Penelope Cruz: 'I'm still very star-struck'

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Penelope Cruz is one of the biggest names in film, but she remains in awe of her directors, she tells Kaleem Aftab

Penelope Cruz is a little distracted. I've only just sat down opposite her in a bar in Toronto when she asks her publicist: "Do we really need that much time to get to the airport?" Dressed in black trousers and a matching jacket, the Spanish star starts tapping away on her phone, struggling to fit in planning her personal life between the demands of doing publicity for her new movie Twice Born.

In this romantic drama, Cruz plays an Italian single mother taking her 16-year-old-son to Sarajevo, the city where he was conceived during the Balkan war. In flashback the story is recounted of how the young idealistic Italian went to Bosnia and stayed after meeting and falling in love with American photographer Diego (Emile Hirsch).

The director Sergio Castellito has adapted the story from the novel written by his wife Margaret Mazzantini. Cruz was also the star of 2004's Don't Move, the last time Castellito adapted one of his wife's works. Twice Born is a complex, woven tale that only reveals its true horrifying epicentre as it climaxes in the present day, by which time all the characters have demonstrated that they are willing to lie in the mistaken belief that they are protecting those they love.

"That is funny," chirps the 38-year-old Cruz, her attention coming into focus. "Because, one time Pedro Almodovar talked to me about this concerning the women in la Mancha. He grew up with so many women and the women were saying it's better to lie in order to have everything in peace."

When I ask if she thinks you need to lie to keep relationships happy, she responds, "Sometimes, but I prefer clarity and I prefer to know the truth, even if it's hard, but each time you have to weigh it up on the scales."

The Balkan war was raging just as the actress entered public consciousness with turns in Belle Epoque and Jamon Jamon in 1992. Guns were still being fired as international stardom came to the actress in 1997 following her turns in Open Your Eyes and Live Flesh, the start of her numerous collaborations with Pedro Almodovar. They have just completed their fifth film together, I'm So Excited, which is due out in Spain in March.

Hollywood wasted no time in utilising the Spanish beauty. In 2001 she appeared in Vanilla Sky, a remake of Open Your Eyes in which she co-starred with her one-time boyfriend Tom Cruise. But her studio films, although successful, have seemed like dalliances, mere fluff that fills time and her bank balance in between her more substantial work in Europe.Even her best work with a legendary American director, Woody Allen's romantic farce, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, took place in Spain. She joined forces with Allen in Italy for the recently released To Rome With Love.

She says of her habit of returning to work with the same film-makers: "Directors like that are such a present to be able to work for. My relationship with Pedro, Sergio, Woody and Rob Marshall, I feel very lucky that I can work with people that I admire so much. When I'm with Woody for example, I'm very star-struck." She pauses as she says this, not entirely sure of the word, one of the few times that her English falters, before continuing: "I've admired Woody for so long and he's very funny and peculiar. I enjoy just sitting down and looking at him. When he is taking a nap on set he can be in the most strange positions."

It seems that another constant in so many of her key films is her husband Javier Bardem. He played a would-be bull fighter in Jamon Jamon; in Live Flesh he plays a cop turned wheelchair basketball star, and in their most famous collaboration Vicky Cristina Barcelona, made as they had started dating, Bardem plays a playboy artist and Cruz his fiery ex-wife.

Having wed in 2010 and had a son together at the start of last year, the couple are currently shooting another film together, Ridley Scott's legal thriller The Counselor."But we don't have any scenes together," states Cruz. "Always one of us can be working and the other one is free. So for our family it's better."

It's rare that Cruz opens up about her husband. The couple have been incredibly secretive, from their dating through to their wedding. Any details are limited to work situations, or when Cruz drops him into a conversation while talking about something else. For example after she squeals about how much she loves watching the Spanish football team, I ask about her experience of the World Cup Final. "I had just got married a few days before. So it was the perfect closure to the wedding trip.

"I remember when I got back to the Pirates of the Caribbean set and I was wearing my Iniesta T-shirt and everywhere I went, and they gave us a great welcome on the set and, in a way, they almost congratulated me more on the football than for getting married."

Such is her sense of patriotism that she says she has painted her face in Spanish colours and danced in the street celebrating wins. Football has been a source of pride for the Spanish especially during the period of austerity. Twice Born was this week playing at the San Sebastian Film Festival, which cancelled screenings on Wednesday in a show of solidarity with the anti-austerity protests.

But when I mention the economic crisis the conversation turns momentarily tense. The actress recently sent a letter to a Spanish newspaper complaining about the tone of an article that quoted her as saying that she would like to produce films in her home country to give Spanish people jobs.

"I'm used to seeing in the media things that I haven't said, or words being manipulated, but normally I don't say anything. But with this subject it's too important and serious a subject to take lightly, and he completely misunderstood my words. I sent the letter correcting everything that was misunderstood or manipulated because there are some things that you can't concede."

It's a surprising change in tone given how every other topic is dealt with lightness. She's soon laughing again as she describes how over the years she's learnt that it's not always good to answer questions: "I have to edit myself a lot in interviews."

Damn, so we'll just have to wait another time for that long explanation of the problems with contemporary Spain.

'Twice Born' and 'I'm So Excited' will be out in 2013

This article will appear in the 29 September print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

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