Elena Anaya Scratches Beneath the Surface in ‘The Skin I Live In’

Elena Anaya is having trouble finding the right words. Adding to the distracting whirr of overhead helicopters—the media literally won’t stop hovering over Pope Benedict XVI during his four-day visit to Madrid—is the 36-year-old Spanish actor’s relative greenness when it comes to conducting interviews in her second language, and it’s trying her patience. “My English is such bullshit,” she says while attempting to convey the personal import of her latest film, this month’s Pedro Almodóvar–directed thriller, The Skin I Live In.

Thankfully, as Vera, a human experiment held captive for six years by Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a deranged and vengeful plastic surgeon, she’s able to communicate reams of dialogue—and near-savage desperation—through her piercing green eyes. “The character is such a good actress, and that’s something that Pedro needed from my performance. He said, ‘Vera needs to lie to Robert and so you need to lie to the whole audience.’ That was a challenge because it was acting inside of acting, but without moving a muscle, without saying a word—just by waiting and looking,” says Anaya, whose breakout performance came as the eroticized babysitter in 2001’s Sex and Lucia. (Until now, she’s probably best known to American audiences as Agent 99 to Justin Timberlake’s 66 in his “SexyBack” music video.)

Although she and Almodóvar had already worked together on Talk to Her—an equally poetic ode to obsession and disfigurement—Anaya says, “I had such a tiny part in that one, and so it was like taking a small bite of a really delicious meal. This time, I ate the whole thing.” Anaya, who “screamed, laughed, and cried” when Almodóvar offered her the meaty part, says The Skin I Live In sharpened her aversion to going under the knife. “I think sometimes people get too carried away with plastic surgery, and I don’t mean those who need to smile again because they lost a part of their face in an accident. It’s so ridiculous when young people completely change their faces to look even younger. I find wrinkles to be beautiful.”

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