By • Oct 15th, 2002 •

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Javier Cámara’s Benigno is at the heart of Pedro Almodovar’s strange yet satisfying film Talk to Her. His remarkable performance as a naïve, virginal nurse who cares for a coma victim, talking to her as if she can hear every word he says, helps make the outrageous plot almost believable and definitely moving. Cámara, a popular television and theater actor in Spain, spoke with Films in Review’s Adam Blair about the challenges of playing a character who “doesn’t do anything but feels everything.”

Spoiler alert: Several key plot points in the movie are discussed during the interview.

Q: Pedro Almodóvar says you are Benigno, in a very intense way.

Javier Cámara: Yeah, I am.

Q: Would you like to delineate what is you and what is not you in Benigno?

JC: I don’t know. It’s so bizarre for me. It’s amazing to work with Pedro, very intense and very passionate. From the beginning, Pedro seemed to know that I was going to be Benigno. There was no casting, there was no test. So at our meeting in his office, he basically put the script on the table and said ‘If you love this as much as I love this, and you are as drawn to this material as I am, this is yours.’
I said, what? You are Pedro Almodóvar, I’m a stupid actor, a TV actor/theater actor—I’m not a star. You don’t know me. For me this situation is fantastic, it’s my dream, but it’s not really true. Pedro told me, I don’t know why, but I think Benigno is for you, and Benigno is in you, inside you. And when I read the script, it was a big travel, a trip. An amazing story.
And the script changed during the film, because Pedro improved, and improvised, constantly. He has the story very clear in his head, but he improvised. I talked constantly with Darío [Grandinetti] who plays Marco. Pedro would say ‘This scene is about love;’ ‘In this scene you need to talk about marriage;’ ‘You love Alicia and you need to talk with your friend.’
I would say, but Pedro, the story is very changed, I don’t know. The movie is in your head? He would say, yeah yeah yeah yeah, I’m very clear with the film, but now play for me.

Q: You seem to be very opposite to Benigno—what did you bring from yourself that made you comprehend the character?

JC: Yes, I’m very different. Benigno has two lives, I think. When I talked with Pedro, I said for me Benigno is impossible—he’s very emotional and is very passionate, but Benigno doesn’t move. I found playing the character of Benigno very difficult. Because it’s like having to walk this very fine line—this character who felt all these things but couldn’t express them, couldn’t show them. I had to keep it at just the right level, and at the end of the film you find out he was full of all these feelings.
The passion is inside of Benigno. But during the big part of the beginning of the film, he touches Alicia constantly. I think Benigno is completely professional [when he’s caring for Alicia] as the nurse. He doesn’t feel possession, or something disgusting, or something erotic.

Q: He’s very innocent.

JC: He’s very innocent. But his feelings are true. As an actor playing this character, I had to portray someone who knows he’s living in a parallel universe. Although his touch is innocent, he does, at the same time, feel these other things. But he does know the rules of real life. He needs somebody near him—Marco, the man. He needs his friend, his father figure, for talking and opening his heart. When I talk about Benigno, I don’t know if I defend the role too much, because I love the role. I love the film, I’m not objective with the film.

Q: It’s an evocative title, “Talk to Her.” What’s your interpretation of the title?

JC: I think it’s very interesting. When people translate the title into other languages—for example, in Greek, ‘talk to her’ is a normal conversation. In Spain, it’s another meaning—it’s a [more formal] invitation to talk.
I talked with Alicia during the film, during the shoot, especially during the moment of the rape. The rape scene was an uncomfortable scene for me to film. I had been working with this actress who has had her eyes closed for all this time. This was the first time during the shoot that Pedro looked to the woman who plays Alicia [Leonor Watling] and said look at Benigno, talk to him.
And I saw Alicia—she looked at me with big, enormous love, and invited me to touch her body. Now I feel something—because during three months, this body is dead. The eyes are closed, and I touch the body—it’s not dead, it’s warm—and constantly during the shooting I touched her hand, because Leonor told me ‘I’m afraid because my eyes are closed, and I hear a lot of things and a lot of movements, and I need to touch somebody.’ I said don’t worry, I’m here, I’ll touch you. Because Pedro told me, you talk constantly with her, when you clean her body you talk with her. There was a lot of improvisation with the other nurse, talking and talking with Alicia—‘hello, good morning, oh my little ass, it’s clean here, or bad girl’. There was a lot of improvisation—while the director of photography is getting the lights ready and there are 40 people in the room, the other nurse and me are talking to her. It’s something peculiar—the work is constant in the room.

Q: It must have been very difficult for her to stay still and for you to keep her calm or relaxed into that state.

JC: I think the most difficult role is for her. It’s awful—her job was obviously the hardest one. Nobody really gives her as much credit as she deserves for having to spend three months completely motionless.

Q: The moment that sets up the rape is when Benigno sees the silent film, and he interprets it as a green light that he can go ahead and do this act. What’s your interpretation of that?

JC: When Benigno and Alicia talk on the street, she says I like cinema, I like dance, I like travel. Later when Benigno talks with Marco, he says that he loves film and sees all the films. Benigno takes the life of Alicia and invents a new life, but a new life without her. Benigno is like an angel—he’s so innocent. He experiences film like the dance—completely differently, from this more innocent standpoint.

Q: In the end he does sacrifice himself for her—it’s only because she gets pregnant and has the baby that she comes out of the coma. So in a way, he very innocently does sacrifice his life for her.

JC: Yes. When the movie premiered in Rome, I stayed in the city another week. I walked through the Vatican, and a biker screeched to a halt and called ‘Benigno!’ There was a huge line of people waiting to get into the Vatican and people were wondering what had happened. And it was a priest on a motorcycle. He talked with me about the film because he loved the film. I asked the priest what he thought about this rape, because he raped her for life. He said he loved the film, because it’s a metaphor—it’s a fairy tale. The music at the beginning of the film is not reality. It begins another story, and the music, the dance is a metaphor and all is a fairy tale. And the finale is another dance, it’s a metaphor, not a reality. And I said oh yes, in my next interview, I’ll say ‘It’s a metaphor.’

Q: You had read the entire script, so you had a sense of the whole film. Did it help you to know how it all starts and resolves in the other characters’ lives, or was it better not to think about that when you were thinking about your role?

JC: Luckily Benigno’s story was shot in order. For me it’s great—I saw the answers—day after day it was evolving. For me it was fantastic.
What I wanted was for people to be able to forgive Benigno. During the course of the film, people don’t forgive Benigno—people don’t understand this situation. When people in the film said the truth—Benigno is a rapist—but it’s pure love, it’s romantic. At the beginning of the film, I saw these feelings—I realized what Benigno felt, and he didn’t even want to acknowledge it himself. When I would ask Pedro ‘Pedro please, I don’t understand Benigno, it’s very difficult for me. Benigno doesn’t do anything, at the same time he feels everything. I’m a TV comedian! It’s impossible for me to stay here.’

Q: How did the part change you as a person, and how did it affect what you want to do next?

JC: It changed something, I don’t know what. Working with Pedro, I’m near to an artist. He’s a person who searches constantly but with a lot of passion and a lot of feelings and a whole history to make art, to make something unique—to make something artistic. Not in the ‘I am an artist’ way—like it’s natural. He needs to tell his stories. He needs to film, he needs to write. And this is the closest I’ve ever felt to an artist. Pedro is constantly working—he’s working with his feelings.
In the jail scene, the last week for me was very special. Pedro was crying with me in the jail—and in the moment when Marco is waiting and I look out the window and it’s raining—Pedro came to me and told me a story, about his sin in his life, and I feel this story is not autobiographical, but he feels the story deeply in his soul. It’s a connection with your most intimate part, your artist part. The art exists for me, and now in my life, I search for something inside me for making this.

Q: What was the story he told?

Oh, it’s a secret.

Q: What’s your next role?

JC: In the next movie I’m a pornographer. Sorry, yes, it’s a little film in Spain—we’re a couple of poor Spaniards that have to make porn in order to survive. With this body!

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