cannes 2023

‘Pedro, This is Like the Cover of Playgirl

An afternoon at Cannes with the young hunks of Pedro Almodóvar’s gay cowboy movie, Strange Way of Life.

Manu Rios, Jason Fernandez, Jose Condessa and George Steane. Photo: Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spazianiages/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Im
Manu Rios, Jason Fernandez, Jose Condessa and George Steane. Photo: Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spazianiages/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Im

A few minutes before Pedro Almodóvar premiered his short gay western, Strange Way of Life, at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, a quartet of absurdly, almost comically attractive 20-something hunks gathered onstage around him, evoking the kind of surreal dream-ballet sequence that might appear in an Almodóvar movie. Grinning mischievously, Almodóvar referred to the men as “beauties” but “also good actors,” though he didn’t reveal what they’d be doing in the film. Approximately 31 minutes later, everyone in the audience was furiously Googling José Condessa, Jason Fernández, Manu Ríos, and George Steane.

Condessa, 25, and Fernández, 28, play the younger versions of characters played in a later era by Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke, in a brief but erotically charged flashback to the gunslingers’ youthful affair in Mexico. The two friends hire and then blow off a group of female sex workers, shoot holes into a wine barrel, bathe in and guzzle down the resulting alcohol fountain, then start energetically making out with each other. It’s hot and goofy and sweet, exaggerated to the point that it feels as if it’s poking fun at what the porn version of this sort of scene might look like. Steane, 22, shows up in two scenes as Pascal’s delinquent, on-the-lam son, who may or may not have murdered someone important to Hawke’s character, who has grown up to be a sad, repressed sheriff. Ríos, 24, the most well known of the four thanks to a role on Netflix’s Elite, plays a balladeer strumming the Spanish guitar.

Save for Condessa, who is Portuguese, they’re all up-and-coming Spanish actors and models who, when I bumped into them at a post-screening Cannes party and again on a hotel rooftop, seemed to be having the time of their lives running around the Croisette while wearing Saint Laurent and vogueing for the cameras. When I asked Almodóvar a few days later about his young cast members and the festival’s subsequent reaction to them, he laughed: “When they came into my office, I said, ‘My God, you are so hot! All of you!’ We all felt like the hunchback of Notre-Dame. When you see the young actors together, all of them, it’s like a beauty contest. Some friends of mine afterward sent me a message: ‘Pedro, this is like the cover of Playgirl.’”

A few days after the film’s premiere, I caught up with Condessa and Fernández (briefly joined by Ríos and Steane) to talk about their fabulously, unapologetically horny introduction to Cannes via one of the most respected auteurs of all time.

I want to hear both of your stories about getting cast. Did you know it was for Pedro right away?
Jason Fernández: It all started with a self-tape, and we didn’t know who the director was. Then we got a 15-page script for the actual casting, and the casting directors rented out an Airbnb, which they don’t normally do. And then we did three-hour casting, performing the first few scenes of the short film, where Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal spend the night together.

Oh, they gave you the older version of your characters’ scenes?
J.F.: Yes! It was maybe a seven- or eight-minute scene where they meet and then sleep together — all the way until Ethan Hawke is in the bathtub and Pedro Pascal says, “You cured all my ailments,” and then says, “There’s cum in your bed.” A beautiful scene. The first time, I did it with another actor and then with José. And we didn’t know one another, but we just went and did this whole script in one go. And it was instantly amazing — like gold.

José Condessa: It was incredible.

Why was that, do you think?
J.C.: I think because we didn’t know each other. When the scene started rolling, it was the first time we got to know each other: the first look, the first words. For me, I looked at Jason, and I saw him: He was a humble and awesome guy. He instantly made me comfortable.

J.F.: There are many ways to work as an actor, but a beautiful way to work is looking into the other person’s eyes — bouncing off of the emotion in his eyes, deeply, beyond his body. José had so much truth in his eyes and his expressions. I actually felt him delivering from the heart, which is amazing — to forget you’re doing a casting, to actually feel it.

The casting directors said they still have it on tape and they’ve watched it so many times and one day they’ll let us watch it. I’m looking forward to that day.

When did you find out that you were cast and that it was Pedro’s movie?
J.F.: Three or four weeks later. José knew it was Pedro and didn’t tell me!

J.C.: Because I’m a Portuguese actor, I had to move to Madrid for this. So they had to tell me before I did that.

J.F.: I wasn’t told. My agent knew but elected not to tell me.

Were you both fans before? What are your favorites?
J.C.: Of course. I don’t know — they are very different moments in my life. But probably Todo Sobre Mi Madre. That touched my heart deeply.
J.F.: They all have something so special and so human and have such a deep message about the simplicity of life. Pain and Glory is really good.

Did you meet with Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal to figure out how to play them but younger?
J.C.: I called Pedro Pascal on Zoom. He helped me a lot with the Mexican accent. He was awesome.
J.F.: I met Ethan in person. I watched his films. He sent me an audiobook. We had loads of conversations. We had quite a few more lines originally, so he read the lines for us and recorded them so we could practice sounding like him. We were thinking, talking with Pedro, 25 years have gone by and you change a lot in 25 years. My character is a hired gun, then a sheriff, so he’s a completely different person.

What sort of rehearsing did you do?
J.F.: We did a lot of rehearsals. We had to create all of what they lived before and after. The scene is only 30 or 40 seconds, but it inspires Silva later to travel so far away to go meet Jake for love. We have to deliver so much love and purity and emotion in that little scene that you have to create a before and after.

J.C.: And we had fittings, too. Lots of hours together. Which was really cool for our relationship.

Did Pedro deliver that backstory to you, or did you come up with it together?
J.F.: Yes. He knows what he wants, and he tells you.

J.C.: But he’s open to listening. As a young actor, that’s incredible. He’s a genius. On set, I had an idea for the moment when Silva shoots the wine barrel and says, “One, two, three —” Because we’re friends and we’re playing. I asked Almodóvar if it was possible to improve the moment. Then I thought, What a terrible idea, to tell Almodóvar what I want. And he looked at my eyes, and he said, “Okay, it’s a good idea. Let’s do it” — and changed everything to do that moment. Because it’s not just an Almodóvar film; it’s our film.

How choreographed was the scene itself?
J.F.: We rehearsed when we fell to the floor, but the kissing part has to come more from inside. We knew it had to be animalistic. These two characters get carried away by the situation; they’re not aware — they didn’t have a thought that they were gonna kiss. But that brute way in which they’re drinking and fighting — suddenly it turns from animalistic into passion. They pause, look at one another, and feel something deeper. They’ve tested it out, and now there’s this feeling.

How many takes did you then do, and how long were you both on set?
J.F.: I think two. Three maximum. It was just a day.

J.C.: Right after, Jason told me he didn’t remember the scene.

J.F.: As soon as I finished the scene, I said —

J.C.: — “Did we kiss?” I said, “Yeah! We spent ten minutes kissing. I guess it wasn’t good.”

J.F.: “I can’t remember. Did you put your tongue in my mouth?” You’re just so much in the present. You’re not thinking. You forget everything around you — just trust, and touch, and go naked with your feelings. It was beautiful. It was my first time kissing a man.

José, was it your first time, too?
J.F.: No, he’s a pro!

J.C.: Onscreen, yeah. Not in real life.

So do you both identify as straight? This will be disappointing to a lot of people in that audience.
J.C. and J.F.: [Both laughing] Yes.

J.F.: But you always open up! You never know. So far, I’m straight. But I believe more in people rather than labels. I’ve felt attracted to men, actually, but I haven’t been with a man yet. But I’m young. I have time.

José, what’s your memory of filming the scene since Jason blocked it out?
J.C.: We had an objective, and we went for it. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to defend these characters: two guys in love for 30 years who still love each other after all of their lives.

The Saint Laurent costumes and how they factor into the scene is so fun. I love the moment where you’re both struggling with each other’s cowboy belts — the camera really focuses on the belts specifically — and then you sort of just give up because they’re too tight.
J.C.: Too tight or too drunk! [Laughs.] It could be both; people saw it both ways. For us, it was like, Ehh, I’m too drunk.

Was that moment written in the script?
J.C.: It was Almodóvar’s idea in the moment. It’s special because we understand, at that point, it’s not just about sex. If they can’t get in, it’s okay. Because they’re in love.
J.C.: We laugh, smile, and our eyes bring you into that love.

[Steane and Ríos sit down.] 

We’re just talking about the belts.
George Steane: Sexy! Too many belts. Which character do you think loves the other the most?

J.C.: I think I love the most.

J.F.: Maybe in the moment you’re more passionate. But my character actually feels. That’s the difference.

I want to hear when you, Manu and George, both learned you were cast in an Almodóvar film.
G.S.: I actually did my casting in person. My agent called me and said, “You’re going to Pedro’s office.” I just literally went to Pedro’s office, and he told me, “Read these lines. You speak English, right?” I read the lines, and the day after, my agent called and said, “You got the job.”

Manu Ríos: Mine was so secretive. I did a tape, but my agency didn’t tell me about what it was for and then I found out it was Pedro, and that’s when the crazy part started.

What has it been like for all of you to be at Cannes? What’s been the most surreal moment?
J.F.: I think it’s the red carpet for me.

M.R.: Being in the theater, seeing the reaction, the short film in such great quality on a huge screen. It’s surreal. We’re trying to enjoy the present and then later, at home, we’ll think about it.

J.C.: Tomorrow when I go home, it’s going to be different. Now, it’s like I’m dreaming. It’s not real.

J.F.: We were talking at breakfast about what brings us back to reality are the messages from our family and friends saying, “Wow. Look where you are.” It’s like, Wow, I’m at Cannes, surrounded by amazing people, with Almodóvar. 

G.S.: And Catherine Deneuve!

Did you meet her? Did she see the film?
G.S.: I’m not sure she did. I just told her she looked sublime. And she just waved back at me. She’d heard it all before, you know?

Have the four of you stayed friends since filming? Have you seen each other again before this premiere?
M.R.: This is the first time we’re all spending time together, sharing the same emotions. We didn’t all meet on set. We met at rehearsals and the photo shoot, but that’s it.

G.S.: But we get along pretty good.

J.F.: It’s nice to put away egos and all come here as a team. We know we’re in a new place; nobody has been here before. We’re all ready to learn, and that’s brought us together.

G.S.: We’re like kids.

J.F.: Living a dream. Well, I’m 28, so I’m the daddy.

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‘Pedro, This Is Like the Cover of Playgirl