TORONTO -- Elena Anaya could have jumped out of her skin during the world premiere of "The Skin I Live In" at the Cannes Film Festival. She was too emotional, trying not to cry as she appeared alongside Antonio Banderas in his first movie with Pedro Almodovar in two decades.
But, months later, the Toronto International Film Festival brought a different experience as she sat next to someone who had no idea what "The Skin" was about.
"I experienced the same feelings I had when I read the script first. What is going on here? Question, question, question, and then you got the answers and they are hitting you like, oh my goodness."
She sensed festival patrons weren't contemplating dinner or mentally shuffling through party invites. "I felt the whole audience just going for that like -- whoosh -- on a trip, on a journey and he dragged the whole cinema with him."
The dark-haired Spanish actress, who speaks English with an accent and occasional pause as she searches for the proper word, may look familiar from movies such as "In the Land of Women," "Van Helsing" and "Sex and Lucia."
Here, she plays a human guinea pig to Mr. Banderas' wealthy plastic surgeon. Since the death of his wife after a fiery car crash, he has been trying to cultivate a new skin.
But that barely peels back the secretive layers in the Spanish-language movie opening today at the Regent Square Theater and Destinta Theater near Bridgeville.
Ms. Anaya had worked with the filmmaker for two or three days a decade earlier on "Talk to Her," the provocative drama that earned Mr. Almodovar an Oscar for original screenplay and a nomination for directing. She was an ex-girlfriend seen briefly in flashbacks.
When the director called and asked if she could, essentially, rehearse before he cast the role, she said, of course. Mr. Almodovar acted the role of the demented doc, and it turned out he wanted to see if she could follow his exacting directions.
"It has to be acting with an eye on Pedro," she said, describing the detail with which he choreographed an attack. "He knows specifically and clearly what he wants. ... Sometimes it's tough to do all the homework at home. Homework also has to be done with a director because it has to be his film and not your own ideas all the time."
Mr. Almodovar had been living with this for a decade. He knew every detail of the characters, their thoughts, feelings, worries and actions. "I have to write down 12 pages for each scene and then go back home and put everything in order and then fix everything in my mind and then, after two months, forget everything and just do it."
That included donning a flesh-colored body stocking as Vera, a woman who is held captive in an isolated mansion and monitored at all times. "I don't think acting is something easy. In a way, you need to go through, you really need to live the experience of being somebody else.
"Normally the characters that I love to play, they are not just comfortably having popcorn on the sofa. They go through, wow, many different stuff and their lives are so complicated and they live in the darkness in many ways. So when you have a normal life, normal family, love surrounds you and then you need to go to such deep, crazy places ... you have to have the nerve to go through it."
The 36-year-old, slender enough to pull off a horizontally pleated gold-colored skirt paired with a smoky gray sleeveless blouse this day, has been acting for 18 years and knows how to shift from real to reel.
"Now it's like a dream. You need to train yourself to go in and out and in and out, and the film was basically about that. The film was so intense, so emotionally deep, it needs a lot of concentration of every actor, everybody on the set, actually."
Due to Vera's intense connection to another character, Mr. Almodovar asked her to be present when he rehearsed his scenes. "Not during the filming, but we rehearsed for, like, three months."
Mr. Almodovar often works with the same trusted cast and crew who understand his desire to oversee such details as the color palette, lighting, clothing, hair and decor. "It has to be only one little mechanical thing with little tiny pieces that only go in the direction he wants."
And it will lead to something striking, no doubt.
As a New York Times writer once suggested: "If there were a waiting room to get into Pedro Almodovar's world, chairs would be wrought iron covered with red vinyl cushions, walls would be aqua, and the receptionist, at a Memphis desk beneath a Frank Lloyd Wright window, would have generous cleavage heaving above her gazpacho-red dress."
In the ideal world, Mr. Banderas would be waiting to collaborate again with his director on "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "Law of Desire" and "Matador."
Fans, including the actress who might be Mr. Almodovar's new muse, had dreamed of a reunion between the pair. She was agog when it happened.
"And 20 years means nothing, they just came together the first day of rehearsal -- we'd been rehearsing, Pedro and me. ... It was like 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down' was yesterday. They grow up together, they learn a lot of things about life and cinema together," she said, and they helped to define the 1980s.
"The connection is very, very deep and very strong and magnificent."
Madrid in the early part of that decade was a joyful, permissive place, Mr. Almodovar has said, as it enjoyed a rebirth after the 1975 death of Gen. Francisco Franco. The filmmaker helped to teach citizens and moviegoers how to break boundaries and the grip of a dictator.
"His films are so powerful in a deep way that the impression remains. It's not just you remember the film or what it's about, it goes deep inside. ... Even though you can love them or hate them, in my case I love the 18 films he did. But of course you leave with those references, they are part of the history of cinema for me. The performances that actors and actresses did in his films, they are like a piece of art for me."