to me later, maybe I wouldn't have done it.”
She found solace in acting, especially in comedies, but mostly in her films with Almódovar of which 1987's explicitly gay Law of Desire – in which Maura played a transsexual alongside Antonio Banderas – was the most controversial. According to Banderas no one has ever worked better with the director than Maura.
“I think we both learned from each other about acting,” she says. “We came from very different backgrounds but we got on like a house on fire. He was the vanguard of modernity, he was Mr Modern and I was old hat. I was from a traditional family and he was the incarnation of youth. I was the oldest person in the group, I already had two children, but what was happening was amazing – there was this miracle that Almodóvar and I connected. When I would see his script I knew immediately how it would be played. When I went back to working with him in Volver, 20 years after we'd made Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as soon as we started working we had it again. But now we are not friends any more. We are looking for different things from life.”
They'd had problems while making Women on the Verge and hadn't really resolved them when Maura came to portray Penelope Cruz's mother in Volver, which interestingly translates as “return” in Spanish.
“We were having breakfast one day and he said, 'It's incredible, you haven't changed, you are just the same as 20 years ago, as an actress, as a person. But I have changed', he said. He is not as happy as he was. He was never frustrated before, but now if he doesn't get a prize, then he gets frustrated. It is very difficult dealing with fame, I think. I get a kick out of doing this job but I am not obsessed about getting prizes or being the best actress in the world. If I have to make the choice between an easy script and a hard script then I will go for the easy one. The fun has maybe gone out of the job for him. I haven't spoken to him for a long time.”
Of late Maura has appeared in films that have hardly been seen. Many would like to see the famous pair reunite. If he calls would she take the call? “Yes I would. If it's a good character, if he pays me, if I am free, I may act again for him. But it's not my obsession.”