Penelope Cruz (‘Assassination of Gianni Versace’): Finding Donatella’s voice was ‘the most challenging thing’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Penelope Cruz endeavored into American television for the first time this year, playing legendary fashion designer Donatella Versace in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” For her part, the Oscar winner received her first Emmy nomination recently for Best Movie/Limited Series Supporting Actress.

Cruz recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about stepping into Donatella’s shoes, the challenges of working in television compared to film and how series co-creator Ryan Murphy reminds her of an acclaimed director. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Penelope Cruz, you play Donatella Versace in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” You spoke with the real Donatella before taking this role so now that all is said and done, do you know if she has had any thoughts about the finished product, if she’s seen it or if maybe it’s even too difficult for her to see?

Penelope Cruz: I don’t know if she has seen it. She’s been really nice to me. I know her just a little bit. I’ve seen her over the years here and there. Not a lot of times but she’s always been really kind and generous and I’ve worn Versace for her on many, many occasions in the last 20 years. I know she’s surrounded by the same people for the last 20 years and they all love her and respect her and she’s always been very kind to me so that was the phone call that I had to do when Ryan offered this role to me. I was kind of shocked that he thought of me to play her but then I thought about it and I thought it really made sense and I feel a lot of affection and admiration towards Donatella, so I wanted to do it but I couldn’t say yes before I had that conversation with her, kind of asking for her blessing and she was not involved in the series in any way. We had a long conversation and she said to me, “If somebody’s gonna do it, I prefer that it’s you.” I guess she meant that she trusts me because she knows that I feel a lot of respect and affection for her. So honestly that’s what I did. It was my personal homage to her. I played somebody that is really strong, really has an amazing, loving relationship with her brother and he was one of the people she loved the most and she lost him in the most terrible way. I never met Gianni but I was always a huge fan of everything that he did. It was my chance to be playing somebody that I have always been a fan of and that I really admired.

GD: What would you say is the most difficult part in preparing to play this role, very different from yourself in terms of her background, certainly?

PC: The most challenging thing was finding a voice, that when you hear me speaking you don’t hear myself. Not just the Spanish accent, because she’s Italian, I’m Spanish, but also it’s getting the Italian accent but in English. I learned Italian before for a movie called “Don’t Move,” a movie that I did with [Sergio] Castellitto. But I had to go back to that and get that in English and transfer it to English but get Donatella’s sound, because she has a very specific and unique way of communicating and it’s all the body language and she’s very rock and roll. That’s what I wanted to get in me. And it’s not only imitation, of course. That’s not what this is about, we all know that, but I am not the judge. Now, I cannot tell you if people, when you see, do you feel that she’s somewhere there? Hopefully she is, but that’s what I tried to get. I tried to get that essence and that very specific thing that she has in her way to communicate, without trying to do an imitation. That’s where I try.

GD: And how much did you know about this story? The death of Gianni Versace was well known publicly, how that happened, when it happened. But the relationship behind the scenes between Donatella and Gianni, how much of that did you learn for the first time or did you know about before?

PC: I knew a little bit because I know a lot of people that have been with them, her dresser and people that have been with them in those moments backstage before the show and they all say they loved each other so much and they made each other grow creatively. They both talk about that in so many interviews. I have seen hours and hours of footage of the two of them. I would never say something that I was not sure about. I know that creatively they push each other and they respect and admire each other. I’m sure they had those very healthy creative arguments, like any brother-sister relationship. I became kind of obsessed with watching material of them. There are many interviews they gave together and especially those little moments, there isn’t a lot of footage of them backstage in those crazy few minutes before the show but I found some, and you can see a lot about their personalities, their relationship, the relationship they had with creating, with fashion, how they had this passion since they were little kids and it was a very real thing. I think it also came from their mother and it was beautiful to see. Their art had these very solid roots. They’re both very, very, very talented. Everything that he created, she had to continue that. She had so much pressure in the moment of when she lost him and she was suffering so much. She didn’t really get the time to recover before stepping into having to take care of this empire and keeping it growing, keeping it alive. It’s incredible what she did. It was a very, very challenging moment and she’s done amazing things with the brand.

GD: Being yourself considered a fashionable person, now getting to tell the story about these people who are really centrally involved in fashion, what was it like getting to explore that kind of creativity that Donatella had and Gianni had from your own experiences with fashion?

PC: I think the great ones, like she is and Gianni was, or Karl Lagerfeld or [John] Galliano, the great ones, they are true artists and you see all the work that is behind couture dress and it’s not a joke. You have like 20 people working on that with their hands and the artisan way of working and it’s really beautiful to see. It’s their talent and also a lot of very, very hard work. I know a lot of them and they’re work machines. They work nonstop and it’s the combination of that and how brilliant they are. It’s interesting for me to get to see that other world because I’m an actress but it’s true that fashion and movies have this kind of marriage, no? They support each other so it’s always interesting for us to see how not just the main designers but also somebody that is sewing a dress and their relationship they have with that, with the material, and the passion that they have for what they do. I guess because I learned how to sew and knit with my grandmother, so I also have a relationship with that and I’m a fan of it and I really respect it.

GD: Working with Edgar Ramirez, who plays Gianni, trying to develop this really complex relationship between these two, what was it like working with him as he was disappearing into that role?

PC: I loved every second of working with him. I think he did an amazing job, incredible. I was seeing Gianni, and same with Ricky [Martin] and with Darren [Criss], I think they are all great. They did amazing performances, and we all enjoyed very much the time that we spent together and with Ryan and everyone else. I especially enjoyed Episode 7 where Edgar and I have all these creative arguments. It’s like when you see more about the brother-sister relationship and that became my favorite episode to shoot. I didn’t want it to finish. He and I click, and it was so easy for us to understand each other and that only happens sometimes. We would look at each other and almost know what the other one was thinking. He’s very generous in the way he works and I enjoyed it very much.

GD: There was also, besides the creative conflict between them, Donatella was also concerned about him coming out as gay, how the public would react, if they would accept him. What was it like developing that aspect of Donatella, how much she loved her brother but she was a little bit pessimistic about how people would view him if they knew that side of him?

PC: I don’t know, because in that episode there was another scene that we shot that is not in the final edit, but where she was actually asking him to do the opposite. There was the conflict of before saying, “Be careful, maybe you don’t have to share that much,” and then she was saying, “You know what, the most important thing is that you are true to yourself and to do whatever you feel you have to do and whatever you feel you have to share with the world, you share it, and that comes first, before the business and everything else.” That didn’t end up in the episode, but that’s actually what we shot. I cannot speak for herself, but I’m sure there was a little bit of everything there. At that time, imagine. Not that things have changed so much in the world, unfortunately, in that way. That people have to still be so worried sometimes about what they have or what they should or not should share about their private life. It’s unfortunate that they have to be worried about it. In some ways we have not evolved so much.

GD: A very complex relationship in the series is between Donatella and Antonio and what’s interesting about that dynamic is that they both have so much love for Gianni and so little love, often, for each other. What was it like working with Ricky Martin, playing that dynamic where you share this love but also kind of clash?

PC: That was difficult for us because we like each other very much and I had to be very tough with him in some scenes, for the reasons that you are saying. It’s difficult to be tough with Ricky because he’s such an angel. He’s a very, very nice man, but the same that I had with Edgar, great collaboration. With Darren, I don’t have scenes with him. I hope I do in some other project because he has an incredible talent but we spent some time with him also and I felt like I was surrounded by all these incredible, talented and nice people, and Ryan, who is incredible. Everything that he’s doing, I always wanted to work with him and we met years before and I was very happy that he called me because right now he’s like the king of TV. He’s doing projects that are very interesting with very interesting subjects and I’m very honored to be part of this team in this one.

GD: This is your first time working in American television. You’re best known for film. Was it a different experience in terms of the production, taking on a series, as opposed to a one-shot film?

PC: It was very different because like you’re saying, in a film, you have the time to maybe you’re gonna do one scene per day, some days you’re gonna do two, but in TV you’re gonna do five or six and they’re gonna throw changes at you on the same morning. I was given a new monologue the day before. But this is very, very good also for actors, I think. For me, of course I was scared about that rhythm but it’s a great exercise and I would do it again in a second. I would love to be able to combine both but the incredible experience that it is to be able to explore a character for a longer time, not just for something that is gonna be, even if you are the lead of a movie, you’re only gonna be there in those two full hours so I can’t imagine what it would be, the obsession with a character that you get to play for a longer series. It would be very, very interesting for me as an actress to get to do that one day, to live with that character for such a long time that you really, really get to know and to explore who that person is. It’s very fascinating and I always knew it was gonna be like that, but now that I’ve tried it I didn’t wanna say goodbye to the character when we finished. You feel so much love for that character. It’s not about liking them, not liking them, but you are in that process with them getting to know who they are and when you start seeing new things, it’s the end. One time I have to try what it is to get one of those that you do for years.

GD: What do you hope now that all is said and done, now that the episodes have aired, and people can watch it, what do you hope people take away from this story the most?

PC: I could not tell you one single thing because like in all the projects that he does, Ryan, he touches so many subjects that are important, that open a debate. I think that’s why he’s so good and so loved and so respected because every time he brings something new, even if it’s a musical. It’s never just a musical. I’m not saying musical is easy, actually, that’s why there’s so little of it done ‘cause it’s so hard. But he’s always touching subjects that are for today, things that we need to talk about today, even if he’s doing something that happened 20-30 years ago, but things that we still need to resolve today and to talk about. I like that very much about Ryan. In many ways he reminds me a lot of Pedro Almodovar. They have the same passion for what they do. They always choose subjects that matter. Movies or TV, not that anybody’s doing it to change the world but it can always contribute to bring up a discussion and to move things around.

GD: I wanna congratulate you on that miniseries and congratulations also on your Emmy nomination for the series. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

PC: Thank you, thank you so much. Nice to meet you.

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