As Penelope Cruz stood on the set of Broken Embraces, portraying an aspiring actress hoping against hope to launch a film career, she felt the shock of art imitating life.
In the scene, her character, Lena, stands nervous and hesitant before Mateo Blanco, a successful film director, auditioning for her first film role, unaware that she is beginning a remarkable relationship. "Her first contact with acting is this meeting with her favourite director. I was thinking of my first meeting with Pedro," says Cruz, 35, sitting in a booth at Azure restaurant in Toronto's Intercontinental Hotel.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar, Broken Embraces stars Luis Homar and Penelope Cruz.
Nearly two decades earlier Cruz, aged 17, stood before Spanish film giant Pedro Almodovar, who rapidly became her favourite director and most frequent collaborator, not to mention a friend so close he is almost family. (The film was 1997's Live Flesh .) And Cruz's déjà vu moment on-set is intensified by the fact that Almodovar was mere feet away, setting the scene in question.
"It was a very emotional thing," Cruz says.
The same kind of connections across relationships and time are instrumental to Broken Embraces , a film with a challenging and fragmentary narrative where relationships and identities are often unclear.
There is something familiar, and we know each other very well, and we love each other very much. There is a lot of looking at each other and knowing what each other is thinking. Penelope Cruz
Broadly speaking, the film follows Mateo, who is jolted by tragedy while making a film and reinvents himself, starting a new life as the blind Harry Caine. Many years later, he is lured back to confront his past by friends and family.
Here too, there are hints of art imitating life. Lluis Homar, who plays Mateo and Harry, says he thinks the film is partly an act of self-portraiture for Almodovar, though it's certainly not autobiographical.
"It's like being a painter, for example, Picasso or Rembrandt - sometimes they need to make a self-portrait ... to look at himself at this age, at this moment. How is his life? Something of this is in there," says Homar, leaning across the table. "Probably he wouldn't agree with me."
But Cruz agrees, pointing to another instance in the film drawn from real life, a crucial scene in which Lena and Mateo are in a wardrobe room trying on wigs and subtly make an intuitive and powerful connection.
"When Pedro was trying the wigs for the characters, we had those moments in the mirror with each other, you know, communicating almost with no words. Then he decided to make that a big part of [the film]" she said.
Cruz and Almodovar have created a rare chemistry across a slew of films in Spanish including Volver , All About My Mother , and The Cannibalistic Councillor ("It's something sacred between them," Homar said). In fact, Cruz has never turned down a role Almodovar has offered her.
"There is something familiar, and we know each other very well, and we love each other very much. There is a lot of looking at each other and knowing what each other is thinking," Cruz said.
Even though the "Spanish enchantress" and the openly gay director have the familiarity of a married couple at times, their on-set relationship hasn't softened over the years. Almodovar is a tell-it-like-it-is director, even when it means being harsh with his favourite star.
"[Our closeness]doesn't mean that I feel more relaxed on the set, or less intimidated by him because he is my friend. No, I think it's the same as our first movie," Cruz said. "I prefer to have that. I prefer that honesty. But that also means you never know what you're going to hear. It keeps you on your toes, very much."