--The following selections from Ada Petriczko's interview with Rossy de Palma appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in 2018.
Ada Petriczko: I don’t often get to meet a legend.
What do you mean?
AP: The muse of Pedro Almodovar, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. The woman who personifies the exceptional period in Spanish history after the death of General Francisco Franco, a time when you could go crazy.
It's true that I’ve lived in interesting times. I was born in 1964, so I didn’t arrive in time to suffer under Franco, but I was caught up in the carnival after his death. It was a difficult time for the country’s economy, but as far as culture goes -- revolutionary.
Franco wanted us to be a stable, God-fearing nation, organized into traditional social and gender roles. Censorship ruled, and homosexuality was punished by imprisonment.
After the fall of the dictatorship, Spain took a deep breath. Punks appeared on the streets, then boldly clothed girls and gays who, at last, didn’t have to hide.
Clubs opened that played new wave music. Madrid was the epicenter of these changes.
I grew up on Mallorca in a working-class Catholic family, but when I was 18 years old, I moved to the capital together with the band, Peor Impossible (“The Worst Possible”), in which I sang. We played a mixture of pop and punk. We loved kitsch, hence our name -- we had warned you -- we were the worst.
AP: Again you had good timing, because you were swept up into the end of “la Movida Madrileña” (“The Madrid Scene”), the countercultural movement that Almodóvar portrayed in his first films, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980).
That’s true. Movida was Franco’s bad aftertaste. While he limited, formalized, and punished, in Movida there were no rules or taboos. It was an explosion of artistic and sexual freedom. We weren’t a formalized movement. We didn’t have a manifesto, leaders, or ideology.
Then they said, “Where's Movida? Is something going on somewhere?” It was as if someone had unlocked Spain's mouth.
We talked about everything Franquismo turned its gaze from: homosexuality, pornography, drugs, and sexual violence.
It happened at high speed, because we had to catch up to other countries. That is definitely why everything was so exaggerated, and theatrical.
AP: What was it like to be a girl in those days?
We didn’t know boy from girl. We wanted to be equal and played with gender. For example, men wore makeup as heavy as ours and borrowed dresses from us. We were artists of freedom.
AP: You made your film debut with Almodóvar in 1987. Your first encounter is the stuff of legends. They form a rather patriarchal narrative: there’s a lady, completely unknown and innocent sitting in a café, when Pedro walks up and “discovers” the lady for the film world.
All lies, of course. We met at a Peor Impossible concert. Pedro also dropped into a bar where people connected with Movida met, and I worked there, because music couldn’t pay the rent. One day he was looking for costumes for Carmen Maura who had to play a transsexual in "The Law of Desire".
He needed something sexy, and my threads were more revealing than concealing since I was 22 years old and had a great body. He said he wanted to buy everything I had on. I told him I’d made everything myself, including the earrings. So then it worked out that not only Carmen, but also a few of the other actresses on the set wore my clothes and jewelry.
AP: And then you played a role in the film.
Almodóvar offered me a small role, but I wouldn’t say that I played anything. When I walked onto the set, Pedro told the makeup and costume artists that they couldn’t touch me. I dressed in rockabilly style then -- teased up hair, heavy makeup, pinup dress, lots of pink and black, and Pedro wanted me to style myself. I had to be Rossy.
In the end he was very satisfied with me, even proud, and proposed another role for me -- Marisa in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” He wrote that part for me, but it had nothing to do with my life. That’s when I learned what acting was.
AP: What was it like working with Almodóvar?
I am so glad that I started in film with him. Pedro has a brilliant ear, and a sensitivity to the tone of voice, which is the most important thing for me.
The face and gestures don’t carry as much emotional weight as the voice. That is what transports us to another space, one vibrating with emotion.
Even today I take care about the way my voice sounds in different dubbed versions of a film, in English, Spanish, or French.
But that aside, Pedro is diabolically precise and knows exactly what he wants.
AP: Is he open to changes in direction, or improvisation?
Not always, but he listens to the actors. I won’t forget how once in “Women on the Verge” I complained that I was terribly bored, because my character drank gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills, and for most of the film I was sleeping. “Pedro, how long can I lie flat?” I whined. Then one day he said to me that Marisa, who is a prudish virgin, is going to have an orgasm in her sleep. If he had ignored my groaning, this classic cult scene would never have happened.
AP: You always look on the bright side, even though you love to repeat Faulkner’s saying, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”
Of course, because you can make something out of pain. Where would music and literature be without pain?
AP: Does that also apply to love?
In a relationship, yes. I’d rather feel pain than be empty. But better to be empty than have a mediocre relationship. If something isn’t fantastic -- no thanks.
That is why I’ve learned to live without a man, though I still believe in them. What I would give to them, I give to myself.
AP:What is seductive to you?
A sense of humor.
AP:That’s just like Maria, the heroine of your new film, "Madame", directed by Amanda Sthers. When she realizes that the person she loves isn’t worth it, she also prefers to pack her suitcase.
This film shows that what is most important is the love and respect one has for oneself. I was moved when I learned that Amanda wrote this role especially for me, because Maria is fun, sincere, and behaves with dignity. She isn’t educated, but is naturally intelligent.
Maria is another figure in my gallery of strong women. I did a show at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan entitled “The Resilience of Love,” which I’m recreating in Paris this year. It is a solo work inspired by surrealism and the poetry of Garcia Lorca, but above all by women artists excluded by the patriarchy. What I like most about acting is that I can disappear. In this show Rossy disappears, so that she can reveal the melancholy Maria Callas or the Cuban-American artist, Ana Mendieta and her famous “Silhouettes.”
I think, like Márquez, that ideas are no one’s property.
The art that we create comes from the art we have experienced. That is why I wanted to pay homage to the women artists who have made me stronger.
AP: The fashion world has fallen in love with your image, just like Almodóvar, who called you “a cubist beauty”.
I like to think that, because of me, the canon of beauty has become a little less boring.
Even though today I see a turn toward the opposite direction. I have a sense that even when the fashion industry tries to open itself to different sizes and profiles, it’s just to increase sales. I love fashion, and I work with designers, but I keep a distance from the manner in which this industry influences our relationship with appearance. Instead of thanking our bodies for what they let us experience, we are always criticizing them.
AP: Did you always know that?
Yes. In school I looked at the children who teased me because of something I couldn’t influence, and tried to understand why it mattered to them. Skin color, height, facial symmetry -- we don’t choose these things. Is there a problem with that? Besides, everything’s relative. My nose comes from my mother, who is from Navarra, in northern Spain, and when I go there, no one stares at me, because everyone has a long nose. I like it, and I couldn’t imagine changing it just because it doesn’t appeal to some people.
AP: When have you felt the most beautiful?
Right now, baby. You’re very young and maybe you don’t recognize how beautiful you are, but just wait ‘till you’re 50.
Rossy de Palma (born Rosa Elena Garcia Echave, 1964) is a Spanish actress known for her work in the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Nominated twice for the Goya Prize for Kika (1993) and The Flower of my Secret(1995). She is also a vocalist, performer, and model. Her latest film is Madame, directed by Amanda Sthers.
-- translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb