Penélope Cruz Talks Family, Imposter Syndrome and Her Career-Best Turn in ‘Parallel Mothers’

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For Penélope Cruz, the role of Janis, the insouciant photographer at the center of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest heart-wrenching melodrama, has been a long time coming. The auteur first mentioned the story of Parallel Mothers—a sweeping saga wrought in bold primary colors in which two babies are switched at birth—to the now 47-year-old Madrid native over two decades ago. He was frustrated by a few narrative knots, the script was temporarily shelved, and the pair instead collaborated on six other films before they returned to it: 1997’s erotic thriller Live Flesh, 1999’s heartfelt comedy All About My Mother, 2006’s spectacular Volver, 2009’s sumptuous Broken Embraces, 2013’s absurdist I’m So Excited!, and 2019’s elegiac Pain and Glory. 

In all but one, Cruz played a mother or mother-to-be, but none were quite as complex as the outwardly composed and inwardly tormented Janis. So, when Almodóvar started working on Parallel Mothers again during Madrid’s first lockdown and spoke to Cruz about taking on the part, she was understandably delighted.

We meet Janis at a photoshoot with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist who later agrees to help her with a personal project: She needs to excavate a mass grave in her village to recover the remains of her great-grandfather who was slaughtered during the Spanish Civil War. 

The specter of this conflict, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1930s, hovers in the background as Janis’s life slowly unravels. She embarks on an affair with Arturo, learns that she’s pregnant and, in a maternity ward, befriends Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager unprepared for single motherhood. Their newborns are taken into observation together and accidentally swapped, a fact which Janis discovers months later. But, she doesn’t tell Ana for reasons that’ll soon become clear, and the secret consumes her. In her final tearful confession, Cruz is extraordinary, giving a raw, anguished performance that easily outshines her explosive Oscar-winning turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. 

Ahead of this year’s Oscar nominations, Cruz talks to us about the overwhelmingly emotional filming process, how it felt to win Venice’s best actress prize almost 30 years after her festival debut, and how Janis’s costumes keep us guessing about her true intentions.

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