ALCOBENDAS, the suburb of Madrid where Penelope Cruz was born, is an ordinary workers’ district. Penelope herself is of the most proletarian stock: her father was a car mechanic and her mother ran a hairdresser’s salon, where Penelope - or Pe, as she was affectionately known - spent many an hour listening to her mum’s clients gossiping about this or that (subsequently, her recollections of these colourful types would prove useful in her acting). Initially, though, Penelope did not set her heart on becoming an actress; as a teenager, she was convinced that dance was her thing and threw herself into ballet classes.
When Penelope was 15, she won her first contract to present a TV programme. From there it was only a short step to a career as an actress. Her first noticeable role was in Bigas Luna’s Jamon, Jamon as Silvia, a beautiful but poor girl who becomes romantically involved with the weal thy Jose, thereby incurring the dissatisfaction of the latter’s mother, Conchita. To disrupt the undesirable alliance, Conchita hires Raul, an underwear model, to seduce Silvia. 17-year-old Penelope needed not just to undress in front of the camera, but also to do a love scene with macho Raul - played, by an irony of fate, by her future husband, Javier Bardem.
Following her first success, Penelope appeared in a string of films in Spain before finally managing to get her career on track with a part in the romantic comedy The Girl of Your Dreams, for which she received the Goya, the principal Spanish film prize. Like many European actors before and after her, she was in a hurry to conquer Hollywood. To begin with, her lack of English meant that for auditions she had to learn her lines by heart and then add a few key phrases, such as “I want to be in a film with Johnny Depp!” Years later, fluent in English, French, and Italian, she realized her dream, playing opposite Johnny Depp in Blow and Pirates of the Caribbean. But Penelope’s principal idol since her earliest days had been the eccentric Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. In 1997 he invited her to play a minor part in Live Flesh. A couple of years later, he cast her as the lead in All About My Mother. This was the start of a long cinematic love affair. Meanwhile, her career in Hollywood was developing in strict parallel with her personal life: the gossip was that she started affairs with her screen partners without thought for whether they were in relationships with other women.
Her crazy shooting schedule and a trip to Calcutta, where she worked as a volunteer in a children’s shelter, finally got to the usually tireless Penelope. But, after suffering another bout of depression, she took herself in hand. A tumultuous change now followed in her personal life. After noticing the sensual Spanish beauty in Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes, Tom Cruise had the idea of shooting a new version of this film with himself and Penelope in the main roles (with the title Vanilla Sky). Later, Cruz maintained, not entirely convincingly, that she played no part in the break up of Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman.
When Pe moved in with Cruz, her father, a good Catholic, angrily remarked that it would have been better for his daughter to date a poor Madrileno than a double divorcee. Nevertheless, Cruz and Cruise spent three years together. This was a period of mixed blessings. The films they did together and Cruise’s patronage helped Penelope establish herself in Hollywood. But at the same time her career stalled: Cruise’s need for total control and his love of the limelight put her in the shade. When the couple split up to the tune of “no comment”, Penelope found consolation in the money she received for Sahara and in the embraces of yet another screen partner. Matt McConaughey.
As well as her personal freedom, she also now gained fresh wind in her creative sails. Her true career breakthrough came with Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, where she played the ex- wife of a famous artist who continues to invade his life, trying to stab him with a knife at one moment and then to kiss him to death at another. She had known Javier Bardem, who played the artist, for many years, but it was only when filming abroad that the actors began dating each other in earnest. After achieving in Hollywood everything she had wanted, Penelope returned to Madrid with Bardem. This was like Odysseus returning home after travelling a full circle. When she married Javier, she stopped working so hard: instead of four films a year, she now does just one.
At 37, Penelope gave birth to her first child, Leonardo. She called her second child, a girl, Luna - in honour of Bigas Luna, who had directed the film on the set of which she and Javier had first met. Currently, she divides her work between Europe and Hollywood. On the one hand, she has recently worked with the classic Spanish director Julio Medern; on the other, she is not above appearing in the raunchy Hollywood comedy Zoolander No. 2. ♦