Rossy de Palma was working as a waitress in a rockabilly bar when she met Pedro Almodóvar, prince of the underground film scene in 1980s Madrid. Four decades on, she remains one of the director’s regular collaborators – a vivid, volatile figure in films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Flower of My Secret. She’s also acted for Robert Altman and Terry Gilliam, modelled for Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier, and released her own line of cosmetic products. Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel Mothers, is a tale of fraught maternal mix-ups and buried secrets from the Spanish civil war. De Palma, 57, plays the confidante of Penélope Cruz’s troubled heroine.
Hi Rossy, where are you? I thought you lived in Madrid.
No, I’m at a wellness clinic, near Alicante. Macrobiotic food. Watsu massages. And look, I’ll show you the Mediterranean – you can see it from the balcony. It is a very good place.
Parallel Mothers is your eighth film with Almodóvar. How has the experience changed since you made Law of Desire way back in 1987?
Honestly, it’s almost the same. We work well together, so there’s no need for many retakes. We have a dialogue. We understand each other. He knows I’m going to be perfect for the role – and that I’m going to play it perfectly.
In 1980s Madrid there were painters, poets, musicians, film-makers, all mixed up together like alphabet soup
Almodóvar must be different, though. He says he’s become a recluse and mainly focuses on work.
Well, I think with age we become more of a concentrated essence of who we really are. But he’s not a recluse. He has his cats. And yes, he’s very focused on his work, but then he always was. The way we work, it’s the same as 35 years ago. I’m always saying, “Can I do this? Can I say that?” – perhaps because I’m trying to have more lines but also because I’m an organic artist and I need to feel comfortable and make something that’s real. And Pedro is open to improvisation, so he’ll say, “Oh OK, go ahead.” He has everything under control but he always leaves space for things that happen accidentally – for a little bit of life to come in through the door.
Parallel Mothers is a ghost story of sorts insofar as it’s about the historic trauma of the Spanish civil war. Does that make it Almodóvar’s most conventionally political film?
It’s the most serious film that he’s done. It’s about the lies the government tells us, and the lies we tell each other, and whether we all ought to tell the truth or not. Without facing the truth, it’s impossible to grow and evolve. And if you close a wound too quickly it becomes infected.
How much of a direct influence was the Francoist era on your own work? Wasn’t the whole Movida Madrileña [the underground arts scene of 1980s Madrid] a conscious reaction to Franco’s death [in 1975]?
Amazing influence. But perhaps I didn’t know it at the time. I’m younger than Pedro. He lived through the Franco era. I was a little girl in Mallorca. When I arrived in Madrid at the age of 18, I had a pop music band called the Worst Possible – and I felt I had such freedom. We didn’t care about money or celebrity, we just wanted to express ourselves. There were painters, poets, musicians, film-makers, all mixed up together, like spaghetti letters in an alphabet soup. I wasn’t interested in the past. I was looking forward, not behind. But then you grow up and you realise how important it is to look back and re-examine and reopen the tombs.
Do you still play your old Worst Possible records?
Of course! We had a few famous songs. I have two kids – they are 22 and 23 – and they say, “How lucky you were to be young in the 80s!” Good music, good cinema. And good music never dies. Look at the fashion world – it keeps going back to the 80s and 90s, the era is everywhere. That gives me a new lease of life with young people today.
You described yourself earlier as an “organic artist”.
It means I like everything – poetry and music and fashion and painting. For me, art is an excuse to get away from reality. Because reality is hardcore. I don’t like it at all. So I escape reality whenever I can. Also, art is an open universe. You don’t have religion, or gender, or age. So that is my refuge, It’s where I feel protected, especially now with the pandemic and fucking business interests and the irresponsible politicians still fighting one another, like abusive parents.
It’s funny. I think that the pandemic has made people more empathic, looking after each other in their own small circles, but global politics is still following the same old patterns, which is very upsetting. When the pandemic started, I thought it was a chance to reset. To put the system back to the beginning. To have a global humanist president. [Laughs.] I accept that this is a little bit naive. I’m growing older, but I’m still a little girl.
So you haven’t changed a bit.
I guess not that much. I always think that I’m changing, but then I realise that I’m still at the first step. Always the first step. It sounds so stupid, but after this I’ll go and walk by the sea and breathe the air and look at the sunset. And I’m always amazed when I see a sunset. It’s like it’s the first time that I’ve seen it.
Parallel Mothers is in cinemas from Friday