Her well-honed figure and amazingly beautiful face mean that Penelope Cruz is always in demand as a model. But she is one of the few for whom talent as an actor remains the most important thing. She has never been afraid of seeming silly or unglamorous if that is what her role requires
Penelope Cruz is not the first foreign actress to conquer Hollywood, but she is the first spaniard in the history of film to receive an oscar – for her role in Woody allen’s vicky, Cristina, barcelona. realizing that Cruz is not simply a great beauty, but also a brilliant actress who is up there with the divas of italian neorealism, many directors have kept inviting her back – among them, the spaniards Fernando trueba and bigas luna, the italian sergio Castellito, and the american maestro Woody allen. the eccentric, burlesque Pedro almodovar actually regards Penelope as his muse.
Penelope Cruz was born in the little town of alcobendas not far from madrid. spain has always been very provincial when it comes to film, and in childhood Penelope dreamed of becoming a star not in cinema, but in ballet. From the age of four she went to ballet school, but her fate was decided when she saw Pedro almodovara’s tie me up! tie me Down! and was inspired to start looking for an agent. she had her first proper role in bigas luna’s Jamon, Jamon (1992), a story full of the pungent reek of sex, which luna shamelessly equated with sensual pleasure from food; young Penelope was the tasty morsel which all the male characters in the film desired to swallow. the nakedness of her 18-year-old body looked completely natural on screen, but when she saw the completed film, Penelope fell into depression.
“There was too much of my naked body. i couldn’t cope. i spent a week crying my eyes out and then i cropped my hair and for a long time tried to suppress my sensuality and conceal my femininity.” in Jamon Jamon Penelope played her first sex scene – with the young Javier bardem. after this memorable debut directors were falling over themselves to offer Penelope roles in films in spain, but what she dreamed of was Hollywood – and so when she was 20, she set off for new York to continue her ballet training and learn English. at casting sessions in america she had difficulty making herself understood in English and knew only her own lines off by heart. “to begin with, i learned just a few simple phrases in English, like ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ and ‘i want to be in a film with Johnny Depp!’”
In 1997 Penelope’s long-established idol, Pedro aldmodovar, asked her, still only just starting out as an actress, to play a minor part in live Flesh. but real fame came with the girl of Your Dreams (1998), a comedy about a spanish film crew who come to the uFa studio in prewar germany to make a film. Penelope plays a pretty leading girl to whom goebbels takes a fancy. she, however, falls in love with a russian prisoner-of-war who has been brought from a concentration camp to play a bit part.
“When you meet goebbels, keep your knees tightly together and smile, and when you see things are getting serious, start to yawn,” is the advice she gets from her fellow actresses. and she manages both to survive herself and to save her beloved. For this role Cruz won a goya, the spanish equivalent of the oscar, as best female actress. Her career now began to accelerate, and she was offered a part in a true blockbuster, vanilla sky (2001). Here she repeated the role she had played four years earlier in alejandro amenabar’s open Your Eyes; only this time her partner was tom Cruise. she also fulfilled her old dream of playing alongside Johnny Depp – in Cocaine (2001). but success did not turn her head. “I’ve often thought about the meaning of life. When salma Hayek and i flew to mexico for bandidas, our plane had to perform an emergency landing. it was really frightening, and it was then i realized what happiness it is just to be alive.”
Cruz finally found herself as an actress in sergio Castellito’s Don’t move (2004), where she plays italia, a down-at-heel, lifeworn woman from a slum district. “in this film my character tries to look as bad as she can, as if she’s taking vengeance upon herself for her tragic past. i needed a lot of time to transform myself and get into her skin.” Penelope played the same kind of strong, vital, rather coarse female character in Pedro almodovar’s volver (2006). Her raimunda is one of those women who carry the world on her shoulders. learning that her daughter accidentally killed her step-father after the latter almost raped her, raimunda conceals evidence of the crime and begins fighting for her own and her daughter’s survival. in 2008 Woody allen used this same aspect of Cruz’s character in vicky, Christina, barcelona, where she plays a noisy, scandalous, and hysterical woman who fires a pistol at her artist ex-husband. For this Cruz won an oscar, among many other prizes.
“I was so happy to win that statuette that in the plane i kept on taking it out of my bag.” the artist was played by Javier bardem, and in 2010 Penelope and Javier married – 18 years after first meeting as teenagers on the set of bigas luna’s Jamon Jamon.
If Penelope Cruz may be credited with reinventing the heroine of italian neorealism, it was Pedro almovodar who unveiled her potential in this capacity. now i’m so Excited!, their fifth joint film, is about to hit the screens.