Described by many as a Picasso come-to-life, de Palma broke the rules of beauty in 1988 when she starred in Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and became a model and muse for designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Sybilla. Her status as an iconic fashion character was further cemented with her role in Robert Altman’s 1994 satirical fashion film Prêt-à-Porter.
Rossy de Palma’s left eye is a gentle sea-green, the lid softly hooded; her right eye is brighter and rounder, a sparkling hazel. As the sulky, menacing Marian in the new Pedro Almodóvar film, Julieta, the left eye seems to dominate, casting a melancholy spell. But today, as herself – a vivacious arthouse icon – the right takes over. She is positively radiant.
The skew of her features is softer in person than it looks on screen, her long nose more Modigliani-elegant than Picasso-strange. Still, her looks are such that it would be impossible for her to walk into a room without being noticed. In fact, as I am waiting in the green room of the British Film Institute on a quiet weekday afternoon, her imminent arrival is announced by a smattering of film students in the foyer, who break into polite applause as she walks past. She is statuesque in high-heeled sandals, with crimson toenails matching the painterly daubs on the silk shirt she wears open over a tight dress. The large, gold earrings (she is, after all, a glamorous Madrileño of a certain age) gleam under a leather pork-pie hat of the kind worn by the Specials.
Julieta marks De Palma’s first major role in an Almodóvar film in 21 years. The director cast her for the first time in Law of Desire, in 1987, and then in four more films in the following eight years. For the past two decades, she has not worked with Almodóvar, save for a cameo role in Broken Embraces. But the impression she left in those early films – huge earrings, bright clothes, jet-black hair – is so vivid that her on-screen appearance in Julieta as Marian, a scowling housekeeper in muddy-toned cardigans and a greying, frizzy perm, is quite a shock. “It’s true! No glamour, baby! No glamour!” She throws her head back; throaty laugh, huge white teeth. “Ooh la la!”
The story centres on a woman who has been missing for many years, and scenes set in the mid-80s revive the mischievous glamour of Almodóvar’s early heroines, so it is hard not to see the story mirrored in the real-life return of De Palma to centre stage. But she waves away the suggestion that she was an Almodóvar exile. “I felt like I was always connected to him. Even when I was not in his films, I felt like I am part of his world.” On the set of Julieta, she was Almodóvar’s conspirator in playing jokes on the other actors, most of whom he was working with for the first time.
“We make a lot of jokes when we are filming. Pedro will tell me silly things to say to the other actors, and they don’t know that he is joking, because they don’t know his sense of humour yet. When Pedro is shooting, he is very fun. He is so happy, because he is doing what he loves the most.”
The door opens, and Almodóvar himself walks in to greet his muse. It is Almodóvar season at the BFI, and tonight De Palma will introduce a screening of 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, in which she plays a surburban housewife. Almodóvar is neat and compact in trainers, a zipped-up leather jacket, hands stuffed into his jeans pockets. Even with his crown of badgerish white hair, De Palma, in her heels and hat, towers over him as they chat. After a few moments, they embrace for a second time, say their farewells and De Palma rejoins me on the sofa.
Julieta is a film in which “everything is held back – the pain, the love, the tears”, she says. She could not be more different: she sits close, smiles and nods at my questions before cutting them short with a friendly pat on the thigh and taking over, her hands acting out an accompanying mime to every sentence. When she describes emotions being held back, for instance, her hands are around her throat. Sometimes the mime is quite tricky to decipher. She tells me about the character of Marian, who is “like a Russian doll”: “When we meet her, she is young, but she already has an old woman inside. Time is like …” – she stops talking, moves her lips rapidly, pretends to pull something out of her mouth and stretch it – “yes! Chewing gum. Time is like chewing gum.”
Almodóvar tells women’s stories in a way almost no one else does. They are messy and complicated and fearsome, rather than decorative, linear and neatly tied up with a kiss. Julieta addresses the thorny issue of ageing, with a main character played by two different actors, one portraying her youth, the other her middle age; the transition hinges on a scene where one morphs into the other while drying her hair under a towel. “Pedro says that makeup cannot change the look in the eye, and the look in the eye is what counts. So he wanted two women, a young woman and a mature woman. I prefer the look of the older woman, because you can see so much in her eyes, all that she has been through.”
De Palma will be 52 next month. “But I feel 25 inside. And who cares, anyway? I am healthy, so I have gratitude for that, because that is the most important thing. And if you have curiosity, if you can still be amazed by human beings and amazed by a beautiful flower, if you are still thinking about films you want to see and poems you want to write, then what difference does it make?”
As a teenager in Mallorca – born Rosa Elena Garcia Echave, she adopted her hometown as a stage name – she and eight friends formed a punk-pop band, called Peor Impossible. “It means ‘the worst possible’. We called ourselves that so that anyone who comes to see us, if they don’t like it, they can’t complain. We can say: ‘We told you we were the worst!’ We were very theatrical, very spontaneous. In life, you can’t – how you say, when you walk like this?” – she jumps up and teeters forward, balancing on the balls of her feet – “Tip toes! Yes! You cannot live on tip toes. You have fun, you fall down, you stand up. That is life.”
She moved with the band to Madrid, where she met Almodóvar in a cafe. “It was the last years of the Movida Madrileña [the counterculture movement that emerged following the death of Franco in 1975]. No one cared about being famous or rich. It was about art and freedom. Women were very free, very independent.” She began modelling as a kind of hobby, her strong looks attracting a certain type of avant-garde designer. Alexander McQueen cast her in his first Givenchy haute couture show in Paris in 1996, where she shared a catwalk with Helena Christensen in a black beehive wig and Naomi Campbell in a headpiece of gold bull’s horns.
An appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter secured her name in fashion history and, in an industry not renowned for lifelong bonds, her friendship with Jean Paul Gaultier, on whose catwalk she has made many appearances, has endured. Last month, she was pride of place in his front row at Paris haute couture, drinking champagne next to It girl Eloise Letissier, the singer from Christine and the Queens.
After spells living in Paris, she is back in Madrid, where she has a house just outside the city, where she lives with her two children. “Madrid is a very different place now than it was in the 80s, of course. But it has something chaotic still, in a good way. Like New York, it is a very open place. Once you are there, you are from there.”
Having never planned her career, she laughs at the idea that she might have a strategy for what to do next. “I have always felt like an outsider, but I am very happy like that,” she says. Does she ever long for, say, a huge box-office superhero movie? “I would love to be in an action movie! Yes, yes, I could do all the kung fu! Ha ha!” (She illustrates this point with a few kung fu moves. She looks marvellous.)
Time is up and she stands to hug me. She smells incredible, so I tell her. “But it is my fragrance!” she exclaims, before rummaging in her bag to show me a chic glass bottle: Rossy de Palma’s Eau de Protection. “I made a fragrance for protection, because too many perfumes are just seduction. Seduction is great, but there is so much more to being a woman.”
Julieta is released in the UK on 26 August
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