When it happens, explains the Spanish actress Elena Anaya, the first call is always low-key: a staff member from Pedro Almodovar's production company will contact your agent and ask if you have time to sit down with the boss. At the meeting Almodovar, a filmmaker revered within the world cinema and an icon in his homeland, will talk about the project he is about to cast, and explain a little about the role he's considering casting you for. A script is examined, first impressions are exchanged, and an audition is scheduled.
A life changing experience can ensure, but the first step is always casual. For Anaya, the female lead in Almodovar's new feature, The Skin I Live In, the process is now almost at an end. The movie has been opening territory by territory since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the Australian release on December 26 marks a closing step in a long journey that the 36-year-old has patiently dedicated herself to.
“I'm very proud of this film, so I wanted to be free and not have other work get in the way of promoting the film,” Anaya says, speaking from her home in Madrid. “Now I'm reading scripts and trying to be calm and pick the proper one. It's difficult after making this film to find something to do next. The problem is that there's only one Almodovar.”
The Skin I Live In is actually the second time that Anaya has worked with Almodovar. A decade ago, when Anaya had just moved to Madrid from hometown of Palencia in northern Spain, she received the same polite request for a meeting, but the outcome wasn't so grand. Almodovar had seen Anaya in a supporting role in Julio Medem's 2001 movie Sex and Lucia, and with apologies wanted to offer her a tiny role in 2002's Talk to Her.
Anaya didn't hesitate to say yes, but Almodovar wasn't kidding about the size of her part. As the story goes, Anaya's father went to the premiere of Talk to Her and couldn't spot his daughter in the finished film.
Curiously, it was a lead performance in another Medem film, 2010's Room in Rome that brought Anaya back into Almodovar's orbit. In a role that stripped her bare both physically and emotionally, Anaya confirmed her ascent after a decade of steady work that had included everything from the 2004 Hollywood monster mash-up Van Helsing to Jean-Francois Richet's 2008 French gangster epic Public Enemy.
“Elena's main feature is how far she can go in the most compromising scenes,” Almodovar told the Guardian earlier this year. “She is very good at difficulties and tension. She's very open-minded; the word 'risk' is part of her work. This is why I picked her.”
Anaya would require all of those qualities for The Skin I Live In. A work that sits to a degree outside Almodovar's established worldview, it forsakes the bustle of community life for the cold isolation of a private clinic in Toledo, where leading plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) keeps a female patient, Vera (Anaya), in gilded confinement as he experiments with research and grafts to find a skin that will not burn.
Vera is both a prisoner and a subject, and via the use of flashbacks Almodovar makes clear that she exists as an act of will on Robert's behalf. The film has intimations of Frankenstein, but Almodovar is as interested in what happens to the personality and beliefs of the person whose outward appearance is altered. Does one, the film asks, control the other.
“She's a prisoner, not only in that room in that golden jail. She's a prisoner in a body that doesn't belong to her. Her skin doesn't belong to her,” Anaya notes. “This film talks about identity, and identity cannot be determined just by how you look.”
The picture is based on a 1984 French novella, Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula, and Almodovar had been working on the adaptation on and off for almost 10 years. While he's hardly a Prussian disciplinarian in terms of how he interacts with his actors, he knows what he wants to capture.
“He's open in ways that can involve bringing the character to life and making other suggestions, but he tells you exactly what he wants and what he wants from you,” says Anaya. “Sometimes when you're making a film the director doesn't know the answer to something and they'll give you the freedom to play it how you want, but that was not the case with Pedro.”
With an eye to the 1950s Hollywood melodramas that have long been an influence, Almodovar marshals evocative production design and an intense feel for the geography of rooms in The Skin I Live In – Vera's basement residence is as sparse and carefully structured as the body she's learning to live in. Transformation has long been an Almodovar theme, but whereas films such as 1999's All About My Mother or 2004's Bad Education featured characters who radically changed their lifestyle, the finality of surgery makes this new variant something of a horror film.
“I think it's a very different film from his other filmography, but it's Almodovar one hundred per cent,” asserts Anaya. “Pedro is not the same person he was 30 years ago. In a strange way he's grown up now, and he has different obsessions and some responsibilities.”
Almodovar draws a coldly domineering performance from Banderas, back working with the director who discovered him for the first time since 1990's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, but it is Anaya who is at the centre of the film, staying in character for hours to provide surveillance camera footage and betraying the merest of emotional turmoil beneath an immaculate surface.
“I knew it was one of the biggest challenges of my life,” she admits. “But it was an opportunity to offer everything I could to the role and the film. You are exposed in every Pedro film, because the whole world watches – and criticises – them.”
“He means a lot for me, and not just professionally. I grew up watching his films and they taught me about life and human behaviour,” continues Anaya. “I feel like I got a gift being able to work with him and I'm very grateful for what happened.”
Being the female lead in Almodovar film makes Anaya part of a celebrated tradition that includes Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril and Penelope Cruz; Almodovar's favourite actresses are muses, and the association goes beyond filmmaking. Anaya, for example, has attended fashion events with the now 62-year-old, and had her profile dramatically lifted. Befitting someone who's a black belt in karate and a devotee of free diving, she now has to meet the challenge of fame.
“Pedro told me the first day that this character has no way back – it's a one way journey,” Anaya says. “In a way I feel the same because my life has changed now and I feel that it has changed for the rest of my life. I'm not sure what will happen in the future, but I'm very thankful for everything that Pedro has done for me.”
Watch 'The Skin I Live In'
Sunday 4 July, 11:05pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet