Pedro Almodovar has had her play a prostitute who gives birth on a bus, a nun who contracts Aids from a transsexual prostitute, and a Madrid mother who hides a murdered's man body in a restaurant freezer.
Clearly a glutton for punishment, Penelope Cruz was back on the red carpet with the Spanish director yesterday, at the Cannes premiere of his noir drama Broken Embraces.
The film, their fourth collaboration, is in competition for the Palme d'Or, awarded this Sunday. At the movie's heart is a furtive love triangle involving a director and his leading lady.
Almodovar spoke frankly to the Cannes press pack about his reliance on female characters – and on Cruz in particular. "The male characters which come to [my] mind are terrible, horrible characters," he said. "My male characters intimidated me somewhat because for a male character I had to take myself as a reference." He sees Cruz as a graduate from the "Mediterranean school of acting... a style characterised by its carnality, messy hair, generous cleavage and shouting as a natural form of communication."
Cruz, 35, who had spent her previous day in Cannes crippled with food poisoning, said this latest project with Almodovar had been challenging. The mercury rose as the actress described shooting a sex scene: "I've never seen a love scene shot that way. That day I thought I was going to pass out." Almodovar has often subjected his leading ladies to fierce contortions but after four outings he remains on splendid terms with Cruz. The pair form part of a long tradition of directors standing by their women.
In 1995 Robert Rodriguez cast Salma Hayek in Desperado, and has also given her roles in a further five movies, briefly but notably as a Vampire Queen in From Dusk Till Dawn. Similarly, the dark and quirky Tim Burton is happy to see a familiar face when it comes to his leading ladies. Since getting together with Helena Bonham Carter during the filming of Planet of the Apes in 2001, he has cast her in a further three feature films, including her Golden-Globe nominated performance in Sweeney Todd.
Sometimes a lady makes her own luck. After Quentin Tarantino cast Uma Thurman as a zoned-out gangster's girlfriend in Pulp Fiction, on the set the two discussed an idea for a Chinese "revenge flick", which almost ten years later led to her starring for him again in two volumes of Kill Bill.
Woody Allen, of course, is famed for his reliance on a small stable of muses: Mia Farrow (13 films), Diane Keaton (six), Dianne Wiest (five) and, most recently, Scarlett Johansson (three).
Almodovar yesterday promised to end his reliance on the female psyche: "I feel less and less intimidated and so you are going to find more and more male characters in my films."
Cruz should consider herself fortunate. Almodovar told the press conference just how specific his direction can be: he said he once performed oral sex on an actress to explain how he wanted one of his raunchier scenes. "In a film I made a long time ago... I even performed cunnilingus on an actress to show the actor how to do it."
Cruz didn't raise an eyebrow.