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Rossy de PalmaPhotography Paco Navarro, fashion Rossy de Palma

Meet Almodóvar’s muse, the ‘Picasso come to life’

Rossy de Palma is the striking actress who the seminal director adores – here we talk about Madrid in the 80s, how backs can express emotion and her new film Julieta

Very few people have as much insight into Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic opus as Rossy de Palma. The actress has been a close friend and muse to the seminal Spanish director ever since they met in the heady environs of 1980s Madrid, going on to form an integral part of La Movida Madrileña, the decadent countercultural movement that pulsed through the city in the wake of Franco’s death. De Palma – often referred to as ‘Dama Picasso’ or ‘a Picasso come to life’ on account of her striking, asymmetric features – first appeared with a small cameo in Almodóvar’s 1987 thriller Law of Desire, but the director was so impressed by the actress’s onscreen charisma that he cast her again in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown the following year. In the three decades since, de Palma has appeared in five more of Almodóvar’s films, taking on a variety of roles – from feisty drug dealer to lesbian maid to "crab-faced" sister – while the director’s latest offering, Julieta, sees her assume the small but vital role of a sinister, soothsayer-like housekeeper with greying curls and a stony, penetrating glare.

Julieta marks a change of pace for the frequently frenzied filmmaker, a fact that de Palma notes when we meet her at the BFI ahead of the film’s release. “At the beginning this film was supposed to be called Silencio, and it works very well this title because when it finishes, you have nothing to say,” she says in her lilting Spanish tone. “You think about it, but you don't have any words; you have to digest it.” And it’s true that while it bears many of the hallmarks of a classic Almodóvar – a female viewpoint, a bold, saturated colour palette, themes of death, betrayal and mystery, and, of course, de Palma herself – the pervading mood of Julieta is quieter and more thoughtful, and all the more searing in its restraint.

Based on a series of short stories by celebrated Canadian author Alice Munro, it explores the tragedy-tinged past of its titular character – played by Adriana Ugarte in her younger years and Emma Suárez as she reaches middle age – after a chance encounter with a woman on the street causes the older Julieta to reflect upon the series of life-altering events that have come to define her. Here, as the film prepares to hit UK screens, we sit down with the warm and eccentric de Palma to talk the intricacies of her role, Almodóvar’s new chapter and the explosive scene in 1980s Madrid – an era revisited in the movie.

When did Almodóvar first approach you about the role?

Rossy de Palma: Pedro and I were in Berlin for the European Film Awards and we were talking with some other actors in a cafe and Pedro said, '‘I’m writing and finishing [a script] and there is a part for you.’ I said, 'I don't want to know too much’, because you don't want to get excited and then afterwards discover he’s changed the script – because sometimes he has two or three projects going on! So I said, 'OK, OK, tell me when you’re sure’. Then we came here to London to the premiere of the Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown musical – which was great – and then afterwards somebody was interviewing Pedro on stage and he said, ‘I know the next film I'm going do but I have not cast anyone at all yet. But one thing is sure – Rossy de Palma is in it.’ So then he announced it to the world!

And what was your first reaction to your character when you read the script?

Rossy de Palma: Oh my god! She's a hard character, huh? She has no moment of relief – she’s a very sad woman. I’m sure very bad things happened to her. There’s something bitter inside her. Also I saw this character like when you see the Greek tragedies and the Coryphaeus [the chief chorus member] arrives and announces that something awful is going to happen. I see this with Marian: [puts on sinister voice] ‘I'm going to come with the bad news’. But at the same time she tells the truth. It’s curious that us women, we always feel guilty [when we’re cruel] and this woman doesn't feel guilty, and nobody dares to say, ‘Ah it's her fault,’ because it’s not – she did not invent the secrets she tells.

Your character is very funny at times, was that intentional?

Rossy de Palma: People laugh a little bit at the beginning, no? But no, I was doing what Pedro asked me to do. Marian is a very closed character, but she brings with her a mood. Even when the character's back is turned in the kitchen, you didn't see my face, but you see something very antipatico [unpleasant] going on, no? When I watched it, it even surprised me, even though I knew that backs could talk.

When I first worked in theatre, it was in an adaption of Pedro's film Dark Habits. I was playing a nun and I was working with a lot of actresses who were passionate in their traditional approach to theatre. I arrived there to rehearse and did all these movements and when I turned my back to the audience, the other actors shouted, 'What are you doing? You are never to put your back to the audience!' But I said, ‘Backs can speak and express things,’ and when they saw what I did, they agreed.

You’ve noted that the film is quite different in tone to Almodóvar’s other films…

Rossy de Palma: Yes, it’s like a different door. I don’t know if Pedro would agree, but my feeling is that he’s entering another era: another Almodóvar. Perhaps The Flower of My Secret is the closest [of Almodóvar’s earlier films] to Julieta. They have something in common – the words and narration are not in a hurry. In Julieta, the camera moves so elegantly, so slowly; just displaying how the time is going by, you know? You don't feel like you have to run. In this film he's holding back a lot of things, more than showing them – like the emotions. He said to the actresses, 'No, I don't want to see a tear.’ All the emotion has to be there, but not outside, inside. His approach is much more minimalist, much more clean – of course in the train there are the colours, but he didn't let the barocco [baroque] come in.

The film is partially set in 80s Madrid, where you and Almodóvar first met. What are your favourite memories of that time?

Rossy de Palma: Oh, the 80s, the late 80s was the best, and the 90s were great too. My daughter is sixteen years old and she always says, 'mama, how lucky you were to live the 80s – to be young then!' Because we still risking things: it was a spontaneous explosion, like a volcano of colours and creativity. But none of us wanted to be famous or to be rich – no! It was like, ‘we have this talent: we have to share it’. It was our expectation to be happy, to be artists, to enjoy what we do, to share it with the others. It was so magical. There was no premeditation or strategy at all – just, ‘let's have fun!’

Did you feel that it was important to have something political to move against?

Rossy de Palma: In Spain, politically it helped us a lot, because it was the end of [Franco’s] dictatorship, it was hopeful. We had spent 50 years in the darkness, then he dies and suddenly the light of the sun comes out and everybody is like, 'Hello, let's be happy!’ But I guess in all European countries, like France and Britain, the 80s was a great time too – with punk and everything. I hope there’s new 80s now!

The new generation is very creative and I think now we are in a generation of celebrity and money, and the internet is abducing a lot of people – we are literally like robots, inside this world of the internet. My kids, it’s like they come from the future – they know already how to do everything! But the next generation, perhaps they won't feel that it’s so important, perhaps they’ll go through this and beyond it to something less isolated, more collaborative and exciting.

Julieta is in cinemas from August 26.