Claudia Leisinger


February 28 – March 6 2005

With her part opposite Adam Sandler in Spanglish Paz Vega has said hello to Hollywood. But, the Spanish actress tells Leigh Singer, she hopes people will see her as more than just a pretty face.

Paz Vega is gorgeous. Gorgeous. So gorgeous that looking at her doesn’t do it – you have to stare. So gorgeous, even, that they should name a gender after her. Before you dismiss this as the ramblings of a smitten journalist, bear in mind these are the reactions her character elicits from almost every other person she encounters, male or female, in James L. Brooks’s new comedy-drama Spanglish.

What’s even more striking about the movie, a sprightly culture-clash discourse that ultimately poses more questions than it can answer, is that it doesn’t position Vega as some clichéd, vamped-up Latina temptress. Flor Moreno is an impoverished Mexican single mother who sneaks into America and ends up both working as a housekeeper and catalyzing the implosion of an affluent, dysfunctional L.A family. It’s Vega’s first Hollywood role, a genuine tragic-comic showcase that can only elevate her career to a whole new level. So isn’t it awkward for an actress with serious ambitions for her craft to play a character so revered for her looks?

‘No no no no no,’ says the 29-year old actress, as, well, gorgeous, in person as onscreen, her good-natured repudiation coming in a heavily accented, melodious rat-a-tat-tat. ‘I don't care about my physical (sic). I’m an actress and the most important thing for me is to project my feelings. Even sometimes the makeup [artist] wants in the middle of the scene to retouch, and I say no, please I don't care.’

‘In the photo shoot, it's another thing,’ continues Vega, a pin-up since the smoldering film poster for Sex and Lucia, ‘but in work…’ - she pauses, then fires a volley of Castilian to the nearby translator, before finding the elusive phrase – ‘…you are not free to act as you want. I don't think people just say, “Oh, she is a beautiful woman” - I hope that people don't just say that!’ She dissolves into laughter. ‘I think with my physical I can be beautiful and I can be awful - I know!’

She’s right not to fixate on the physical, because Brooks – the writer-director of Oscar-winners Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets – who’d been searching for months for the right actress to embody Flor, was taken by Vega’s talent as much as her beauty. So impressed, in fact, that he hired her after a single intensive day of auditioning and despite the fact Vega didn’t speak a word of English.

‘I couldn't even say, "Hello, my name is Paz",’ she recounts. ‘But with Jim [Brooks] somehow from the beginning the communication was great.’ That the overlap between Vega and Flor’s inability to speak English allowed her to ‘put all my own experience into the character’ is one thing; quite another is that, given that Spanglish was only shot last year, she’s now gamely conversing in English with minimal assistance. ‘Every interview [in English] for me is a practice,’ she shrugs. ‘Sometimes it's good, sometimes it depends on my mind...’

Language issues hadn’t hindered Vega thus far in her career. A native of Seville, she was a jobbing TV actress before landing some high-profile film parts for A-list Spanish directors, notably the title role in both Julio Medem’s sensual Sex and Lucia and Vicente Aranda’s lusty Carmen, as well as a supporting turn in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her. Was Hollywood a world away professionally as well as geographically?

‘It's the same structure,’ she surmises. ‘Even with another actor in another language it's the same. I like this a lot because it's universal, the language of drama.’ Even with, in this writer’s eyes, the perennially irritating Adam Sandler? Vega launches into a spirited defence of her co-star.

‘The first day I said, “Who is Adam Sandler?” - because in Spain he's not popular,’ she describes. ‘And when I saw his movies I thought, “Oh...” But from the first day when I know him in person, I know we can work for sure. In this movie he shows he's an actor.’ True enough, it’s Sandler’s most mature and graceful work to date. Then again, you’d expect nothing less from a taskmaster as tough as Brooks, whose strict quality control has helped ensure classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and of course The Simpsons. Still, with the character of Flor, Brooks was wise enough to know he - a white, middle-class man writing a working-class, Hispanic woman – was on foreign territory.

‘When I read the script, I said it is impossible that this story was written by an American man like Jim, because Jim has a super American lifestyle,’ Vega laughs. ‘But when I get the job, he tell me, "Paz, I wrote the script but you are Flor, so give me what you feel about the character, about your own experiences."’

The heart of Spanglish is the tussle between the Mexican Flor and her neurotic, ueber-American boss Deborah (Tea Leoni), for the soul of Flor’s twelve-year old bilingual daughter Christina. Though not yet a mother herself – ‘I want to be very soon,’ affirms the married Vega, ‘maybe next year’ – the theme of culture clashes and assimilation is one that resonated during the film’s lengthy eight-month shoot.

‘What I like in America is –‘ she reaches for the English – ‘they let you indulge yourself. When you travel to another country it's good sometimes not to lose, but to forget your own culture and learn different things, no? But I don't want to lose my custom, my lifestyle, my family. I want to live in Madrid and if possible to travel for work.’ Offers are inevitably flooding in and though she hasn’t yet chosen her next project, has she sensed her compatriots feel they’ve already lost her to Hollywood?

‘I don’t [yet] come back,’ Paz Vega smiles brightly, ‘but I hope when I arrive people are the same. I have more proposals in Spain so people want to work with me there. I think it's not like, “Oh, she’s in Hollywood now.” No no no no no.’

'© The Big Isue 2005. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'