1226 GMT May 21, 2018
On the day that Penélope Cruz ended up in an ambulance on the set of 'Everybody Knows', she found out just what kind of director Asghar Farhadi is.
In the film, the opening-night attraction at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Cruz plays a woman whose teenage daughter abruptly disappears under mysterious circumstances during a wedding celebration. She spends most of the film in a state of panic and desperation, enlisting the help of an old flame played by her real-life husband, Javier Bardem.
"All of my scenes were very intense," Cruz told TheWrap. "In one scene I have a panic attack in the car, and I ended up in an ambulance myself. It was just from hyperventilation and from my blood sugar going very high from the stress of the scene. I remember getting out of the ambulance, and Asghar made sure I was OK."
She paused. "And then he asked me for one more take."
Cruz started laughing as she described a director so devoted to his film that he asked for another take from an actress who'd just required medical treatment. "I know he was worried about me, and that was the most important thing," she insisted. "But after that, he wanted one more. And I never felt that he was crossing the line. He was always very respectful, but of course he went for the truth."
Bardem added that Farhadi had an uncanny ability to ferret out that truth even though he shot his film in Spanish, a language he doesn't speak. "He knows when you're lying," he said of the director, who used two translators on the set. "You can be in the middle of a very emotional scene, and he will show up and the translator will say, 'Your eyes are lying. Please don't act.' He knows it, he feels it. Maybe it was a pause, maybe it was a word. He doesn't know the language, but he knows that the words were not organically said."
In many ways, the notion of truth was what drew both Cruz and Bardem to Farhadi, the Iranian director whose last three films include two Oscar winners in the Best Foreign Language Film category: 2011's 'A Separation' and 2015's 'The Salesman', both studies of families stretched to the breaking point by secrets and class and societal tensions.
"I saw 'A Separation', and like millions of other people I was blown away by the quality of the film, and by how pure it is in every sense," said Bardem. "When I saw it, and when I saw [2009's] 'About Elly' before that, I was thoroughly moved by the truth and the human quality he brings to his movies."
Cruz agreed. "'A Separation’ is one of my favorite movies," she said. "It's like you're watching life — you don't see anybody acting, any tricks, any lies. It's like a piece of life that he puts up there without judgment."
On the heels of 'A Separation', Farhadi met Bardem and said he was interested in making a film in Spain and would like Bardem to be part of it. Later, he separately went to Cruz and had the same conversation.
The couple, who had gotten married in 2010 and had the first of their two children in 2011, had made a few films together, including 1992's 'Jamón Jamón' — Bardem's first starring role, in which a teenaged Cruz also appeared — and Woody Allen's 2008 comedy 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', for which Cruz won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award a year after Bardem had won his own Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 'No Country for Old Men'.
Despite those projects, though, they tended to work separately. It's a coincidence, Cruz said, that this film appears only a year after they also acted together in 'Loving Pablo', in which he played drug lord Pablo Escobar and she was journalist Virginia Vallejo, Escobar's lover.
"It's delicate, putting ourselves in front of a camera together," said Bardem. "We don't want to be doing something that is not worth the time that we are going to be spending together on it. We get along great on screen and we work together very well, but we don't want to do it just because. It has to be special."
But they were both eager to work with Farhadi, so they jumped aboard the project that was subsequently postponed when the director decided that he didn't want to follow his 2013 Paris-set movie 'The Past' with another film made outside his native Iran.
"We knew that he wanted to do something else in Iran, and 'The Salesman' was a priority for him," said Bardem.
"But that gave him time for writing and changing and being more specific in 'Everybody Knows'.
"You have to be careful when you are dealing with delicate material about relationships, characters, and also a culture that is foreign to you. As he learned more and comprehended the habitat, the way we speak and relate to each other, he started to add many details."
The story that emerged featured Cruz as Laura, a mother who returns from her home in Argentina to her hometown in Spain for the wedding of her sister.
Bardem plays Paco, a onetime farmhand with whom she had a lengthy relationship in her teens. He's now a landowner who helped her out by buying some of her family's property, though some relatives think he got an unfair break on the price.
The tangled history of the two characters, which emerges as they race to find her daughter, is laden with secrets. Some come to light over the course of the movie, and some are never really as secret as Laura and Paco think. But in creating the shared history of the characters, Bardem said, his own decade-long relationship with Cruz was in fact an impediment rather than an aid.
"You have to clear the slate," he said. "You go through your day as the father and the mother of these beautiful kids you have, and then you have to undo all of that to get into the fiction. You have to embody that fictional character — the way he sees the world, the way he treats others. And the moment you do that, you start to see the other person differently.
"There are a couple of scenes that are very intense, one in particular where we talk about how we were in the past, and nothing of us is in there. It's imagining, working, creating something that doesn’t exist, even though the emotions are real and the bodies are our bodies."
The shoot had other challenges, not least of which was explaining to the famously workaholic Farhadi how they do things in Spain. "I think 'The Salesman' was shot for 60 days in a row without one day off," Bardem said.
"And when he got the idea that in Spain we have weekends off, and even if we work on Saturdays we only have a half day, it took him a while to adjust.
"He said, 'Why do we have to take a break? It's better to go with the flow'. We were laughing, and we said, 'We know you are capable of doing this, but in Spain we need to stop!'"
For a three-week rehearsal period, Bardem said the director put his actors in many different settings that were not in the script as a way of fleshing out the world and making sure that they knew exactly how the characters would respond to everything.
"By the time we get to the set, we have put the characters in every possible situation," he said.
"But he won't ever ask you go to a place where you aren't comfortable or you feel excruciating pain."
Then again, excruciating pain might be an accurate description of the journey made by Cruz's character. "The shooting was four months long, and we were lucky that Asghar is such an easy person to be around," she said.
"But it was a very demanding character — I think the most difficult I've ever had to do.
"My character is happy at the beginning of the movie, but in everything else, she is desperate and going through a very deep and terrifying kind of pain. I was there every day for months. And my engine, my strength, came from thinking about, feeling for all the mothers that have feared losing their children from illness or war or situations like the one in the movie.
"This was a personal homage to those women, and that gave me the strength every day to do it. I didn't even talk to Asghar about that, but it was my secret nutrition for everyday survival."
She also had to figure out how to bring new shades to Laura's desperation. "She's always in a state of pain and panic, but I tried to bring different kinds of energy, from panic to fear to the loss of hope to getting back some hope," she said.
"I tried to find different colors in each situation.
"I was playing somebody who had to take two very strong sleeping pills to even sleep for four hours without losing her mind. So what is her energy like the morning after, or when she’s been up for two days?"
For Farhadi's actors, added Bardem, the key to pleasing the demanding director was figuring out how to transcend acting. "He doesn't want you to play the scene," he said.
"He wants you to go through the experience of the scene. And once you do the scene, he helps you get back on track and leave that experience in the scene. There's silence, and time to recover."
When Cruz thought back on the experience that put her in a state of hysteria for months and in an ambulance at one point, she also lavished praise on the director who steered her into those dark places and made sure she found the truths in that darkness. But then she added a succinct note: "By the end," she said, "I was ready to finish."
But she and Bardem are also ready for Cannes, which they've both been to numerous times before. For Bardem, the pleasures of heading to the Croisette with 'Everybody Knows' are numerous.
"What a great honor it is for any actor on Earth to open the greatest cinema festival in the world," he said.
"And to do it along with Farhadi and your wife, it doesn't get any better than this."
* Steve Pond is awards editor and columnist for TheWrap. He has been writing about entertainment and popular culture for more than 30 years for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Washington Post.