In an adaptation of Margaret Mazzantini’s bestseller, Penélope Cruz stars as an infertile woman who returns to relive her past in Sarajevo. Here she talks about babies, breastfeeding and pacifism
When Penélope Cruz was shooting Twice Born – in which she plays an unhappily infertile academic – she was still breastfeeding her own young son. For some scenes, her character shares the screen with a rolling cast of newborns, swapped once they grew too big.
“Some of these babies were only a week old. And so they were smelling me and that made them want to eat. But I was playing a woman who couldn’t feed because she hadn’t given birth! That created a very strange but alive dynamic between me and those babies. You cannot learn something like that. And this film is full of moments that could not be planned.”
Cruz leans forward, black trousers tapering to huge nude stilettos. She looks polished and glossy as a stag beetle; a stag beetle who’s wearing a crocheted cardie and miming batting babies from her breasts.
This film is Twice Born, an epic, operatic soap partly set during the Bosnian war, which premiered at the Toronto film festival. Cruz plays Gemma, an Italian who returns to Sarajevo in the present day with her 16-year-old son, Pietro. They’re in town so she can tell him more about his father, a dead American photographer called Diego (Emile Hirsch), with whom she lived in the city years before. Through flashbacks, we realise Gemma isn’t actually Pietro’s mother, and Diego’s copybook might be more blotted than family legend records.
“I think this movie is homage to all women, a homage to motherhood,” she says in husky, heavily accented English. It’s testimony to her work ethic – and accent coach – that she’s one of the few foreign-language female actors able to open a movie in the States, who can flirtily jostle for top-billing with Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean 4) and Nicolas Cage (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). She pauses, sucks on her iced coffee, and continues. “It’s a homage to that relationship of mother and child.” Having her own, Leo, with the actor Javier Bardem, amped up her empathy. “A woman that doesn’t want children obviously can be happy without children. But one that wants to have children that much … it’s very difficult for her to be happy. Of course I understood all that before I became a mother. But after you give birth you understand in a much deeper way what Gemma was missing.” So it intensified her pity? “The opposite. Just the understanding. This is what she wanted and what she can’t have.”
Twice Born is based on the bestseller by Margaret Mazzantini – a European book club staple and a heady holiday read. Mazzantini also wrote the erotic thriller Don’t Move, which starred Cruz in the 2004 film version as an Albanian bartender who is raped by a wealthy surgeon, and then falls in love with him. The co-star and director of that film was Mazzantini’s husband, Sergio Castellitto; he also directed Twice Born, and plays Gemma’s present-day army husband and the film’s real hero (great with babies, looks lovely in uniform).
Cruz lapped up both books. “Mazzantini is one of my favourite writers for she talks about things the way women are. It’s painful to read but at the same time it’s really encouraging and raw; the way it is.” In what way encouraging? “You can be reading something by her and weeping but also feeling really strong. Sometimes it is dark and painful, but you always turn the page with a feeling that to fight is still worth it. Her writing makes you feel you should keep going.”
Both novel and film are remarkably frank about the reasons some women want children. Gemma is fuelled most by a desire to replicate her partner; at one point she says she longs to see a smaller version of his feet pattering in front of her. As she admits to a psychologist, played by Jane Birkin, who is assessing the couple as potential adoptive parents: “I want a child to tie this man to me.”
“For me,” says Cruz, “that’s one of the most important lines in the book. She says: ‘I want a padlock of flesh.’ When I read the book I highlighted that line. That really describes who Gemma is. She’s really honest. She wants to become a mother because she wants to experience that but also because she doesn’t want to lose that man. She feels defective.”
Such candour seems rare. “Yes! Really refreshing! But Gemma doesn’t have a problem showing her insecurities. She even says to Diego that he should go and find somebody with good ovaries.”
Cruz hasn’t shot a lot since her son’s birth. “More and more I try to be more picky with my selection. I am now able to choose the work I do, which I don’t take for granted.” She has chosen to re-team with Woody Allen, as a helpful prostitute in To Rome With Love, and has just finished filming I’m So Excited, Pedro Almodóvar‘s return to comedy. And she’s now working on Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Counselor.
They are all obvious nods: Almodóvar is the mentor/soulmate who’s cast her in a fleet of bespoke vehicles since Live Flesh in 1997. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship: with films such as All About My Mother, Volver and Broken Embraces, he has cemented her celebrity while she has widened his appeal. Cruz is warm enough to sand down the Almodóvarian excesses that can prove too spiky for some. Her genius lies in humanising camp and, on the flipside, making the mainstream sensual. Allen cast her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) without audition, after seeing her in Volver. It won her an Oscar (and rekindled her relationship with Bardem). The Counselor co-stars Bardem, her now-husband, as well as Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.
Cruz’s decision to commit to Twice Born is less immediately obvious and, maybe, more revealing. For a start, there’s her loyalty to Castellitto and Mazzantini; Twice Born is very much a family affair – their son, Pietro, plays Pietro, while Cruz’s brother, Eduardo, provides the soundtrack. He too is in Toronto giving interviews, and seeing brother and sister together is curious. Eduardo, a composer (and ex of Eva Longoria), is a buffed hunk with elaborate tattoos and blingy earring. Twice Born may have gritty bits and its feet in Greek mythology, but it’s also a pretty naked (and efficient) pageturner.
Plus, Gemma is a transitional role, which recalls Cruz’s youth in flashback (she can still pass as a 22-year-old) then ages her with badgery hair and muted makeup to her late 40s. She is much more the everywoman than in her usual roles. Gemma has neither the vivacity nor the mystery of her roles for Almodóvar, nor the flat-out battiness of her work with Allen.
“When we did Don’t Move that character was really borderline. There cannot be fear or concern about looking ugly. This character was very different; emotionally, you had to be nearer the truth. She goes through so much, so in order to get all the colours of that journey you have to be able to try everything and not be afraid of the result.”
In the flesh, Cruz is friendly, thoughtful and smoothly beautiful, but her luminosity seems purposefully dimmed. At 38, you suspect she has wearied of the charm offensive and doesn’t mind hopping on the back-burner in the service of frying bigger fish. She is an eager cheerleader for Castellitto’s manifesto for the film: to examine why the world is so violent, and to tub-thump for pacifism.
“We need to be reminded about things that happened not so long ago in places not far away. I cannot go to this movie without thinking about what is happening in Syria. I’m always depressed that it doesn’t occupy more space in the newspapers. That should be the main story instead of elections. So many children are dying every day. It’s the same with so many areas in Africa that are in disastrous situations. They last so long, then they are forgotten, and that makes it worse.”
So what is her theory? Why is there so much violence? Cruz’s brow furrows lightly. “There is a lot of confusion and this is not new. By now we should learn from our mistakes, but we don’t. I don’t think a movie can solve a problem like that. Unfortunately it doesn’t have that power. But it can inspire a question.”