Penélope Cruz Stars in “The Carmen Auditions,” Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
The Oscar-winning director reimagines a casting call for the famed opera, starring his longtime muse.
On a sunny afternoon in Madrid, around 1992, a girl in her late teens had just washed her long, dark hair. She was an aspiring actress who had recently made her screen debut in a coming-of-age film (which also starred her future husband, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves), and for as long as she could remember, she had wanted to work with Pedro Almodóvar. She had even dreamed of him at night—in one nocturnal imagining, she searched Madrid for Almodóvar and found him, finally, in a bar. When their eyes locked, it was love at first sight.
But that was just a dream. The girl had repeatedly told her friends and family about her Almodóvar fixation. She had seen his films multiple times, especially Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which had cemented Almodóvar’s worldwide reputation as a provocateur. Her family joked about her obsession, which is why, when her sister told her that Almodóvar was on the phone asking for her, the actress continued to blow-dry her hair. “Come on!” she said, when she was finally forced to take the call. And then, somewhat sarcastically: “Hello! Who is this?”
The call was real: Almodóvar was asking Penélope Cruz to come to his home for a meeting about a potential part in his next film. The role he had in mind was for a 35-year-old woman, and Cruz was then only 18, but they had a remarkable connection from their very first encounter, in Almodóvar’s kitchen. A few years later, in 1997, he wrote a small part specifically for her in Live Flesh. Cruz’s character gives birth on a bus, and a kind woman comes to her aid and cuts the umbilical cord with her teeth. (That woman was played by the legendary Spanish actress Pilar Bardem, who would eventually become Cruz’s real-life mother-in-law—for Cruz and Almodóvar, art and family are somehow always one and the same.) After Live Flesh, Cruz became Almodóvar’s muse.
In their most recent film, Parallel Mothers, she is Janis, a single mother with a haunting secret. The film, like all of Almodóvar’s best work, combines the personal with the political: While dealing with a devastating dilemma, Janis is also investigating the death of her great-grandfather and other townspeople who were “disappeared” during Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath were shot and then thrown into mass graves. Ever since Franco’s rule came to an end, in 1975, the Spanish people have tried to shed light on this sinister chapter in their history. In the film, Janis enlists the aid of a forensic archaeologist to uncover the remains of her lost relative. Janis’s immediate problems—she is concealing a major truth about her young daughter—and the larger anguish of a society mourning its missing dead are beautifully balanced in Parallel Mothers. For her nuanced and emotionally draining performance, Cruz won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and additional honors from the National Society of Film Critics. Parallel Mothers has also garnered Cruz her fourth Academy Award nod, for best actress—she was previously nominated for best actress for Volver, another Almodóvar film, and won best supporting actress for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which she again starred opposite Javier Bardem. (They became romantically involved around that time and are now married, with two children.)
“The nature of muses is not only to inspire you, but also to give you confidence in yourself,” Almodóvar told me on a call from Madrid. Recently, Cruz had come to his office, which is named El Deseo, after his production company. El Deseo translates as “the desire,” and the office takes up three floors of a building in an old residential part of Madrid. The walls are painted in vivid primary colors, and in the hallways and meeting rooms there are numerous photographs of Almodóvar film billboards from all over the world. Next to his desk is a cabinet filled with American scripts that he has turned down, most notably Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 film about a love affair between two cowboys. “I was really sad that I didn’t say yes,” Almodóvar recalled. “Sad in the sense that I loved the short story by Annie Proulx and also the script. But I know myself, and I knew that I needed much more of a sexual sequence than they had in the movie. Even though I was given assurances that they would let me do whatever I wanted to do, the way that I understood the sex between the characters was almost like this animalistic lovemaking. I would have added a lot of sex scenes, and I don’t think they truly would have let me. I love the Ang Lee movie, but in my version, the two men were not in love—it was something completely physical.”
Almodóvar wears his own Bottega Veneta suit and turtleneck.
Cruz wears a Balenciaga gown; Simone Rocha earrings.
For this W shoot, Almodóvar wanted to imagine Cruz as the lead in a production of the tragedy of Carmen. “I have wanted to play Carmen since I was 4,” Cruz told me. “I was a ballet dancer, and Carmen is one of the great roles in ballet. When Pedro told me that we were reimagining Carmen, I was so happy.” In the scenario conceived for the shoot, Cruz was coming to El Deseo, as she has many times before, to discuss the character with her director. “I told her that I was writing a new adaptation of Carmen and that the outfits would have a flamenco air,” Almodóvar said. “It’s interesting with Penélope and clothes: In her first film with me, all the clothes were secondhand, but Penélope just turns everything into fashion. I say, ‘You’re a whore coming from a small village,’ but it doesn’t matter. It’s nearly impossible, because Penélope looks great even with a poor outfit.”
To invent his Carmen, Almodóvar carefully picked a skintight, long-sleeve Balenciaga dress with a skirt that pouffed into a huge circle at the knee. To complement the extremity of the outfit, he had Cruz’s hair curled and teased into a large mass of ringlets. Her lips were painted the same color as the gown. “Red!” Almodóvar said, as she perched over his desk. “It’s such a strong color that it just absorbs everything that’s near it.” He paused and smiled at Cruz. “In Spanish culture, red represents passion, and fire, and blood, and death—all of that.”
Cruz has always shared Almodóvar’s interest in the delicate tension between the extreme and the real, the dramatic and the genuine. “For these photos, and when working with Penélope, the first thing she always asks me is: ‘How do I dress? How is my hair?’ She needs to visualize herself. But she also knows that I’m watching her with a thousand eyes, and I would never let her do something ridiculous or grotesque. That creates a lot of faith and trust.”
When Cruz changed into a bubblegum pink bodysuit, Almodóvar insisted that her hair be scraped back into a high bun, covered by a giant red flower. He positioned her next to a stack of plastic chairs. “This space is not particularly beautiful,” he explained. “The outfits become almost more magnificent in these plain surroundings. Everything around her is very normal, which makes the clothes—and Penélope—very interesting.”
Cruz wears a Balenciaga for AZ Factory “Love Brings Love” dress and full bodysuit with attached gloves and boots; stylist’s own hair flower.
Almodóvar loves design, and has always dressed with flair. On the day of this photo shoot, he was wearing a lime green turtleneck, a black wool blazer, and matching pants. His trademark hair, which is now snowy white, has always risen like a corona around his head. In Almodóvar’s home, there was once a 1960s peridot green sofa that he particularly loved. “I reupholstered it again and again, eventually using it about six times in different films,” he told me. “It was white in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; dark green in Tie Me Up!; in a gridded Mondrian-esque pattern in High Heels; and light green in Talk to Her. The couch was an Italian style that I really loved. It was also a cheaper way of bringing a great couch to set!”
When he travels, Almodóvar always stops at gift shops. “In an airport store, I found a scuba diver toy,” he recalled. This might be his most infamous prop; it makes a notable appearance in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! “In the tub, the scuba diver crashes into Victoria Abril’s pubic region!” That scene led to a ratings challenge from the MPAA and, eventually, an NC-17 designation for the film. The controversy over the rating generated a lot of press, and Almodóvar’s reputation grew.
Although his films have always had a rebellious, anarchic, sexually thrilling streak, Almodóvar’s work has become more introspective over the past two decades. At 72, he has begun to examine his own life. Antonio Banderas, his longtime male muse, played a version of Almodóvar in 2019’s Pain and Glory; in the film, Banderas’s character even wears the colorful knit polo shirts for which Almodóvar is known, and lives in an apartment that’s virtually a replica of the director’s, with its collection of Venini and Murano glass vases, Fornasetti plates, and elegant furniture in rich jewel tones. In Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar tackles Spain’s messy past, without any obscuring veneers. “If I can tell the story of Spain through anyone, it would be Penélope,” he said. “Her character has always been maternal in the best possible way. Even when she was so young, she always had that capacity, that generosity, that gift.”
Cruz wears a Vicky Martín Berrocal flamenco dress; stylist’s own hair flower and earrings.
To further illustrate his point, Almodóvar took Cruz, now clad in an orange and black striped gown with three tiers of ruffles, out onto the street.
“Do I look like Carmen?” Cruz asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
“You look like my Carmen,” Almodóvar said quietly. He paused and adjusted the flounce of her sleeve. “That’s it. Now you’re perfect.”
Lighting director: Emilio G. Hernández. Hair and makeup by Pablo Iglesias for Lancôme at NS Management; manicure by Lucero Hurtado for OPI. Produced by Martin Becerra and Paula Bustos at North Six; production coordinator: Carlos Herrera; photo assistants: Gregor Klaus, Luca Iani; digital technician: Uxio da Vila; electrician: Alberto Morales; retouching: D-factory; fashion assistant: Gianmarco Rosati; unit manager: Luis Sanchez; production assistants: Alex Arroyo, Guillermo Egea; hair and makeup assistant: Joel Briand at NS Management; tailor: Alison O’Brien.