Gathered to talk about Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Pénelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Chris Messina and Scarlett Johansson all had similar praise for their director and writer -- even if they took different paths to get to the film. Cruz's agent actually reached out to Allen when Vicky Cristina Barcelona was in development, on the off chance Allen might have a role for her: "My agent said ... 'We found out you're doing a movie in Spain, do you want to meet Pénelope?' We met in New York, a very short meeting, which took less than one minute, and he told me 'I saw Volver, and I'm writing this story, it's not finished yet, but if it keeps going in this direction, the script, I think you could be right for this part. ...' He didn't tell me anything more about the story, or the characters, but I felt like we connected; we were laughing, and when I left, the people who work with him told me 'You've been there for such a long time.' ..."
Even after being asked, though, Cruz found the prospect of working with one of film's best-known directors daunting: "You can trust the director -- you're working with Woody Allen, you're working with a genius -- but that doesn't mean you're not going to be doubting yourself. ..."
I asked Cruz if the fact that her character Maria Elena is so intense -- always at 100 % or more, always on the edge of crazy -- made it hard to see her as a person, to inhabit her as a character, instead of playing a part and speaking lines? "No, the opposite. I think one of the worst things that can happen to someone is to feel trapped in your own head, like (Maria Elena) feels. She's stuck in the role of the victim; somebody told her, when she was growing up, that she was a genius and that she was too special to be happy; that if she wanted to stay special, she had to torture herself. She's believed those ideas -- it's not in the movie, but I wonder who that person was, who ruined her head forever. And she has believed it, and she keeps feeding the monster. Because everyone all the time is telling her how special she is. But she thinks that to maintain that, she has to keep destroying herself. It's like a circle that just keeps going nowhere, and I found her to be a character that really suffers, that's stuck in a place and doesn't know how to come out of that. So for me, you ask me if it's not so human; I think the opposite." Cruz finds the process of inhabiting a character ... an endless education ..." ; I asked her what she learned from Maria Elena. "I feel even more compassion for people who live in that place in their heads, people who really feel trapped. It made me understand how difficult it is to ... to name someone crazy is so relative. I've always been very interested in this subject, and this character is a lot about that. "
I asked Rebecca Hall, who plays the cautious and contemplative Vicky, about the close but guarded friendship between Vicky and Scarlett Johansson's Cristina; did the two actresses take any time to create that? "Well, it helped that we had worked together before (in The Prestige); we were immediately familiar. We weren't friends; we hadn't really spent any time to become friends before, We didn't hang out consciously in order to create that dynamic; we hung out because we got on really well. So we didn't really worry about it, and it just happened quite naturally."
I also asked Hall and Chris Messina, who plays Vicky's fiancée Doug, if there were ever any moments where, reading the script, they might have felt that the 72-year-old Allen's lines may not have suited their younger characters. Messina stated that wasn't the case. "I loved it; in fact, the biggest direction he gave me was 'Do it again, and say it in your own words, say something different.' That's fun to do as an actor, a lot of the time -- but it's harder to do when it's Woody Allen, and the writing is so great. But he wanted you to say it in your own words. So I didn't feel like that at all." Hall offered her perspective on the generation gap between the author and the characters: "I don't feel like human emotions change that much. Maybe if you talk to him (Allen) about e-mail, or talked about downloading something ... but I think otherwise, (Allen's) pretty spot-on."
But that's not to say there weren't other challenges. I asked Messina about the fact that his character's a bit of a nebbish, the guy who's going to be cuckolded; when he read the script, did he think Well, that's not something I can sympathize with, but it's in a Woody Allen film ...? Did he know and accept from the outset that he was going to be the drone wearing khakis? "A little bit of all of that, yeah; I would not want to play that role -- but, for Woody Allen, would do anything. I wrestled with trying to make this guy three-dimensional. ... He loves this woman. He wants to start a family. He wants to get a home. You don't judge him at all, as an actor, as a bad guy. He loves this girl. Is it hard? Very. Is it hard to come home from work? Of course you bring that home, because you've kissed Rebecca Hall, the beautiful Rebecca Hall, in a scene. And because she's such a great actress, you feel her not quite present in the kiss. You feel her pull away. Do you want to be Javier Bardem, kissing all the beautiful women? Absolutely. It's not a role I really want to ever play again, but I was so proud to do that in this film. "
Hall also offered some insight into how Allen crafts comedies -- mostly by not making them during filming. "I saw the film in Cannes, which was a completely overwhelming experience ... they gave it this ridiculously long standing ovation, to the point that I began to feel like a right melon. They laughed hilariously ... I knew they were going to laugh; well, I hoped they were going to laugh. Admittedly, Woody did ... if you asked him "Is this a comedy?" he'd say "No, this isn't a comedy." And I completely understand what he was doing, because for it to work, for any of these things to be funny, if it's genuinely funny, it's because it's truthful. And if you've got a bunch of actors who come on-set and think they're making a comedy, then it's not going to be funny, because the funniness about this film is the truth, is about the heart, about the fact that these are recognizable scenarios and recognizable modes of human behavior."
I asked Scarlett Johansson, who plays Cristina, if the film's murder-free plot made a change from Match Point and Scoop, her previous collaborations with Allen. "I guess that's true. We have had quite a morbid ... I had no idea; at first, we were just having lunch, and he didn't say anything. I said "I hear you're shooting in Barcelona with Pénelope Cruz ... If I could be of any help, I'll do craft service, I'll pull focus -- not very well, but. ..." And he didn't say anything about it. And I get the call from his casting director, saying that he would like me to read, maybe, for one of the parts, if I responded, would I be interested? Well, obviously, I read the script, and of course was very taken with the whole adventure, and they didn't have to drag me kicking and screaming; any opportunity to work with Woody, I would take in a heartbeat. We always have such a wonderful time, and we have such a nice friendship. "
But Johansson also found herself on the outside of a language barrier between her co-stars and herself; I asked her if not knowing what exactly Bardem and Cruz were saying in their squalling Spanish-language fights helped her in those scenes. "I knew a few little things they were saying; I did take Spanish, actually. ... I thought that I was going to be really fluent when I left; Pénelope and Javier and the Spanish crew were very encouraging. I came there and I told everybody I was going to learn ... But I almost didn't want to know what (Cruz) was saying; it sounded terrible ... and the few words I could understand, I thought "Ooh, that doesn't sound good. That's a zinger."
As the day drew to a close, I asked Johansson if she had a hypothetical vision of what comes for Cristina after the film's finale. "I do think about it, of course ... I think we all kind of wonder what happened, because it's so open-ended. I'm assuming (Cristina) probably went on to more of these intense ... I mean, her idea that only unfulfilled love could be romantic ... is sad. Of course, in my mind, every character I play winds up in the suburbs with 2.5 children, but, that's just the feeling I get. ..."