Queen of Spain: The Independent/BFI Penelope Cruz season launches

On the eve of a Penelope Cruz season on the South Bank, and The Independent Interview with the actress and Pedro Almodovar, Geoffrey Macnab looks at her career and the influence of the director
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Not many thirtysomething Spanish actresses have been the subject of major retrospectives at London's National Film Theatre. It is a measure of the esteem in which Penelope Cruz is held – and perhaps a testament to her glamour too – that her career is being celebrated in a month long BFI season. The season – for which The Independent is a media partner – launches this weekend on London's South Bank with The Independent Interview featuring Cruz and her most important mentor Pedro Almodovar. (She is Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg.) There will also be a preview screening of Broken Embraces, their new film together.

The Cruz screen-story starts with a teenage girl sitting sobbing in the offices of a Spanish film production company. She has just been passed over for the leading role in Bigas Luna's The Ages of Lulu on the grounds that she is too young, especially for material as sexually explicit as Luna's coming-of-age story. Nonetheless, Cruz is devastated.

This setback – if it can be described as such – is only temporary. Cruz had been "discovered" a few months before by Katrina Bayonas, the head of Madrid-based talent agency, Kuranda. "Within the company, we have a talent search every year. We screen test 350 young actors and then we will choose one or two – or maybe none – to represent," Bayonas explains. The teenage Cruz was one of the applicants in the early 1990s. Bayonas gave her the text from Ingrid Bergman's role in Casablanca to perform.

"Clearly, she was much too young for that but clearly there was something absolutely amazing in this girl," the talent-agency boss recalls of her first encounter with the future star.

Bayonas set her various further tasks: an improvisation, another prepared text but one more appropriate for a girl her age. Again, Cruz excelled. "She blew everybody's socks off. At the age of 14, she had this amazing connection to everything an actor needs: what was going on inside, her emotions. She was clearly very disciplined, very well trained."

The agent struggles to put into words just what made this girl seem so special. "Yes, she was luminous. She had the passion and commitment to take what she had and make the most of it."

In this period, Cruz (who was born in Alcobendas, a high-rise suburb just north of Madrid in 1974) was still at school full-time. She was modelling to pay for her acting classes and was also attending ballet classes at the weekend. Cruz's early ambition had been to become a dancer. She had studied for three years in the Spanish Ballet with Angela Garrido and for several years with the Classical Ballet in the National Conservatory.

Bayonas insists that the adolescent would-be actress wasn't being pushed into showbusiness by ambitious parents. "But I do know that when she was a child, she was probably not the best-behaved child. In order to get rid of all this excess energy, they put her into ballet class. That's the only decision the parents made."

Bayonas acknowledges that the young Cruz had "a lot of insecurity," but says that this was something that the actress was determined to overcome. When Cruz was offered an opportunity to become a TV presenter, both she and Bayonas agreed that this would help her become comfortable on camera, even if it was a sideways step. She took a couple of roles in small Spanish films. "The second anybody saw her, they were looking for projects – something they could do with her."

The flamboyant and eccentric Luna – the bad boy of Spanish cinema – was among those smitten. "She was just too young to do his very racy material," Bayonas recalls of the early talk about her appearing in The Ages of Lulu, a film about a young woman's sexual awakening.

Eventually, when she was a little older, Cruz was given a leading role in Luna's Jamon Jamon (1992). Even in this very early role, you can see precisely what makes her such a distinctive and unsettling screen presence. She plays Silvia, a whore's daughter. Luna treats her as a sex symbol in the making. The film has barely started when we see her boyfriend nibbling at her breasts (he crudely claims that one tastes like omelette and the other like ham.) There is a lot of nudity in the film, which both satirises and celebrates Spanish machismo. It's a raucous comedy-drama about men obsessed by food, sex and bullfighting. Cruz, however, has a quality a long way removed from the boorishness of Luna at his lowest. There is a delicacy and gentleness about her. (It's not for nothing that critics have often likened her to Audrey Hepburn.) She is soulful and doe-eyed. She combines earthy sensuality with something more ethereal. It is this quality that clearly most appeals to her greatest mentor, Pedro Almodovar.

"If you look at the roles which she has played with Almodovar, she has normally been a good woman set upon by circumstances beyond her control. What Almodovar is interested in – and what cements their relationship – is the idea of female goodness. Normally, it's a maternal goodness," suggests Madrid-based film historian John Hopewell, author of Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema after Franco.

Hopewell believes that Cruz embodies qualities that Almodovar cherished in his own mother. He couldn't find these qualities in others of his muses, whether Carmen Maura (who was too voluptuous and too comedic a personality) or Victoria Abril.

"When I was little, I was always surrounded by women," Almodovar has recalled. "I can't picture myself as a child, that is before the age of ten, with men... I always have this image of being surrounded, not just by my mother, but also by the neighbouring women."

Cruz herself has noted how strongly Almodovar was influenced by his mother, whom she met. "She was smart and funny... I think she was an artist inside. She is present in all his movies," the actress suggests.

There is a certain irony here. Cruz, the sex symbol who first received recognition for working with the ultra-macho Bigas Luna, is seemingly regarded by Almodovar almost as if she is the Virgin Mary. "I've never seen a director love an actress like Pedro loves you," Carmen Maura once told her. There is little that is sexual in this love, though. It is more to do with reverence than with lust.

Almodovar and Cruz work extraordinarily well together. She calls him her "favourite director" and has talked frequently about how important he is to her life. "It goes beyond my career." Almodovar has admitted that, much though he adores his other actresses, it is for Cruz that he feels "real passion.". They have made four films together – not as many as might be expected given how closely they are intertwined in the public's mind. In the first, Live Flesh (1997), she had a small role (as a prostitute giving birth in the back of a bus.). In All About My Mother (1999), she was cast as a young nun made pregnant by a transsexual. Volver (2006) gave her arguably her greatest role in an Almodovar film, as a heroic blue-collar mum ready to mop up the blood and hide the corpse in the freezer to keep her daughter out of harm's way. It was the kind of role that evoked memories both of the roles that Lana Turner used to play in old Douglas Sirk melodramas, and of Turner's own peculiarly fraught biography.

Spain has never been short of pretty and talented young actresses. The question is why Cruz has become an international star while so many others have not have not. Beyond the obvious explanation that she has been the beneficiary of a long working relationship with Spain's greatest living director, Cruz clearly has a drive that many of her compatriots lack. Bayonas says that, early in her career, Cruz sometimes worked so hard, she has made herself ill. Like Javier Bardem (her co-star in Jamon Jamon and Vicki Cristina Barcelona), she was ambitious to work on an international stage. She was ready to speak English to further her opportunities and was even prepared to throw herself onto the publicity trail.

Cruz's international career is uneven in the extreme. In Spain, she was acknowledged as a star from the very first films she made. She was nominated for a Goya Award for Best Actress for Jamon Jamon and for Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque (1992), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Foreign casting agents were keen to use her but not sure how best to utilise her talents. The Hollywood studios seemed to labour under the illusion that she was a latter-day Sophia Loren – an exotic foreign star who could be used to parachute in a little continental eroticism and glamour to films. The comedic qualities evident in Spanish films like Trueba's The Girl of Your Dreams (a Lubitsch-style comedy about Spanish film-makers adrift in Nazi Spain) or the intensity of her performance in Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes (1997) in her Hollywood work. Films like Stephen Frears' latterday western The Hi-Lo Country (1998), John Madden's wartime romance Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) and even Cameron Crowe's English-language remake of Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky (2001), failed to stretch her.

It wasn't so much that she gave bad performances as that there was nothing especially distinctive about her roles. She was an A-list actress, an achievement in itself, but was becoming better known for her private life than her acting. There was also a dismaying sense that she was becoming just another of Hollywood's "pretty Latin girls" – an actress treated with the same disdain as Salma Hayek (later to be her co-star in Bandidas) in this period.

On one level, Bayonas suggests, Cruz was also simply unlucky. For whatever reason, films that "on paper seemed absolutely brilliant" proved to be anticlimactic experiences. "Doing a Stephen Frears movie cannot be a bad thing. John Madden had just won an Academy Award... they (these films) all appeared absolutely brilliant things to do but didn't turn out that way. It had absolutely nothing to do with Penelope."

When she went off to Hollywood and then began a relationship with Tom Cruise following Cruise's break-up with Nicole Kidman, the Spanish press began to turn against her.

"The [Spanish] public has always adored her but there was a time certainly when the press was very angry with her for having gone [to the US]. It was really nasty. It didn't last very long but there was a bit of a "who does she think she is and where does she think she is going?" attitude from the press," Bayonas says.

"Most Spaniards were slightly proud," Hopewell suggests of the public's reaction to the much-covered affair between Cruise and Cruz. "It showed that young Spaniards could go out with the best of them. People who actually met Tom Cruise liked him. They said he was a very nice, down-to-earth guy. When he came to Spain, he was always very good at working the crowds."

Meanwhile, Cruz was finally beginning to display her versatility. One key role was as a near-illiterate Italian-Albanian woman, abused as a child by her father and still deeply traumatised, in Sergio Castellitto's Don't Move (2004). There is something almost absurd about the lengths she goes to in this film to escape her own glamorous image. As Italia, her eyes are sunken, her hair is greasy, her teeth are bad. Even if there is a sense that the actress is self-consciously slumming it, Cruz still gives a very affecting performance. Italia is raped by a wealthy surgeon (Castellitto) who subsequently falls in love with her. It's a grim but compelling drama about two damaged, self-destructive characters. As the woebegone anti-heroine, Cruz rekindles memories of roles played by actresses like Giulietta Masina and Anna Magnani in old Italian movies: women who may not have been conventionally beautiful but who had intensity and passion.

The film also underlined Cruz's versatility. As her range of roles attests, she is equally adept at playing tragic heroines in social realist dramas, heroic mums, femmes fatales, nuns, screwball comediennes and conventional Hollywood glamour queens. Cruz is clearly ready to work in difficult and unlikely locations if a role demands it. When she was amking Martha Fiennes' Chromophobia in London, she didn't balk at having to shoot a scene without security in a kebab shop in Hackney late at night.

Despite her growing fame, Cruz, insists Bayonas, has never become arrogant or self-obsessed. "She is very grounded. She has a wonderful sense of humour. I laugh a lot with her. She is very funny. These one-liners come out of her. She is very much a family girl. She loves her family," Bayonas enthuses of the actress she has now known for more than 20 years. "If there was any possibility that Penelope wouldn't be grounded, the family would kick that out of her in five seconds. But there is no possibility."

Colleagues speak fulsomely of the actress's generosity and kindness. Bayonas, who is still Cruz's worldwide manager, says that she is always ready to help and encourage other young clients in the agency.

Cruz continues to work in both Europe and Hollywood. It's indicative of the way she mixes and matches between art-house projects and studio pictures that no sooner had she made Broken Embraces (her latest film with Almodovar, in which she plays a beautiful actress/call girl) than she threw herself into Rob Marshall's big-budget musical, Nine (an adaptation of Fellini's 8, in which she is reported to perform various sultry burlesque routines.

Still only in her mid-thirties, Cruz has already clocked up an extraordinary number of credits. Counting television movies, her filmography stretches to more than 50 titles. Her immensely lively performance in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Javier Bardem's vengeful and temperamental ex-wife was revealing. All her colleagues may talk about her generosity and kindness, but there is clearly an element of the diva about her. She successfully upstaged Scarlett Johansson, not something that many other actresses around today would be able – or even dare – to do.

Ten years ago, when the BFI staged a season of films by Michelle Pfeiffer, its programmers were attacked for taking an easy, populist route in a bid to boost audiences. Some of the same accusations are likely to come the way of the Penelope Cruz season. However, if you overlook her occasional Hollywood misfires, it is apparent that Cruz has had an extraordinarily varied career and that she has worked with many key Spanish directors. It is no coincidence that their films with her are often among their best work.

Cruz lines: her five most notable roles

Volver

The high point of Cruz's career thus far. She plays a glamorous but very resilient mum who copes with everything the fates can throw at her, whether bloody corpses or ghostly apparitions of loved ones. Almodovar's rapturous obsession with Cruz is evident. When a director likes his leading lady so much, it's almost inevitable that audiences will feel the same affection for her.

Belle Epoque

In Fernando Trueba's Oscar-winning, 1930s-set comedy-drama, Jorge Sanz's young deserter has four beautiful daughters to choose between. Somehow, it doesn't come as a surprise where his affections are eventually directed. Cruz glows as the beautiful young ingenue Luz, the last of the women he encounters and the only one who offers him genuine love.

Don't Move

A gap-toothed Cruz bravely acts against type, deliberately toning down the glamour to play an impoverished and abused Italian/Albanian woman in Sergio Castellitto's gritty love story. After offering a man her phone, she's raped by him; he expresses his regret and they begin a tender relationship. Her affecting performance is the most persuasive thing about the film.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Crashing into the film at the halfway point, Cruz rampages through Woody Allen's romantic comedy. She plays Javier Bardem's ex-wife Maria Elena, a jealous, gun-toting, highly strung artist with big hair who first vies with US tourist Scarlett Johansson for Bardem's affections and then takes quite a shine to Johansson herself.

Jamon Jamon

Bigas Luna's raucous comedy may play like Iberian Benny Hill in its lesser moments, but Penelope Cruz excels as the prostitute's daughter with the beatific smile. Even the indignity of having her breasts likened to ham and omelette doesn't throw Cruz, who brings humour and pathos to a role which easily could have seemed one-dimensional.

'Broken Embraces' and The Independent Interview with Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz, Sat 1 August, BFI Southbank, London. Part of the Penelope Cruz season, which runs until 31 August.

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