By Joe McGovern
May 25, 2016 at 06:39 PM EDT

One of the world’s most expressive actresses, Penélope Cruz goes through the emotional wringer in her latest film, Ma Ma, about a woman diagnosed with breast cancer. But what drew the Oscar-winner to the role was its lack of overt melodrama.

“Magda is given the news that she has cancer,” Cruz says, referring to her character. “And in so many films I’ve seen before, this is a very dramatic scene and the character understands profoundly what she has in front of her. But here it is very anti-melodrama. She cannot confront it. Being with these women or other friends who have had shock news, I know nobody really reacts like they do in the movies. Most of the time, people say something similar to Magda: ‘Oh, I have a hair appointment, should I keep it or change it?'”

Produced by Cruz and directed by fellow Spaniard Julio Medem (Sex and Lucia), the film follows Magda through treatment, remission, pregnancy, and recurrence. (The title is a Spanish pun, meaning both mother and breast.) Cruz stopped off in New York — a familiar city for her — to talk about the film and the journey that she, likewise, took while making it.


ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I didn’t know this about you, but you lived in New York City for a bit when you were a teenager.

PENELOPE CRUZ: Yeah, when I was 19 and 20 I lived in Greenwich Village, right near Christopher Street, and I loved it. I remember Two Potato [a famous neighborhood bar, which closed in 2004], right across the street. I remember the D’Agostino supermarket, which was down the street. It was an amazing time for me. Everything was great.

What kind of research did you do for this part? You’re playing someone who’s really blindsided by the news.

I worked with doctors and also with four or five women who were having this experience. Some were in the middle of hardcore cancer treatment. One woman showed me pictures of her 3-year-old son and she was also pregnant in the middle of the treatment. She was creating life inside of her while at the same time she was fighting this other monster inside of her. So for me it was instant, the love I felt for these women — and the wish to make a homage to all the women who unfortunately have to go through so much pain.

When you were filming the scenes in which Magda has lost all her hair, what was it like to look at yourself in the mirror?

It was very emotional because I knew all the women I was working with had experienced that exact moment of saying goodbye to their hair and looking at their naked body for the last time before the breast was removed. I was not concerned about how I was going to look, but it made me very grateful for my health. I was valuing it even more.


What did playing the part teach you about yourself?

Well, this is actually the second movie I’ve done where breast cancer was part of the plot. The first was Elegy, based on the Philip Roth novel, The Dying Animal, and on that I worked with another group of women. So I can say now I know a lot about the illness — about the different types of treatment, the chances of survival, all the different scenarios. And these movies becomes much more than movies for me.

Has the theme kind of stuck with you?

Yes, and after the movie I directed a documentary on childhood leukemia, so both years back to back have been on this subject of cancer. It’s called One in a Hundred Thousand, which is also the name of a foundation. And we are going to donate everything we make from the documentary to this foundation for research.

The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar for A Separation a few years ago, has a new film in the works — and you’re involved?

Yes, did you read about that? I think he’s one of the greatest directors that we have. I heard that everything went great for him last week at Cannes. People loved the movie. [Farhadi’s film The Salesman won best screenplay and best actor at the festival.] He called me and I read the treatment that he wrote. And I said yes immediately. I think he’s writing the full script now and we don’t have dates yet but yes, I would love to do.

Will it be in Spanish?

I think it will be in both Spanish and English. He’s a very sweet man and he rehearses his films for a long time, which is wonderful, so I think it will be a very interesting process. And a very interesting film.