Amidst all the Christmas blockbusters, from dancing penguins to Spanish cats to a death-defying Tom Cruise scaling the world's tallest building, Spanish women are proving a force to be reckoned with, starring in engrossing dramas for which you do not need 3D glasses or IMAX screens.
Carmen Maura may be the big name among the rambunctious female cast in Philippe Le Guay's The Women on the 6th Floor, yet it is Natalia Verbeke who is the star and the discovery of this irresistible French film, which already has audiences flocking to screenings in Australia. Still, the Argentine-born 36-year-old, who is well known at home for her romantic comedies since she appeared in the 2002 Spanish blockbuster, The Other Side of the Bed, is not getting too carried away.
“I don't think the big thing is to have the biggest part,” she says. “What is important is to play characters I'm interested in. I've had the luck of being able to choose what I've wanted to do in my career.”
In her first French production Verbeke plays a single mother in her late 20s who comes to Paris looking for work in 1962 during the time of the Franco regime. She visits her aunt, played by Maura, who arranges for her to work alongside her as a maid in a salubrious Parisian apartment block owned by Fabrice Luchini and his haughty wife, Sandrine Kiberlain. At the time maids lived in tiny rooms at the top of French apartment buildings. As veritable refugees, the Spanish maids had no alternative.
“We always know someone who has a grandma who's been in that situation,” notes Verbeke. “I also have a French actor friend, José Garcia [her co-star in 2006's GAL] whose Spanish immigrant mother was a maid and he grew up around that environment.”
Le Guay focuses on the joie de vie of the Spanish maids, also played by Lola Dueñas, Nuria Solé, Berta Ojea, and Concha Galán, whom he cast from the theatre in order to avoid the cliché of using Almodóvarian actresses. They make the most of their lot, unlike the people they serve. Luchini's buttoned-up stockbroker soon realizes much fun is to be had up on the sixth floor and goes up to join them. He has also fallen for Verbeke's adorable Maria, now his family's maid.
So why doesn't Maria resist his advances? “Maria has been rejected in Spain because she's a single mother and suddenly she finds this guy who is kind and supports her and doesn't criticize her situation,” Verbeke says. “He's in love with her and I don't think she's is completely in love with him but she feels he's there for her.”
Luchini, still sprightly at 60, is one of France's stars of the stage and is fastidiously precise in everything he plays. Though the retiring Frenchman was a little out of his comfort zone when surrounded by all the outgoing Spanish women.
“It's like an explosion in the movie and I think Fabrice was scared,” Verbeke admits with a chuckle. “He only speaks French and we all were speaking Spanish and have these strong characters. But I think being around that helped him with the character.”
She had worked with Maura before. “Carmen's great, very funny, a good companion and helps the other actors. She has a lot of humanity and has her feet on the ground.”
Born in Buenos Aires, to a doctor father and a housewife mother, Verbeke, at age 11, joined her family in Spain after they had had fled Argentina's political turmoil. A sense of urgency has stayed with her ever since. Even if all doors were opened to her academically after she excelled in high school, she was determined to become an actress and went to drama school in Madrid. She focused on her English studies from an early age and has spoken English in four films, including Dot The I where she co-starred with Gael García Bernal.
Palencia-born Spaniard Elena Anaya has also accomplished a great deal in her career, having co-starred with Viggo Mortensen in the Spanish-language blockbuster Captain Alatriste, and appeared in supporting English-language roles in Van Helsing, Savage Grace and Cairo Time. Like Verbeke she is petite and well-preserved at 36, though generally gravitates towards darker roles. She has worked twice with Julio Medem and co-starred last year in his provocative nudity-laden Room In Rome where her character seduced another woman in a nightclub and we got to see what happened next.
She recalls only having two days' work on Pedro Almodóvar's 2002 film Talk to Her and now the Spanish maestro has given her a leading role and her greatest challenge yet in The Skin I Live In, a modern Frankenstein story where Antonio Banderas is the mad scientist-cum-plastic surgeon, and Anaya is his experiment.
“When I read the screenplay I realised how human beings can be so cruel,” she says. “When you prepare to take revenge you give your life to make this plan. Getting into the mind of the character is like being a samurai warrior or a wild animal. She just waits and has an instinct to survive.”
While Anaya notes she is following in the steps of many Spanish actresses who found fame in Almodóvar's films--“I respect them all so much; all of us are different though share an independence”— she cites Penélope Cruz, Victoria Abril and Rossy de Palma, interestingly omitting his most famous collaborator, Carmen Maura, who fell out with the famously controlling director after their reunion on Volver.
“For me it was quite easy,” Anaya admits. “The relationship I had with Pedro was calm, tender and funny. Sometimes he'd tell me I was doing too much, 'Less, less, less'. Basically he asked me to jump from a very high place into a net, but he jumped with me. He took care of me so much. Other directors can ask a lot of you and not take care of you so you collapse on the floor.”
She is of course referring to Medem and is still bitter regarding her experience on Room in Rome. “It was one of my worst experiences. The character suffers a lot and he was not relaxed with a very fragile situation. I can be fragile; I have both sides. I lost five kilos in four weeks during the shoot and it was great that my mother was there to feed me a lot of food. I was thinking of leaving acting for some time afterwards.” Thankfully, she didn't.