[dropcap]I[/dropcap] admit it. I’m an addict.
I’m obsessed with the Spanish series Velvet—the story of a Madrid haute couture store in the fifties and sixties. Imagine the American series Mad Men, only with hemlines. You can stream it on Netflix, darlings. I’m particularly mad about Rita, an effervescent plain-Jane who heads the sewing department. When she’s exasperated with life, her signature response is, “Ay Dios mio…!” Rita is fastidious, kooky, and always ready to put her own needs on hold to help someone else, even when she’s hungry for someone to love her. She could be a Pedro Almodóvar heroine on a caffeine-rush.
I suspected that the actor who portrays Rita was also a “giving” person. My Euro contacts put Miss Ruby in touch with the actor who portrays “Ree-ta”—as the Spanish say it, with a trilling of the “R.”
Cecilia Freire is a celebrated Spanish actor, sort of a Jennifer Aniston type. She studied drama in
London and New York, and her CV includes stage, film, and television work. In fact, she starred for four years in a popular TV series called Physical or Chemical, which followed the lives of high school students dealing with sex and drugs. The series ended in 2011. The thespian’s favorite film is Tootsie and her choice role would have been Bette Davis’s character in All About Eve. Next month, the award-winning Cecilia performs a theater project in Madrid’s Maria Guerrero Theatre.
Cecilia just wrapped filming season three of Velvet—I can’t wait! She’s in her Madrid home and I’m in my little Silver Lake hovel in Los Angeles and we both hop on Skype.
Ruby Comer: Cecilia, what a treat to meet you! I…am…such a fan! Your performance on Velvet leaves me spellbound.
Cecilia Freire: Oh, Ruby, thank you. That’s very sweet. I’m honored to do this for such a wonderful publication. You do good work.
Gracias, Cecilia. Say, how many awards have you won playing Rita?
None. I know it’s going to sound cheesy, but really the best award is getting inside people’s hearts.
Well, you got into mine, Missy! Before we go further, what’s the proper way to pronounce your last name? Is it Free-air?
It would be great if my surname was pronounced in such a poetic way as “free air,” but unfortunately it’s more like “freir-a.”
Okay, let’s fantasize a minute! How do you think Rita would have reacted and responded to the epidemic if it had occurred during her life?
Rita would have had lots of gay friends! She’s never judgmental and so generous that she always chooses to put others before herself. I’m one hundred-percent sure that she would have lent a hand if needed.
That’s completely my take on it too. What do you have in common with Rita and how are you different?
Well, I’m very loyal and I always try to speak from my heart. Though sometimes not thinking about it first brings me some bad consequences. [She pauses.] I’m very different because I’m more “girly” and sometimes even posh. I guess I care more about my looks than Rita does. But for heaven’s sake, I’m an actress! [She rattles off a few chuckles with a flippant cockiness.]
Were there any challenges that you encountered by bringing Rita to life?
I remember being awfully scared in two scenes when I had to handle a mouse and a frog. I grew up in the city so having contact with some animals makes me really nervous.
I can understand, yes. When I say AIDS, what calls to mind?
The Normal Heart, the HBO TV movie. I was very moved.
A super film indeed. How has the epidemic affected you?
I was a kid in the eighties, so I didn’t understand what was going on. Later on, a family friend died. I remember even in his last hours he shared a big smile with all of us.
What a tender memory, Cecilia….
[She asserts with gravitas]…I have to say Ruby, as you well know, the epidemic was not handled properly. There wasn’t much information available, the government was very clumsy in confronting it and then they didn’t take immediate action. They simplified it, not wanting to address it. [She lets out a profound sigh.]
It’s so embarrassing and horrible how awkwardly they handled the disease. [All of a sudden she cracks a smile.] I’m glad though, how step-by-step the [response to the] epidemic has been evolving. Now we’re able to speak about it openly most of the time and can prevent it. Day by day science is discovering how to live a better life with the illness.
When you were coming of age in the mid-nineties, efficacious drugs became available to those who were infected. Were you taught about STIs in school?
At my school sex wasn’t spoken about in any way. [She halts for effect, nodding her head.] Shameful….
Tell me, what celebrity stands out the most for you who died of AIDS?
I think my first remembrance was Freddie Mercury’s death. That awakened in me so many questions. He was so talented. It was so unfair that he had to leave us so young.
Ahh, Queen. I went to one of their concerts in the day. Freddie was such a magnetic performer, struck down in his prime. I heard through the grapevine that you used to be a singer?
[Her head tilts back, her mouth gapes open, and a shocked pain sweeps across her face.] I assure you it’s better that I never sing. Ever! Yes, once I did have a punk rock band, but all I had to do was…scream. [She laughs.]
Oh, you’re a hoot, girl. Last time I was in your grand city I visited Apoyo Positivo. They provide home assistance, day centers, and psychological support for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. [She nods eagerly in agreement.] Have you been involved with any AIDS fundraising?
I haven’t been directly involved. I’ve collaborated for years with a small NGO that helps the schooling of young girls in India. It’s called Amigos de Odisha. [The non-profit organization was established in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1999, and Odisha is a State in India. Its mission is to not only provide education to those less privileged, but to maintain centers and programs for women of all ages, and incorporating projects that improve their socio-economical status.] Being that only a few people are involved with the organization, it enables me to have direct contact with the activities they develop.
What inspired you to get involved?
It started with a trip I took to India. I experienced firsthand how people there are abandoned by the system, and especially how women suffer injustices that are inexcusable in the twenty-first century. I needed to do something about it so I started supporting a little girl through the organization, giving her the chance to have an education. She now has a better future. This is one of the most rewarding things I have done, Ruby. [Her smoky coal-blue eyes glisten.]
Please give me the website for my readers, Cecilia.
It’s www.amigosdeodisha.org.Thank you. Though the website is only in Spanish, there are people there who speak English. One of my dreams, Ruby, is to go there and directly lend a hand.
See, I had an inkling that you and Rita were similar in your humanitarian ways! I just have to know: what was it like kissing Adrián Lastra who plays Pedro? He is so scrumptious!
Kissing Adrián and getting paid for it is…unbelievable. Touching his amazing biceps…[she spins her eyes], I just can’t stop talking about it!
Before we Skype-out, I’m dying to know a Velvet backstory.
In the second chapter of the first season, Pedro and I had to do a little dance. Adrián lifted me up and hit my head on a lamp. It’s not cute; it’s funny!
Ouch! Thanks for being part of Ruby’s Rap…
Talking to you has encouraged me to get more active in the HIV community. I’d like to find out more about UNAIDS here in Madrid.
Oh, I have friends there! I’ll connect you. No worries, girl. Well, it’s been too short and certainly sweet Rita—oops—I mean, Cecilia. [We both smile in earnest.]
Gracias tambien, Ruby. Adiós mi amiga!
For more information on Amigos de Odisha e-mail them at: [email protected].
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].