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Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem are doing their very best to convince the world that it’s not love.

“All I can say about that is he’s one of the most amazing actors of our century,” Cruz says.

Bardem returns the compliment. “She’s just a beautiful actress,” he says. “I remember when we were much younger and met on the set of Jamon Jamon.”

If you’re expecting some tales of young lust, think again. Bardem says, “Thank God we did that movie. I was 22 and it was my first big role and it was her first role. We were young people who wanted to eat it all up.”

Cruz isn’t eating anything up this particular morning, but she’s drinking a 16-ounce glass of carrot juice. Her career is hot with two big summer films: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (now in theaters) and the Philip Roth adaptation Elegy (opening Friday). She’s currently in training to sing and dance in director Rob Marshall’s musical Nine.

And then there are those tabloid rumors about her engagement to Bardem, who she has reportedly been dating since meeting him on the set of the Allen movie.

“Is this the best time in my life? I have a real passion,” she begins. And just when the journalist seems very interested, Cruz adds, “I have a real passion for acting. I’ve had that passion since I was a little girl.

“I always say I try to remember every day how privileged I am to have a job I like so much. When I got my first movie at age 16, I thought it was my first and last.

“I’m able to get up in the morning and do a job I love, and I’m able to live from it. I never forget that feeling. I never want to forget that feeling. Now after 35 movies, it’s very important for me to keep remembering that.”

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz plays gun-wielding artist Maria Elena, who can’t give up the ex-husband (Bardem) she stabbed in a moment of passion.

Packing heat

The woman-on-the-edge character isn’t for the faint of heart, Cruz says. At one point, she decides to shoot her ex and his latest arm candy.

“I was worried about the gun scene for the whole shoot,” Cruz admits. “With Woody there are no rehearsals. So I thought, ‘How am I going to come into a shot with a gun?’ It felt like one of the most difficult things I would ever have to do.

“But Woody wanted me to be this pathetic girl with a gun,” she adds. “So the day we shot that gun scene I was completely lost. Woody is so clever. I think he managed to make all of us forget that we were also doing a comedy.

“I was so blown away at a screening to hear that people were laughing,” Cruz says. “I thought I was doing the most serious and painful drama ever. My character lives in a very dark space.”

When Cruz comes on screen it’s after a suicide attempt. “I didn’t want to play her like a crazy person,” she says. “I wanted to create this reality she lives in. I didn’t just want to play someone who is mentally disturbed.

“I’ve met a few people who are that unstable,” she says. “She suffers and her pain is real.”

Cruz, 34, says that it was her agent who approached Allen for the role after he heard the legendary director would be filming a movie in Barcelona. “I met Woody in New York in a very short meeting — less than one minute,” she says. “But when I left, people told me, ‘You’ve been there for such a long time.’ Woody told me, ‘I saw you in Volver and I’m writing a story that’s not finished. I think you would be right for the part.’ He didn’t tell me anything more about the story or the character.”

Allen says, “I wrote the script specifically for Penelope, Javier and Scarlett [Johansson]. It was so funny to me that Penelope and Javier spent hours in makeup every day talking about these characters. They’re such brilliant actors that they didn’t need to do that at all. They could just come out on set and do the role.”

The three characters decide to live together and have a three-way relationship. “I guess there are all kinds of things going on out there,” demurs Cruz when asked about this setup. “There are all kinds of people. For these three, this makes sense. She loves her ex-husband and he has a girlfriend. She can’t get along with her ex when they’re alone and she thinks Scarlett is the missing ingredient.

“It’s the most natural thing in the world to her to be in this three-way relationship, and I didn’t want to judge.”

Dance training pays off

In Elegy, Cruz plays a doomed student having an affair with a much older professor (Ben Kingsley).

“I was obsessed with that book and have been attached to the project for five years,” Cruz says. “I think it’s a very honest movie. In the film, she’s much younger but becomes the true adult. She’s in this relationship with this older man and he’s much more frightened than her.”

She soon will soon start rehearsals to sing and dance in the movie musical Nine, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman.

“I’m very, very excited. I trained for 17 years and I am a dancer,” says the Madrid native. “As for the singing, well, I did audition and I was cast. Now I’m taking lessons. I’m very excited about the singing.”

Cruz says she would like to try a few more comedies.

“It’s not like I like to suffer in character,” Cruz says. “Some characters like this put you in a space that’s exhausting emotionally. I don’t like doing that on purpose.

“I don’t think you’re only a good actress if you’re suffering,” she says. “I like the characters that put you in a quiet and peaceful space. But this one was not like that. I was very exhausted when I was her.”

So to relax, she would …

“I don’t like getting in to my private life in interviews,” she says with a laugh and then sips her carrot juice.


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