A plush hotel suite overlooking Kensington Palace Gardens seems an entirely apt place to be granted an audience with Penelope Cruz. After all, she is new Hollywood royalty, even if she is entirely bereft of airs and graces. Behind her, a framed photograph of Sophia Loren adorns the wall, a pertinent reminder of the last foreign star to make such an impact in the USA. It is 11.30am, too early for her Mediterranean body-clock. She's just flown in from Los Angeles and - being a 12 hours-of-sleep-a-night girl - looks a little tired around those deep brown eyes of hers.
Grumbling about jet-lag, today she does not look like she has "the ability to create fire with any object or moving thing", as director Cameron Crowe once pronounced of her. Wearing a black dress that fits snugly over her petite 5ft 6in frame, she cuts a solemn figure. She hit 30 last year, though claims it hasn't caused her to become more introspective.
"Reflecting on everything is something I've tried to do since I was a little girl," she says. "I just can't help asking myself questions and I get very impatient about answers. So that hasn't been different because of turning 30. I've had a very curious personality all my life."
Despite becoming the face for the US designer Ralph Lauren, her love affair with America has been bumpy of late. In Hollywood, the so-called Spanish enchantress has become more famous for bewitching a variety of her leading men than for the resulting films. While she was making All the Pretty Horses with Matt Damon, he split with his long-term girlfriend, Winona Ryder. During Captain Corelli's Mandolin, rumours persisted that she and Nicolas Cage, then married to Patricia Arquette, were an item. And shortly after Tom Cruise separated from Nicole Kidman, he and Cruz, the co-stars on Vanilla Sky, began a three-year relationship that ended 12 months ago. No wonder Damon once nicknamed her "Trouble".
Nothing Cruz has made in America has yet to top her home-grown work. "I think she works much better in Spanish than English," notes the fellow Spanish diva Paz Vega. It's easy to see what she means, judging by many of the 20 films Cruz made before her first US outing, Stephen Frears's 1998 film The Hi-Lo Country - in which, ironically, she played a Mexican who loses her cowboy lover to Patricia Arquette. Vanilla Sky, a remake of Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 film Abre los Ojos, is a case in point. Replaying the same role she shined in for Amenabar, her exuberance was rather lost in translation; perhaps overshadowed by the furore surrounding her burgeoning relationship with Cruise.
While she wouldn't be the first European import to falter - Emmanuelle Béart, for example, quickly returned to France with her tail between her legs after Mission: Impossible - rarely has there been such a drastic "before and after" split in an actor's canon. With unreleased clunkers like the Bob Dylan movie Masked and Anonymous and the trailer-trash comedy Waking Up In Reno cluttering up her CV, it's clear she's been misused and misunderstood in Hollywood.
"They have offered me some very interesting things, so I'm very grateful for the opportunity," she says, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds. "I have been working in Europe since I was 14 and in America only for five years. It takes time, but I like difficult stuff. I don't want to play myself or play the same thing twice."
In Spain, she's acted for most of her country's leading directors, be it playing sweet and innocent, or outlandish and extreme. After taking a cameo in Pedro Almodovar's 1997 film Live Flesh, as a pregnant woman who gives birth on a bus to the film's future hero, she reunited with him to play a Prada-wearing nun with Aids in his sublime All About My Mother. For Fernando Trueba, she was the virginal Luz in the good-natured comedy Belle Epoque at the outset of her career. Their second film together, 1998's La Nina de tus Ojos (The Girl of Your Dreams), saw her cast as an actress-singer in Nazi Germany, fending off the amorous advances of one Joseph Goebbels. It won her a Goya, the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar, and cemented her reputation as her country's leading star since Antonio Banderas headed for Hollywood.
Over the next month, the schizophrenic nature of Cruz's career will be further exemplified. In Sergio Castellitto's Non ti Muovere (Don't Move), she delivers a mesmerising turn as the downtrodden and destitute Italia, a cleaning lady who becomes embroiled in a torrid affair with a surgeon. Bow-legged, gap-toothed, and with black mascara carelessly smeared across her face, Cruz deliberately despoils her image to the point where, when she first appears on screen, you barely recognise her. "I don't deserve extra credit for not being afraid of looking ugly," she notes.
Based on an Italian bestseller by Margaret Mazzantini, the story unfolds as the family-man Timoteo (played by the writer-director, Castellitto) reflects on his fling with Italia 15 years ago, while his daughter lies in intensive care at the hospital where he works. The film's most controversial aspect lies in the fact that when Timoteo first meets Italia, invited to use her phone when his car breaks down, he rapes her. Italia seems almost accepting of this, leading some critics to dismiss the film as a male fantasy that invites us to sympathise with the offender.
Cruz disagrees, shaking her finger when I raise the point. "When I got the script, somebody told me, 'don't even bother because the woman falls in love with a guy that rapes her'. When I read it, I found the movie wasn't about that. I wouldn't do a movie that supports rape or that kind of behaviour. In life, nothing is black and white. But this is a piece of truth. It talks about the pain that comes from somebody that is on the road to self-destruction. It doesn't make it cool or attractive." She scooped Best Actress for the role last year at the Italian-based David di Donatello Awards. "I cried," she gushes. "It was very special. It means there's a part of me that feels Italian now."
Her other new film, Sahara, is an adaptation of the novel by Clive Cussler, one of 14 featuring his swashbuckling hero Dirk Pitt (here played by Matthew McConaughey). It's a half-hearted attempt to replicate "the energy of Indiana Jones", as Cruz puts it. Directed by Breck Eisner, the son of the soon-to-be-stepping down Disney CEO Michael, it's the sort of committee-made film you might expect from the offspring of a studio executive. Cruz plays Dr Eva Rojas, a compassionate World Health Organisation representative who becomes embroiled in Pitt's crazy quest to find a sunken battleship. While it's not implausible to envisage Cruz with a medical degree, it's just the sort of assembly-line role studios foist upon her.
Cruz identified with her character in Sahara, having spent some time in India, assisting Mother Theresa's charity work. "I have been involved in adventures myself, trips that changed my life," she says. "I've been in even more difficult places, like the time I spent in Calcutta." She was asked to photograph Mother Teresa on the streets, and has also been to Nepal to document Tibetan refugees with her camera. "A trip like that can open your eyes," she says. After seeing poverty close at hand, she says it made her want to adopt - "and give a child a future" - though she was refused because she was single.
Most of the attention around Sahara, of course, will focus on the fact that she and her co-star, McConaughey, have been enjoying a tentative relationship. "We became good friends, and a month later it became something different," is all she will say. They are already set to make a second film in as many years in which they will play lovers - The Loop being a romance between a highway patrolman and a librarian.
Cruz has always made it a policy, whether her A-list affairs were true or false, to flatly deny anything was going on until it became impossible to do so. It's a secrecy that seems at odds with her upbringing in the Madrid suburb of Alcobendas. The daughter of a mechanic and a hairdresser, she was a hyperactive child with a passion for poetry, music and flamenco. Signed up for ballet classes when she was four, partly to preserve her parents' sanity, she admits: "I just wanted people to look at me." In her early adolescence, her attentions switched to acting - the painful discipline of ballet eventually losing its appeal.
Spotted in a talent contest, she made sporadic appearances on television before, at 17, becoming a national fantasy in her 1992 debut film, Jamon, Jamon. She played a tousled minx, and the adulation frightened her to the point that she cut her hair short and avoided love scenes for years afterwards. "If I would have done more of the same," she explains, "it would've been the Lolita thing for three years then 'bye-bye!' to my career."
In many ways, she has never left Spain. Though living in Los Angeles, Cruz still regularly flies back to Madrid and phones her family every day. Homesick for Spanish food and late opening hours, she's evidently also missing her beloved Almodovar. She's set to star in his next film, Volver, a comedy that she says "is the best thing he's ever written", and she has also committed to a second script he has penned for her. Her face lights up when talking about him. "I'm an actress because of his movies - I think he's a genius," she says. "It's my dream. To go there and be in Spain for four months working with him is the perfect situation. No other project, no other director could make me happier - in a place where my family is also!"
While entrusting him to get her career back on track, she has also just completed Chromophobia, a London-set ensemble drama co-starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes. Cruz plays a prostitute dying of cancer. "I want to do something that makes me feel when I read it," she says. "I don't want to be bored, where I think, 'OK, I already know how to do that'. I don't like the easy stuff." After being blinded by the bright Hollywood lights, it seems as if Cruz wants to be a serious actress again.
'Non ti Muovere' opens today. 'Sahara' is released on 8 AprilReuse content