Spanish actress Elena Anaya is nothing short of impressive. Since the inception of a career that took off in earnest in 1996 with her role in the film África (Alfonso Ungría) she has starred in a number of memorable roles. Born in Palencia in 1975 she has acted in both studio and independent movies, directed by Spanish and international filmmakers alike. Currently praised for her performance as Dr. Maru, aka Dr. Poison, in Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017), throughout her career Anaya has shown an impressive breadth of acting skills and boldness in terms of roles chosen, which range from more intimate character portrayals to sometimes less dialogue-based roles in, for example, Hollywood movies. Personally, I first discovered Anaya as an actress during my doctoral research on contemporary Spanish film (2012-2015) which included an analysis of Pedro Almodóvar’s La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011). In 2015 I spoke to the actress face to face as she engaged in conversation with me while in Melbourne as a special guest during the Spanish Film Festival, for the screening of Todos están muertos (They Are All Dead, Beatriz Sanchís, 2014). Two years later, facilitated by her Madrid agency Kuranda, I had the opportunity to interview Anaya by phone and she responded reflectively and candidly during the hour I had with her. What follows is our transcribed conversation in English.

During your career as an actress you’ve gone from strength to strength. You’ve gone from starring in memorable roles in Spanish-speaking movies like Las huellas borradas, Lágrimas negras, El invierno de las anjanas, Lucía y el sexo, and many more, to playing roles in English-speaking films. You have gained both national and worldwide recognition after strong performances in a number of films throughout your years as an actress. You often portray independent women who prove themselves strong in the face of personal adversity and external pressure. What first triggered you to become an actress?

I don’t know what exactly but I think I was born like this. I was born with the need of becoming an actress. The only thing is I was born and raised in a very tiny city with no possibilities, with dreams that nobody was allowed to have … but not in my family because one day I opened my mouth and I was loud and I said “Hey, what happens if I want to become an actress?” And my mother said “Well you have to pick a career that you really like the most and for the work you want to do … it’s better to be right.” And I said “What happens if I wanna act? We don’t have any relatives in the cinema industry, we don’t know anyone, how can we do it?” And she said, “Start from the beginning, find a nice school and start acting” – and that’s what happened. And also the conversation happened after we watched movies together in the cinemas. I was born in Palencia which is very cold in the winters and one of the best things on the weekends was getting inside the cinema and avoiding the horrible cold and watching for example Out of Africa – and then I had this thing about Kenya … and we had this conversation and walking back home with my mother in the very cold winter she said, “Of course you can be whatever you want.”

That’s a great background, with support from the very start. What role would you say has been the most enjoyable so far and which one has been the most challenging?

The most challenging? I could tell you a few, you know. The first one was not easy at all. It was called África, my character was called África, and it was about a teenager with a baby and with a very dark past who starts to realise how difficult it is to become an adult and it was a very difficult film for me because it was the first one and I didn’t have any ideas … it was my first year of the acting school and I didn’t know even what was the continuity, you know, after the film so I had no idea … But, of course, the first time is always very weird … But then after that I did other movies, of course Familia (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1996) and then I think the biggest challenge was Sex and Lucía (Lucía y el sexo, 2001), and I was like “Oh my goodness” but then I talked to [director] Julio Medem and he said “Don’t worry, I will be your friend and I will help you with everything you need.” I had to learn to feel comfortable doing certain scenes but I played a beautiful, beautiful character that I’m really proud of. But I think the first ones, like the first times of everything, are always challenging. 

Elena Anaya

It is fantastic that Julio Medem was able to guide you along at the beginning of your career. Being a very strong and independent woman like many of your characters, what personal strengths do you draw from in your acting?

Yes, all the characters depart from myself somehow. All of them have my face, my hands, my eyes and my soul but of course they are fiction. The only thing is to make them come alive … I just need to open up treasures inside of me and draw from different strengths and every time the strength is different. But this is the part that all actors have: on the one hand we are very insecure but we are also very feisty and strong and the only way of getting in front of the camera or in front of an audience at a theatre is using that power and strength and to be very careful. I don’t know where it stems from, maybe it comes from the security that my parents gave me in those early years … they believed I could be or do whatever I wanted. It’s a lot of work.

I can imagine. Would you say that an actor has a dual personality or multiple personalities not only on screen but also in their private life? Do you still take on your characters when you go home or can you leave them behind after you finish acting?

All the characters become part of my life, somehow they come with me, they sleep with me and they are part of my life forever. When I’m done, they stay. Sometimes they cohabit with you and you need to keep working with them. But most of the time when I go home I try to leave everything behind and recover energy and you can rest and be ready for the next day. But there is also a moment when the character doesn’t want you anymore, when the movie is going to be released and the character is gonna be everybody’s part.

Yes, that’s a very interesting point. I spoke to Catalan filmmaker Ventura Pons the other day in Barcelona and he said the same thing as you, that once he finishes a project he puts the film away as if it were a hat on a hat stand, then he moves on to the next thing. I suppose you, too, have to liberate yourself and not be too bogged down by the characters you play.

Yes, it’s like that, you have to liberate yourself from them but they become dependent on you as if you have a kid, and at some stage he goes to university and he moves to a different house … It’s a little bit like that; the movie is travelling and is embraced by other people.

Yes, you have been playing parts for filmmakers like Julio Medem, Agustín Díaz Yanes and Pedro Almodóvar. How do they, being all Spanish-speaking as well, in different ways stimulate you in your acting and draw out the best in you?

Every director is unique and different and, also, with the same directors in different movies they are different … I think we actors are the same … but day by day we change. One day you are confident and the other you are absolutely scared of everything. You have to listen to your soul every day and the same happens to directors. Julio Medem, Agustín Díaz Yanes and Pedro Almodóvar, they are all completely different but, for example, I can tell you that Pedro Almodóvar is very precise, he writes his own work, the script. All directors know their characters very well but in the case of Almodóvar and Medem they know every tiny detail of what they write for you and they like to be very precise and they are super demanding. Agustín Díaz Yanes is the same, he is also super demanding but he is not as super demanding as the others, he is more open maybe and he offers you whatever you have in your pocket. In the case of Pedro and Julio, before they offer you something they tell you exactly what they want. They let you improvise a little bit but they know the script exactly.

Elena Anaya

Pedro Almodóvar and Elena Anaya

Is there any difference between acting for Spanish and foreign directors?

Not particularly; it doesn’t mean being French or being South American or Argentinian … every human being is different in themselves. Also, it depends on the project: at times they are super big and sometimes they are super small. It depends; it doesn’t matter how many thoughts, it doesn’t matter how many people are behind. In terms of foreign directors, I’m very lucky to work with incredible people abroad and I don’t find any big differences between French people and Mexicans, every person is different.

Having done big roles in films like La piel que habito and most recently Wonder Woman you have also played in films that could be considered more low key and arthouse such as Pensé que iba a haber fiesta (I Thought It Was a Party, Victoria Galardi, 2013), La memoria del agua (The Memory of Water, Matías Bize, 2015), Todos están muertos, and Room in Rome (Julio Medem, 2010) which are intimate and require quite lengthy dialogues. What kind of roles would you say are hardest to play and require more investment and effort by you as an actress? Is it harder to play a character who delivers long dialogues, or an action character like Dr Maru in Wonder Woman?

It’s difficult to say because it’s not always hardest with long dialogues when you have to say everything with words. For example, sometimes you only have your eyes to express what you think and you still hear your thoughts and that’s not very easy but it depends. It’s so different – with a very tiny role or a character that doesn’t speak then you need to hear it, you have one tiny opportunity, you have to be in front of the camera, you have to make a difference; you can’t miss a tiny opportunity. I don’t choose the characters for the length [of dialogue], what I care about is making an intense difference. I care about what the story is about and I care about what happens to this character … the process, the project and that’s it.

Elena Anaya

Elena Anaya as Lupe in Todos están muertos

Yes, and you express yourself with your eyes very effectively also in La piel que habito, which is an intensely emotional and psychologically challenging movie to watch. It creeps under the skin of the viewer as well as, I gather, that of the actor. How do you detach yourself from the anguish expressed on screen by your character as you again enter your private life after work?

First you need to breathe out [laughs]. It’s one of the most important things I’ve learnt in my school of acting because when I was studying in the school when I was 20 years old I remember one year I was living with my sister and she said “I hate your school so much. Look at your face: every day you come back from school, those people are crazy people and I don’t like that” … and I was like “What the hell, it’s my work, my passion” – and I looked into my room and I cried for five more hours. So after a year basically crying every day I realised I needed to press a button, I needed to get rid of it. It was so hard. At 21 years old you are not fully made, fully cooked, so with that anguish of the characters … you can’t live with all this … So with the training of an actor you need to finish rehearsing and finish the scene then you need to do whatever to feel comfortable. In the case of La piel que habito, Pedro had to shoot the end twice because the first time everyone in the crew was crying and he said “We need to repeat this another day.” At the end of it I was trembling; it was hard for me to get rid of that feeling…

That’s a sign of a very good actor who becomes one with the character.

Yeah.

La piel que habito is based on Thierry Jonquet’s book Tarantula (1984). In the last scene of the movie, Almodóvar seems to argue that Vicente is intact at the end of his ordeal played out on screen. At that stage the character Vera (that Vicente has been turned into after being forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery) has escaped the rural mansion where she has been kept hostage and returns to the city. In that last scene, Vera approaches her mother in Madrid declaring that she is still Vicente. Do you think it is possible for the original gender identity of a person undergoing gender reassignment surgery to remain intact?

I think the person will never be the same; even if they are a different gender and with a different skin I think the person will never be the same because of what happened. What happened is deeper than the gender, you know, and also the madness of killing two people after the trauma and the incredible panic that she has experienced for seven years. I don’t think anybody can be the same person. But that doesn’t mean … I wanted to believe for Vera or for Vicente a future. First of all, the mother is still alive and I’m sure that mother is going to be able to love that person that now looks different. But I wanted to believe she may have – or he; I talk about Vera but she is not a woman – but I wanted to believe that Vera and the personal assistant could have a future somehow. I wanted a good future for her.

Elena Anaya

Speaking of mothers, congratulations on the arrival of your son Lorenzo. It’s yet another beautiful achievement and a milestone in your life. Do you think that being a mother unlocks new skills as an actress?

No, I can just tell you that you reach another dimension. Let’s see how that translates into my experience as an actress.

In Wonder Woman you play a character with a dark past that influences the way she acts in the present. Can you please expand on your statement in an interview in The Verge (13 June, 2017) that “People who hide and cheat and live in the shade, they’re so interesting to play.”1

I think it’s interesting with people who look from the darkness, people who live in the shade. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by all those people in my country; you turn on the television, the news, and everything you see there is just bolder than fiction … It is interesting how these people move and act and how there can be so much cruelty.

Yes, exactly. With regard to Patty Jenkins, what makes her a very good filmmaker and is there any difference between male and female filmmakers?

I cannot generalise. I’ve worked with many male directors and a few female directors and all of them are different. Patty Jenkins, now you mention her, well I can tell you she is wonder woman (laughs). She is a very talented, generous, careful woman. She likes so much her job and she has a determination to make it happen. For any reason she has to make it the way she wanted it to be. There are [on the set of Wonder Woman] hundreds of people around and I can tell you the strength she projects from the security of herself and from the determination to make the movie she wants. And I’m so happy and thankful for everything she makes, she really makes me very impressed.

And we are all also very impressed by you and your interpretation of your characters. Talking about news, I’ve just been to Spain where there is quite a debate on feminism right now and they talk about parliamentarian equality between men and women. Do you consider yourself a feminist and what type of feminist in that case?

You know I fight every day with my real life, with my normal life to get normality. I don’t think a man is more prepared than a woman to do roles like mine and I don’t think men should make more money than a woman for roles like mine, I think that is ridiculous. But it’s the reality happening everywhere. I fight against that but I don’t consider myself a feminist. I think of myself as a person who loves equality and the same rights for everybody and that’s my own movement, you know.

Yes, and I agree with you in every respect. I would like to ask you something else about Almodóvar, if I may. Almodóvar has represented Madrid a lot in his movies. Do you recognise his version of Madrid? Is it the Madrid that you are used to or is it very different?

I recognise Almodóvar’s movement, you know. I recognise Madrid in the movies where he shows Madrid and I recognise Barcelona and I recognise all the millions of moments that he is capturing in his movies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t living in Madrid in the ‘80s but in the late ‘90s when I started living in Madrid there was a feeling of this atmosphere that he captured. But I guess I do recognise all the movements that Pedro did for freedom.

At this stage Spain is becoming very globalised, similar to many other countries in the world. Is Spain, in part, losing its identity with the many global influences? Would you say that traditional Spain, to a certain extent, is gone?

Well it’s almost gone but there still exist tiny, tiny things that make the country unique. I’m not talking about Sanfermines [a Pamplona bull festival] but the old tradition and the way of being, way of living. I hope the magic and the tiny part of this country that is not globalised remains. I’m going to give you a tiny example: for example, in my neighbourhood in the centre of Madrid there are still tiny stores, not big supermarkets, and tiny trades, you know. I try to go to those tiny spaces, bars, businesses, etc. … I try to keep that activity of my city, of my country.

Spain is always going to be very special and magic because the Spanish spirit is unbreakable.

Once you said, in terms of the theatre, that “hacer teatro es una maravilla, es una escuela.”2 Would you at some stage be interested in doing theatre as well as film?

Of course. I didn’t work on my plays because when I got the offers I wasn’t available but of course I’m dying to be on stage again and to be performing live. It’s an amazing training for an actor. 

Yes, and I was thinking of all the different projects you’ve been involved in. Your role in Room in Rome must have been a very vulnerable one to play in terms of you being naked throughout most of the movie, and the skin metaphor comes back in La piel que habito and also in Wonder Woman where your facial skin is damaged. Having done very intimate roles like these it would seem easy for you to transition into theatre where you are, in a sense, vulnerable on stage too.

Yes, being in theatre is the fact of being exposed. Being on stage is a different experience. Of course they can see you, they can almost touch you and there is the vulnerability of being afraid of the audience. On stage there are no filters.

Elena Anaya

Elena Anaya As Dr Maru in Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

A number of actors have at some stage of their career shown an increased interest in directing their own movies. Now that you are breaking ground and are becoming very famous across the globe, can you see yourself also behind the film camera at some stage?

I think you need to be born again. It’s a different world and I would need a lot of time, but of course it would be a dream and to be surrounded by the best team of actors.

Yes, and to tell your own story rather than somebody else’s. Elena Anaya, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for your time and effort.

Elena Anaya can next be seen as Claudia Klein in Santiago Mitre’s The Summit (La Cordillera, 2017), co-starring Ricardo Darin, Christian Slater, Dolores Fonzi, et al.

Elena Anaya Filmography

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
Dr. Maru

The Infiltrator (Brad Furman, 2016)
Gloria Alcaino

Zip and Zap and the Captain’s Island (Oskar Santos, 2016)
Señorita Pam

La memoria del agua (The Memory of Water, Matías Bize, 2015)
Amanda

Lejos del mar (Far from the Sea, Imanol Uribe, 2015)
Marina

Swung (Colin Kennedy, 2015)
Alice López

Todos están muertos (They are All Dead, Beatriz Sanchís, 2014)
Lupe

Pensé que iba a haber fiesta (I Thought It Was a Party, Victoria Galardi, 2013)
Ana

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)
Vera Cruz

Point Blank (Fred Cavayé, 2010)
Nadia Pierret

Room in Rome (Julio Medem, 2010)
Alba

Cairo Time (Ruba Nadda, 2009)
Kathryn

Hierro (Gabe Ibáñez, 2009)
María

9 (Candela Pena, 2009) short

Sólo quiero caminar (Walking Vengeance, Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2008)
Ana Rodríguez

Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy Number One (Jean-François Richet, 2008)
Sofia

Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct (Jean-François Richet, 2008)
Sofia

Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, 2007)
Blanca

In the Land of Women (John Kasdan, 2007)
Sofia Buñuel

Miguel y William (Miguel and William, Inés París, 2007)
Leonor

Captain Alatriste: The Spanish Musketeer (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006)
Angélica de Alquézar

Dead Fish (Charley Stadler, 2005)
Mimi

Frágiles (Fragile, Jaume Balagueró, 2005)
Helen Perez

Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004)
Aleera

Ana y Manuel (Manuel Calvo, 2004) short
Ana

Dos tipos duros (Juan Martínez Moreno, 2003)
Tatiana

La habitación azul (The Blue Room, Walter Doehner, 2002)
Ana

Rencor (Rancour, Miguel Albaladejo, 2002)
Esther

Hable con ella (Talk to Her, Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
Ángela

Lucía y el sexo (Sex and Lucía, Julio Medem, 2001)
Belen

Sin noticias de Dios (Don’t Tempt Me, Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2001)
Pili

El invierno de las anjanas (Pedro Telechea, 2000)
Adelaida

El árbol del penitente (José María Borell, 2000)
Sonsoles

Las huellas borradas (Wiped-Out Footprints, Enrique Gabriel, 1999)
Rosa

Lágrimas negras (Black Tears, Fernando Bauluz and Ricardo Franco, 1998)
Alicia

Finisterre, donde termina el mundo (Xavier Villaverde, 1998)
Laura

Grandes ocasiones (Felipe Vega, 1998)
Susy

¿De qué se rien las mujeres? (Joaquín Oristrell, 1997)
Catalina Bayarri

Familia (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1996)
Luna

África (Alfonso Ungría, 1996)
África

Adiós Naboelk 1995 (Mar Sampedro, 1995) short
Amiga

 

Endnotes

  1. Elena Anaya reveals the secret motives and tragic history behind her Wonder Woman villain: How Anaya’s fantasies and Patty Jenkins’ bombshells built Dr. Poison, and exactly how she got those facial scars”, Tasha Robinson, The Verge, last modified June 13, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/13/15792508/elena-anaya-patty-jenkins-wonder-woman-villain-dr-maru-poison-secret-origin.
  2. English translation: “Acting on stage is wonderful and teaches you a lot”. Guillermo Esteban, “Anaya: Tengo muchas ganas de hacer teatro”, El Periódico de Aragón: Escenarios, last modified 5 June, 2014 http://www.elperiodicodearagon.com/noticias/escenarios/anaya-tengo-muchas-ganas-hacer-teatro_947007.html.

About The Author

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne. Her main research interests are Spanish, Catalan, and Italian film which she tends to analyse from a contemporary urban, gender-oriented and global perspective. She is particularly fascinated by the cinematic repertoires of Pedro Almodóvar, Ventura Pons, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Dr Holmqvist has established a publishing record and aspires to move into film criticism as a professional field. She teaches at several universities, is a certified translator, speaks a number of languages fluently and has travelled extensively. She has lived in six countries to date and is intent on continuing her global explorations.