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Legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar: ‘I wanted to see if I could do a different kind of sexy’

‘We were talking about desire, about carnal knowledge. Sex scenes were necessary’  (Getty)
‘We were talking about desire, about carnal knowledge. Sex scenes were necessary’ (Getty)

Pedro Almodóvar has long been cinema’s greatest sensualist, always eager to plunge headfirst into tales of bedroom acrobatics and familial psychodrama. Many of the filmmaker’s movies seem to yelp with lurid camp from the title down: Labyrinth of Passion. Live Flesh. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pain and Glory. So you’d think, for Strange Way of Life, his sweaty, 30-minute ode to classic Hollywood Westerns, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as gay cowboy lovers, there’d be more… well, sex.

“I wanted to see if I could do a different kind of sexy,” the 73-year-old explains, in his mischievous Spanish purr. “For example, that moment where Ethan is doing his bowtie, and he’s staring at Pedro’s butt with the bed right in the background… that was very erotic!”

“I’ve shot many sex scenes in my career, mainly in the Eighties,” he continues, citing his 1987 thriller Law of Desire – which opens with an extended sequence of masturbation and is rooted in the premise of Antonio Banderas seeming to go insane after first experiencing gay sex. “I was much younger then. It was the beginning of my career and I needed to do that – we were talking about desire, about carnal knowledge. It was necessary.” Now, though? “I am much more interested in the nakedness of gazes and words – especially words that have never been heard in a Western before.”

The director is at home in Madrid, sitting cheerfully at his desk in a loud patterned shirt, his hair cut into thick tufts of sheepdog white. He is video calling from the same computer he uses to type up his scripts and is surrounded by sheets of paper: printouts of completed drafts, old scripts that went nowhere, half-formed sketches. “I don’t know if you can see these,” he says, pointing behind his back, “but those are my two Oscars. They’re the only awards that I have at home. The rest – the other 100-something – I’ve got in my [production company] office.” He hovers over his two biggies – one for Best Foreign Language Film for 1999’s All About My Mother, and one for Best Original Screenplay for 2002’s Talk to Her. “They are like my bodyguards.”

Unlike any number of international filmmakers who get overlooked by Hollywood until they’re deep into their careers – think the Oscars completely ignoring South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho until Parasite – Almodóvar has always been embraced by the US despite the language barrier. It’s likely down to his unique tone, which tends to merge John Waters-style kitsch with the sizzling melodrama of soap operas. His eye for talent has helped, too, with many of the actors he plucked, often from obscurity, becoming international stars of film and fashion soon after, from Banderas and Penélope Cruz to Javier Bardem and Rossy de Palma. But he always said no to directing American films, despite flirting with projects as wide-ranging as the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act to an early incarnation of Brokeback Mountain.

Something has shifted in recent years, though. At least when it comes to writing outside of his native tongue. His admiration for Tilda Swinton led him to cast her in his English-language short The Human Voice in 2020, while next week – for one night only – cinemas are playing Strange Way of Life, which serves as a further tease of what he might look like in a non-Spanish context. He is quick to caveat, though, that both films were shot in Spain and financed with European money – working from inside the American machine still holds little appeal.

Many, many journalists thought I was addicted to heroin, and I was not

“I have a specific way of working and my intuition has told me that it is not the way to work in Hollywood or with the studios,” he says. “I mean, I am an artisan.” He glides his hand over his desk. “Everything here, I make the choice. I do everything.” He says he is horrified when he watches a TV series and the director of an episode is barely credited. “Even when you read [industry newspapers], they talk about the actors but not the directors. I mean, if you are Scorsese or Tarantino, you are there – but it seems to me that the director is just a part of the crew. It is a question of power. My sense is that the director in that system has a lot of voices that they need to hear. They’d have to listen to the producers, the actors – even the agents, in some cases. I don’t feel that that would be a system in which I could work.”

He loves their actors, though. Writing about his 2022 Oscar season experiences for film review site IndieWire, he recalled cornering the likes of Licorice Pizza’s Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman and praising them to the hilt. He’s also spoken highly of Cate Blanchett, who’s long been attached to a mystery project that should prove to be his debut English-language feature film. Similarly, he wrote that he longed for the “tall and beautiful” Zendaya to star in films “with real characters where she can develop what she has already demonstrated – that she is a great actress”. He thinks much the same of Pascal, who has spent the past few years in expensive TV spectacles such as The Mandalorian and The Last of Us. They met years ago through friends – Pascal was working with a number of Spanish actors on the Netflix series Narcos – with the actor telling Almodóvar that he grew up on his movies. “That made me feel very old,” he jokes.

Here come cowboys: Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal in ‘Strange Way of Life’ (Pathé)
Here come cowboys: Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal in ‘Strange Way of Life’ (Pathé)

“He really is an actor,” Almodóvar beams. “He can do comedy and drama. He can do musicals and classical theatre. I feel like people are pigeonholing him. One of my hopes is that, after people see Strange Way of Life, a light bulb might go off in people’s heads and they’ll say, ‘he can do more than what we’re employing him to do’. Not only epic roles! I don’t have anything against epic roles, but he is more well-rounded as an actor than that.”

Strange Way of Life was shot on the same outdoor sets in Almería, Spain, where Sergio Leone shot A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the Sixties – it lends the film the feel of a ghost story, icons retracing the footsteps of icons. For Almodóvar himself, it meant revisiting the lush landscapes and saloon doors of the films that sparked his love of cinema. He grew up under the Francoist dictatorship, or as he calls it today “in hell”, and dreamt of escaping to London as a teenager.

“I was very young, and I was repressed,” he says. He’d seen photographs of Carnaby Street in Spanish newspapers, and finally ventured to London in 1971, “basically looking for freedom – glam rock was expanding everywhere, and you’d go onto the street and see people your age all wearing makeup and enormous boots. It was the moment of gay power.” There he’d become a regular at The Sombrero, a nightclub on Kensington High Street whose clientele included David Bowie (“there were rumours he had a boyfriend who worked there,” he recalls, mischievously), and visit cinemas around the clock – soaking up Westerns, musicals, underground movies.

Elegant women secretly spiralling out of control: Penélope Cruz in ‘Volver’ (Shutterstock)
Elegant women secretly spiralling out of control: Penélope Cruz in ‘Volver’ (Shutterstock)

He remembers briefly working as a housekeeper for a woman who lived near Highgate Cemetery and claimed to be a Rothschild, who offered him lodging even after discovering he was no good at dusting. “She would have these parties with these high-society housewives and they would talk about movies,” he says. “And because she knew I’d seen everything, she’d show off and say, ‘Oh, Pedro has already seen it!’ to all of the other ladies and be so proud.”

He’d return to Spain in 1972 amid the dying days of Franco’s regime, yet many of Almodóvar’s eventual films bore echoes of those rooms in Highgate – from the hectic glamour of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! to the throngs of widows gossiping about phantoms in Volver, he’s always been drawn to tall, elegant women being conspiratorial and sophisticated yet secretly spiralling out of control. It’s only recently, though, that he’s been more transparent about the autobiographical elements in his work. Some have been more obvious than others: 2004’s Bad Education was inspired by boys at his Catholic boarding school who were abused by the priests there; his gorgeous 2019 film Pain and Glory cast Banderas as a kind of Almodóvar surrogate, a filmmaker looking back on his life and romantic regrets.

Both Pain and Glory and Strange Way of Life share parallels in that respect – they revolve around a queer man of a certain age reuniting with an old lover, and pondering whether fate has provided them a second chance. Almodóvar’s personal life has always been shrouded in ambiguity – he reportedly lives alone today apart from his cats, yet was rumoured for years to be in a long-distance relationship with a photographer – but he says he has thought a lot about past relationships in recent years.

Artist and muse: Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas on the set of ‘Pain and Glory’ (Shutterstock)
Artist and muse: Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas on the set of ‘Pain and Glory’ (Shutterstock)

“I myself would love to relive a moment like the one that Antonio [experiences] in Pain and Glory, where he has the chance to meet up again with an old love,” he says. “It’s almost like a wish that I would like to fulfil. But it’s also a very dramatic situation, too – I like to tell stories of very passionate relationships interrupted [by something] that’s outside of [the couple’s] control.”

Years ago, he used to bridle at theories about his personal life. But now he’s loosened up. “At my age, I’m feeling more comfortable with interpretation,” he says. “It’s true that there’s always been an autobiographical element hidden in my characters. That said, sometimes people are confused. Many, many journalists thought I was addicted to heroin, and I was not.” Banderas’s heroin-injecting filmmaker in Pain and Glory was him, he says, but only up to a point. “I did know many people in the Eighties who were addicted because it was very popular back then. People don’t believe me, though. The difference is that now I don’t mind if they believe me or not.”

His work, though, can’t help but play host to the many roads he’s travelled. “I am very much inside my movies,” he says, as he thumbs through the pages decorating his desk. “Many are different genres, of course, but they do share the same soul.”

‘Strange Way of Life’ is in cinemas for one night only on Monday 25 September, and features an exclusive recorded Q&A with Almodóvar