MADRID — It’s not every day that an actress makes an indelible impression in a role that requires lying comatose for the duration of a film. “My whole world was reduced to eyelids and swallowing,” says Leonor Watling, the star of Pedro Almodóvar’s highly successful “Talk to Her,” which has received two Oscar nominations, one for best director, the other for best original screenplay. So how did she manage to lie so still? “Yoga,” Watling says. “Pedro sent me and Rosario [Flores, who plays a comatose bullfighter] to his yoga teacher for three months. Initially, when he phoned and suggested we have coffee, he said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll be flattered or angry when you read the part I’m going to offer you. But I don’t want somebody just lying dead. I want you to communicate through your body without moving.’”
What the press here calls “the frothy success of La Watling” has involved 14 films and three Spanish television series in a decade of work. The actress had originally studied ballet for eight years, then turned to acting when she was sidelined by a knee injury. Now, as a chica Almodóvar (or Almodóvar girl), she joins an elite clan of actresses who include Penélope Cruz, Victoria Abril, Carmen Maura and Rossy de Palma.
At lunch in Madrid’s postcard-perfect old quarter, Watling, 27, is wearing a black leather jacket, black tank, embellished cargo pants and pointed shoes that have given her a blister. “Do you have a plaster?” she asks in her British-accented English. Her mother is English, and her late father was Spanish. Watling lives in a rented apartment in Madrid’s trendy, gender-bending Chueca neighborhood, a flat with so much light, she says, “I have to wear sunglasses to have breakfast.”
The actress was first introduced to New York audiences in “Sound of the Sea,” an erotic thriller by Bigas Luna, the controversial Spanish director best known in the U.S. for “Jamon, Jamon.” “Sea” opened in December 2001. In that film, Watling is naked in several scenes, some of them featuring athletic, uninhibited lovemaking. “In Europe, we [actors] use our bodies like we use our voices,” she says. “I’m hired for my body, my voice, my emotions; it’s a whole, and I can’t break it down to ‘you can have one piece but not the other.’ At the end of the day, emotional exposure is much harder than physical exposure.” The film also uses oranges as a sexual metaphor in the way Ken Russell did figs in “Women in Love.”
Ironically, Almodóvar, whom she calls “a genius,” is “very shy” about nudity, Watling reports. “He said, ‘You are like a sculpture; it’s more shocking to see your body in a nonsexual way.’” Whether he succeeded with that, however, is debatable. “Talk to Her,” which also stars the superb Javier Cámara as Watling’s adoring male nurse, is the story of two men and their devotion to the pair of comatose women.
Last year’s Spanish release, “A Mi Madre Le Gustan Las Mujeres” (My Mother Likes Women) earned Watling a Goya (Spain’s Oscar) nomination for best actress. She didn’t win but turned heads at the February awards ceremony in a vivid, décolleté Valentino. The film is a rollicking tale about a 50-year-old woman (Rosa Maria Sardá) who introduces her new girlfriend, a young Czech pianist, to her three daughters, played by Watling, Silvia Abascal and Maria Pujalte.
Watling’s latest film is an English-language, Canadian-Spanish co-production called, “My Life without Me,” which opened in Madrid at the beginning of March, and is scheduled to be released in the U.S. in the fall.
In “Life,” which stars Sarah Polley as a dying young woman and Amanda Plummer, Watling plays the pivotal role of Ann, a compassionate neighbor. Almodóvar’s company, El Deseo, coproduced it. “I haven’t seen another film that makes you think about death with such hope,” she says.
Watling speaks English fluently, but says she doesn’t regard that skill as “the magic key [to success],” adding, “It puts me in the same place as a million English-speaking actors, but with access to more eyes. I’m interested in good scripts, and I don’t care where they come from.”
How does she stay grounded? “A wonderful family that brings me down to reality every day,” she says, “and good friends chosen more for what you’re going to be than where you’ve been.”