By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez
Maribel Verdú is a fascinating woman. And I don’t mean in terms of her dazzling film career, nor am I talking about the fact that, next to Victoria Abril, she is the actress with the most nominations for the Goya Award (the most important award in Spanish cinema), nor that she has won twice (in 2008 and 2013). I’m talking about her, the beautiful and radiant woman. While she speaks I feel like I need to pinch myself to wake up. I prefer to turn on the tape recorder and ponder whether I’m daydreaming and try to stay more or less alert, so as not to lose track of the conversation or ruin this chance to interview one of the most significant actresses in the vast domain of modern Ibero-American cinema. I’ll repeat that she is also one of my favorites, if any of today’s readers haven’t happened to notice.
After seeing her innumerable times on the screen in memorable films directed by great film-makers, like Belle Époque (Fernando Trueba), Golden Balls (Bigas Luna), The Lucky Star (Ricardo Franco), And Your Mother Too (Alfonso Cuarón), Lysistrata (Francesc Bellmunt), Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro), The Zone (Rodrigo Plá), Seven Billiard Tables (Gracia Querejeta), Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola), and Snow White (Pablo Berger), it seems like you have known her all your life. Happily, seeing her and conversing with her in person, you discover that she is a much more interesting person than you could even have imagined. In a word, fascinating.
As she deals with all the members of the press dying to talk to her, Maribel Verdú metamorphoses through every possible emotional state: she is happy, she grows excited, she smiles, she gets mad, she asks for a Coca-Cola light with ice and lemon, she complains about the heat, she lights a cigarette gracefully and elegantly, she grows excited again, she laughs heartily, and then she suddenly retreats into a perfect dramatic silence, keeping everyone present enthralled. There are no camera clicks; flashes stop in homage, awaiting the outcome. She takes her exploration of a roller coaster of emotions to the farthest confines of the human soul without losing aught of genius or charm. This is all happening right in front of me, a poor, starry-eyed freelance journalist who dreams of taking a photo with her at the end of the interview. I don’t even want to think what it must be like to see her act live on stage! Just in case there might be a chance, I bought a ticket to Madrid to see if I can catch her in a play. And in passing, I will ask her to return the heart she has stolen.
We just saw you as the stepmother in Snow White in your first role as a villain. What was that experience like?
I was up to it, wasn’t I? I was happy, because I always play heroines or good women who have really bad luck in life. And to unexpectedly and unashamedly play the villain was wonderful. This gift from Pablo Berger is one of the best I have ever received.
Pablo praised your work to the skies. How did you get along with him?
I love Pablo, I really do. He is one of those directors you hope will always think of you, because it is marvelous to be part of his world. He is such an anomaly, offbeat and different, and penetrating into different minds is very pleasant. You can’t imagine what goes on in his head: he spent nine years getting the Snow White project off the ground. We had a good time together and I hope he knows he can call on me again for anything.
You won your second Goya Award for the role in Snow White. In your acceptance speech, you dedicated the award to all the people in Spain “who have lost their homes, dreams, hopes, futures, and even their lives due to a broken, unjust, obsolete system that makes it possible to steal from the poor and give to the rich,” referring to the economic crisis in Spain and alluding to a quote from Costa Gavras’ last film. The media called your dedication “controversial.” What repercussions did your words have in Spain?
After the Goyas, the best thing that happened is that the people I really care about and am interested in have been there for me, which is enough. I never mentioned any political party; I talked about a system that has been in place for years and years. The system is the same regardless of who is in government. I wanted to end with those words from Costa Gavras’ Capital, which I loved. Of course, everyone omitted the bit from Costa Gavras, because they didn’t want to say it, but I would do it again. I’m a lucky woman; I’ve had a good life and I have been lucky enough to be one of those who has a job and does well, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t react with empathy, sorrow, and horror to what I see around me. I think one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other.
Were you criticized for what you said?
Look at the words: to dedicate the award to everyone who is having a hard time in Spain. Next year Spain will have 30% unemployment. Think about what those words have become. Wasn’t it to be expected? Well, I tend to get involved in things, I care a lot about society. Perhaps I haven’t aired those opinions so much; I don’t always ride my hobby-horse, but I think it was an important time to do it. Those of us who work in the cinema are being pressured to talk about the 21% VAT [the tax on cultural products recently went from 8% to 21% in Spain]. It seems to me that culture is not the most important thing to a country; culture is indeed fundamental, but a place to live is even more basic. I was concerned when they suddenly started in on that, and I wanted to have another option besides navel-gazing. I wanted to talk about the future for everyone in the cinema and throughout Spain.
Does an actress of your caliber feel pressure to go to Hollywood or do you no longer care about that?
I will soon celebrate my thirtieth anniversary in this business and I will be 43 years old. At this point, I don’t think I’m going to say, “I’m going to see what happens with a life in Hollywood.” But I’m an international actress, so I’m open to everything. I really missed out on a lot of opportunities after And Your Mother Too and Pan’s Labyrinth. They offered me many things abroad, but they were projects I didn’t like; I wanted to do another kind of cinema. “When did I say yes?” When Francis Ford Coppola called me [for the film Tetro]. If there were an interesting project and an interesting director, I would go to Hollywood or Shanghai or Panama to film; it’s all the same to me. It is true that I don’t want to be far from home. I go film for four months and I come back, but I couldn’t live abroad. It doesn’t feel right.
When will you act in Latin American again?
When I get a call for an interesting project. I work in Spain, México, Argentina, or anywhere. Latin America is my other stage. And I love it. When there is an interesting project, I will go after it.
What makes you accept? A good role, a good director? If, for example, you got a call from a new Panamanian director and he or she said: “I have a role for you…”
If I read the script and I like it, I dive in. You risk a lot with a new director, you haven’t seen his or her work and you don’t know what’s going to happen. But Alejandro Amenábar got top marks with his first film, as did Pablo Berger. The script is essential, and so is the character, of course. I have to feel like I can do it. The dialogue is also important to me, because I need to feel that the dialogue will come naturally to me. And I have to like the story, but it’s difficult to find really good scripts.
Do you prefer a director who gives you freedom to create to one who directs you and guides you?
I like being directed and guided, but within certain limits. Imagine a circle where you can move freely inside, but not outside. Directors can guide me there, but leave me a little freedom so I can contribute something of my own. But having complete freedom is not a good idea. You can’t leave an actor completely free because it goes to our heads. I like to feel that I’m being directed, but essentially —and above all— what I like is a director who treats me well. A director should create a good atmosphere. Some of them feel you need to suffer and have a horrible time in order to make everything real.
Like Lars von Trier…
Well… [silence], and many others! I have dealt with some of them and I swear it’s not worth it. Not even the best film in the world makes up for the suffering and abuse. Life is tough enough without people making it tougher for you. During filming I need a good atmosphere and a lot of entertainment. When you are acting and when you play a villain, you have to cry and suffer. And we do it because we are actors. Our work is to deceive people as well as possible and the director needs to help us. Do you know what it’s like to film with a man like Guillermo del Toro? To film with a man like Alfonso Cuarón? These people have so much talent that they manage to make you turn yourself inside out in their films. And you are happy with them, you laugh, they love you, and they treat you well. And when you need to suffer, you suffer when you hear “action.”
What was it like to film with Coppola?
Stupendous, he was very affectionate. But really, he’s Coppola! It’s like having the whole history of film in front of you. Watching his movies is incredible; filming them is much more complicated because he films in a very difficult manner. You never know when he has finished a sequence because he has it all in his head. You don’t know how many scenes you’re going to have. Francis films each scene from every possible angle with all the lenses in the camera bag, which means that his sequences are never-ending! You have to keep up with him for a long time. It’s wonderful of course, but it was an incredible challenge. I have never seen anyone who films like he does; it is completely different. It’s not like the story board used by Guillermo del Toro, who comes in and knows exactly what he is going to do.
How do you handle that level of obsession, which is very characteristic of that director? Do you like it? Is it interesting to work with a person so obsessed with his ideas? Or is it strange to be part of an obsessive person’s creative process?
I love being part of anyone’s creation, so long as they treat me well. There are obsessive, paranoid, tranquil, unassuming, or uncomplicated people; it’s all the same to me. Everything goes. What I cannot agree with is the idea that the end justifies the means; I can’t stand that. I want the end to be wonderful, but the road and the journey should also be comfortable. It’s not worth it to me to suffer a lot to make a masterpiece. Because I know that you can enjoy yourself while creating a masterpiece. And you can suffer and end up with crap.