Penelope Cruz: The queen of Spain

Penelope Cruz has struggled to make it in Hollywood. That may change, says James Mottram
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It seems there are two sides to Penelope Cruz. There's the renowned Spanish actress, celebrated by such auteurs as Bigas Luna, Alejandro Amenabar and Pedro Almodovar, whose 2006 effort Volver won her the first Oscar nomination of her career. And there's the Hollywood starlet, better known for dating her co-stars than for the string of forgettable roles she's taken. But her latest film, Elegy, an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, has afforded her the best reviews she has ever had for an English-language film.

In this story of a May-to-December romance between a New York literature professor (Sir Ben Kingsley) and his Cuban student (Cruz), it's the actress who steals the show in an otherwise flawed rendering of Roth's faintly misogynist prose.

"Penelope Cruz's high-maintenance allure convinces," noted Sight and Sound's Nick James. Cruz has "never been better in English" crowed the trade paper Variety. No wonder the 34-year-old has a triumphant glow about her when we meet.

"They were not talking about the accent!" she purrs. "I have worked very hard for that. I learnt English when I was 18, as before I studied French, so it was kind of late. I feel like I'm starting to feel more relaxed about [acting in English], but it takes time."

Once dubbed the "Spanish enchantress", as yet she has failed to cast a spell over Hollywood. Since making her English-language debut in Stephen Frears's The Hi-Lo Country in 1998, she has seen a series of her films flounder. In the UK, the trailer-trash comedy Waking Up In Reno, the Bob Dylan-scripted Masked and Anonymous, the 1930s romance Head in the Clouds, the bank-robbery comedy Bandidas and the bullfighting tale Manolete were never even released in cinemas. And Chromophobia and The Good Night might as well not have been, so little impact did they have.

Part of the problem is that, when Cruz has had a mainstream hit, it has been overshadowed by her personal life. During Captain Corelli's Mandolin, rumours persisted that she and Nicolas Cage – then married to Patricia Arquette – were an item. Then came Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake of Amenabar's Open Your Eyes (which also starred Cruz in the same role) but better known as the film in which she got together with co-star Tom Cruise, shortly after he'd split from Nicole Kidman. Together for three years, they split in 2004; a year later, she was dating her Sahara co-star Matthew McConaughey.

Elegy is directed by the Barcelona-born Isabel Coixet. "I feel that from the movies I've done in English, this is the most complex character," Cruz notes. "It's one of the most demanding that I've played, emotionally." It's easy to see why. Playing Consuela Castillo forges her two most popular screen identities. Once again, she's cast as the object of male attention, affection and jealousy. But she combines this with that of tragic victim – a part she played well in the 2004 Italian film Don't Move (where she was almost unrecognisable as a destitute lover) and less so in Chromophobia, which cast her as a prostitute and single-mother dying from liver cancer.

In Elegy, her character develops breast cancer, which is enough to shake Kingsley's commitment-phobic professor from his torpor.

Cruz is currently dating yet another co-star, Javier Bardem. She hooked up with the Spanish actor on the set of Woody Allen's latest movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was recently unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival to glowing reviews. Bardem plays a sexually driven artist who preys upon two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) on holiday in the titular city. Recalling her unfettered turn in Blow, Cruz – who plays Bardem's suicidal ex-wife – unleashes all her energy in a bilingual role that shows Allen has, wisely, been studying her Spanish works as well as her American ones.

Cruz last acted with Bardem in her 1992 debut, Luna's Jamon, Jamon. She played the tousle-haired minx Silvia. He was Raul, one of her suitors and a would-be bullfighter.

"It was great to work again with him after so many years," notes Cruz, carefully. "When we worked together, we were 17 and that was the movie that was a huge opportunity for us." She calls Bardem "a major talent", but stops short of being drawn on their current personal relationship with a swift, "I don't want to talk about that." At least the attention on her and Bardem has been deflected, with the spotlight taken by a particularly hot love scene she shares with Johansson.

"It was all over the internet, making it sound like a porno scene," she giggles. As this shows, Cruz is certainly not afraid to manipulate her sexuality on screen. Earlier in the year, together with her sister Monica, she starred in a music video for the song "Cosas Que Contar", for their younger, musician, brother Eduardo. Playing translators dubbing a lesbian porn film, the sisters are seen sucking lollipops in schoolgirl-inspired uniforms before cavorting around a pool in red bikinis and ripped stockings.

"My sister and I really wanted to do something together with him, because we've never done something, the three of us. So we convinced him and we did it and we had a lot of fun."

At the time, it was thought that the two sisters indulged in an incestuous kiss – but it later came to light that Cruz actually locked lips with the Argentinian actress Mia Maestro. Still, you get the impression that this was all done to tease the Spanish media, who are obsessed with the love lives of Cruz and her sister, a former top flamenco dancer who has gone on to star in the popular TV show Un Paso Adelante.

While the siblings have yet to star in anything together bar their brother's video, they recently shot a campaign together – all fedoras, oversized men's shirts and plenty of well-toned flesh – to advertise a limited-edition clothing line they designed for the chain-store Mango.

With her brother's music career also on the rise, how do their parents feel about having three famous children?

"It's not like that," says Cruz, who remains extremely close to her family. "Everyone is just doing their work. It's always been about that, about working hard and preparing yourself for what you want to do.

"Everyone in my family has had to work very hard. We don't come from a very rich family in any way. It's completely the opposite. That's what we grew up with for so many years. That influences you forever, and I love that about my parents."

Certainly, Cruz's upbringing in the Madrid suburb of Alcobendas was anything but glamorous, with her father Eduardo a mechanic and her mother Encarna a hairdresser. But Cruz was a natural performer, initially gravitating towards dance.

From the age of four she studied classical ballet – though the dreams of becoming a ballerina eventually gave way to being an actress when she hit her mid-teens. After being spotted in a talent contest, she made sporadic appearances on television before, at 17, winning the role in Jamon, Jamon. Ever since then she has refused to leave her roots behind. "I need it for my mental stability, to keep working in my country and spending time there. That's where my family is and that's the culture I belong to."

Cruz has just wrapped Broken Embraces, her fourth film with Almodovar, following Live Flesh, All About My Mother – in which she was memorable as a Prada-wearing nun with Aids – and Volver. Little is known about the film, which Almodovar says will be shot in the "style of Fifties film noir", and Cruz is quite happy to heighten the secrecy.

"It's so beautiful, so amazing and so new," she gushes. "The character that he's given me is so different from what I've done before." Early stills show her as a blonde (well, that's different), while rumour has it she plays a would-be actress from the provinces who is being pursued by an unscrupulous financier.

If Broken Embraces looks set to further cement her reputation as Spain's leading lady, she has also finally landed a Hollywood project worthy of her talents. Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and Nicole Kidman, Cruz has been cast in Nine, an adaptation of the Broadway musical inspired by Fellini's classic 8.

"I've always wanted to do a musical," she squeals. "I did four auditions for this movie. When I got it, I was so happy. I was on the massage table, having a massage, and I got the call and I started screaming. And the massage therapist didn't speak Spanish and she thought I was going crazy! I'm very happy about it."

Diving her time between Madrid and Los Angeles, Cruz claims she leads a "normal life" – though given that she hangs out with the likes of Bono shows her perception of what is commonplace is a little distorted.

"Sometimes it's difficult and you have to fight for some normality in your life," she admits. "You get followed and nobody likes being followed by three cars. However, fortunately, that doesn't happen every day."

'Elegy' opens on 8 August