Once, early in March, during a beautiful Mexico City morning, I was sitting under a large umbrella in the courtyard of the Four Seasons with the Modigliani-mugged actress Rossy de Palma, the star player of director Pedro Almodóvar’s sweeping output. She has appeared in Law of Desire  and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown  as well as countless other films. We were both staring at her Instagram through her shattered iPhone screen, me from across the table, her down her legendary aquiline nose. She was in town for Liberatum, a cross-continental festival designed to promote the exchange of culture across borders, previously staged in countries like the U.K. and Turkey. It was started by the entrepreneur and gadabout Pablo Ganguli. This year it took place in Mexico to undermine Trump. De Palma’s contribution was a performance of “Traveling Lady,” a one-woman, multimedia play about Nellie Bly that included graphics and a zany infomercial break. Despite being directed by Jessica Mitrani, it was distinctly her, at once both wildly witty and notably unorthodox.
Offstage, de Palma had been fiercely adding to her Instagram—doing impromptu photoshoots in the hotel’s courtyard, zooming in and out of landmarks and locals on the street hawking all kinds of antojitos. She is, she admits, “a little bit” addicted to the social platform. “Life is better inside Instagram,” she says. “It’s true that, artistically, it’s so very interesting. You can keep in touch with a lot of inspiring people. You can be on a mission without moving from your place.”
She has been on a mission since she was discovered in 1986 by her benefactor, the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. There is a heavily spun and tightly wound tale about their fated meeting. As the story goes, he was eating at a café in Madrid where de Palma was a waitress. She had just crash landed in Madrid at the height of La Movida Madrileña. There, she moonlit as a singer for her fledgling band Peor Impossible (“worst possible”). When she served the director, she caught his eye. Almodóvar was compelled to cast her in his film.
“That … is a legend,” she tells me, the words tumbling forth in a way that makes you sit up straighter. “I was working in a rockabilly bar, because I arrived in Madrid with my band, Peor Impossible, very well known at that time already. We had a song that summer that everybody was singing, ‘Susurrando.’ [Our band was] nine people, or even ten, and we were very theatrical. Pedro loved us and came to our concerts. Pedro was already known in the underground world.”
“I wanted to go to a casting of Matador , but I had a concert with my band in another city in Spain and I didn’t [go]. When I was working in that rockabilly bar, I was wearing this toupée, like the one you saw in Law of Desire . This was my real look in life. Pedro came [to the bar] with his costume designer to take a video. They were preparing the costumes for Carmen Maura, for Law of Desire, who was playing the trans [character]. I was 19 years old, I had an amazing body at that time and no money. I cut my own dresses, very sexy with the back naked.”
“Pedro said, ‘Where can we find these kinds of dresses because we are searching for something like that for Carmen Maura in the new film I am preparing.’ I said, ‘I made it myself.’ ‘What about your earrings?’ I made earrings at that time. I said, ‘I made them myself, too.’ He said, ‘Listen, we’d like you to come do a little scene in my new film.’ I said, ‘Of course I will. With pleasure.’ I wanted to go to Matador’s casting and I could not. Pedro told the makeup artist, ‘Don’t do her makeup, don’t dress her, she’s going to do it by herself.’ He was very happy. At the end [of the shoot] he said, ‘You did great.’ But I didn’t feel myself like a real actress because I was too much myself. He was very proud of me. He said, ‘Look at Rossy! She doesn’t know where she’s going to sleep tomorrow but she has an agenda!’”
Her agenda has since extended to include a diverse and delicious oeuvre of films, photo shoots and a well-curated dispensary of images and videos on her Instagram, where she now lives.
ROSSY DE PALMA: Did you see what I got?! I felt like National Geographic! I was not even two meters [away]. The guide who showed us everything said that it was the lions’ honeymoon time. [laughs] On one site I read that one woman got out of the car to take a picture and the lion attacked her and she died, two years ago, something like that, on safari. And I thought, “What a stupid woman, why?” But it’s true. Having been there, you don’t feel like you are in danger. They are very close but everything is natural and I understand part of this woman feeling like there’s no danger at all. Like, hello, [they’re] making love. But the scene was very funny and the female lion was like “aw.” [laughs]
ROSSY DE PALMA: I have a lot of stories I can tell you about [designer Azzedine] Alaïa. He was a storyteller. [I went] to his kitchen and I cooked a paella for him once, a huge container of paella. We went together to buy all the ingredients and he said, “I’m going to be your assistant on the recipe, I’m only going to do the lemonade.” The lemonade, because he’s Tunisian, was very good. He invited a lot of fantastic friends to dinner, very well known artists. You can spend until three in the morning in his kitchen when you have dinner.
He didn’t need to sleep very much. Three hours is enough for him; he had such an energy. [His death was] a stupid accident but at the same time, perhaps it’s better, because he didn’t want to deal with the illness or being dependent. It was a surprise. I guess he didn’t have time to realize that he was going to die. It was a regular Sunday.
He was always [at his atelier]. I was in Paris when he died. I was there. I saw him. I even kissed him and stayed with him, with all the very close friends and family … But one month ago I came back to Paris and I visited all the staff. At first, I was afraid to go to the kitchen, to lunch there without him. I said to myself, “You have to go, you have to support the staff, all the people who are with him.” And let me tell you, it felt like he was there. The energy was not strange. Everybody was working. [Alaïa] was always pushing, “Come on!” He was always the director of his world. Everything was like the day before he died.
I put this picture [on Instagram] not long ago. I said to him, “Show me your hands, I’m going to take a picture of your hands.” I love it because, I don’t remember her name but he had a Brazilian model who was working for him as the model vivant, the fit model who works in the atelier. Ten years she was working for him. That’s a lot of pinpricks! You could bother Alaïa when he was working, no problem, he was always ready for you. It’s an amazing loss at the same time. He was so strong. He’s still there, he’s still with us.
ROSSY DE PALMA: I remember [that night at Studio 54] like it was yesterday. Yes, it was with Pedro [Almodóvar], I don’t remember which film we went to present in New York, perhaps it was Women on the Verge . We were with Liza and Sandra Bernhard, a lot of people, very funny—it’s true there was no Instagram at that time. What a pity. [laughs] And with Liza, it was so funny, so tender. And now I found out that she has a real Instagram. I saw it yesterday … I don’t know if I tagged her when I did that post.
ROSSY DE PALMA: That trip to Los Angeles was amazing for the Oscar with Women on the Verge. We were taking photos like crazy. And Jane [Fonda], she bought the rights in America, for Women on the Verge, and she invited all of us to launch it. It was an amazing dinner with Cher, a lot of people at her place. It was very funny, she’s so sweet. And then [Jane and I] met again at Cannes Festival in the showroom all the stars go to get dresses and we went like that and I did the picture and I wanted to put the two pictures together. I asked her, “Why you didn’t put Women on the Verge [on]?” It’s very difficult to find somebody to come direct this with the spirit that Pedro had.