Spanish-born star Penélope Cruz talks to John Hiscock about working with directors Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar – and her habit of becoming romantically involved with her leading men
Penélope Cruz doesn’t like talking about her personal life, and blames the internet. “I have a big reluctance to talk about anything that might later be misconstrued,” she says.
“I was not worried before, but since the internet, every time you do an interview, three hundred other people are going to take that story and turn it into something else. I wish I could be more relaxed and funnier in interviews but I can’t because I always regret it afterwards. I take my work very seriously and I don’t want it to be manipulated into something else.”
Another reason for her reluctance is probably her aversion to being asked about her becoming romantically involved with some of her leading men. To her irritation, reports of that aspect of her life have often taken prominence over discussions of her acting, and she has always denied suggestions that she has deliberately set her sights on her male co-stars.
For the past year, the 34-year-old actress has been in a settled relationship with her most recent leading man, Javier Bardem, 39, her fellow Spaniard and multi-award-winning actor whom she first met when she was 16 when they worked together in the film Jamón, jamón and who co-stars in her new movie, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
In between, they have appeared in three other films together, and while they are reluctant to talk about their relationship, friends of the couple say this could be the one that lasts.
When they have finished promoting Vicky Cristina Barcelona, they plan to take a house together in London, where Cruz will spend five months rehearsing and filming the musical Nine, with a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard.
Cruz, who studied classical ballet for 10 years, auditioned four times for one of three roles in the movie before director Rob Marshall cast her as Carla, the sexy mistress. Rehearsals begin later this month and will continue until shooting begins in October.
“I can’t wait to start – I’m so excited,” she says. “It will be hours of dancing, hours of singing and I can’t wait to have my feet bleeding again, like when I was a dancer, because I know that feeling.”
We meet in Los Angeles a few hours before she and her co-stars, Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, are due to meet up with Woody Allen on the red carpet for the premiere of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which many critics say is one of Allen’s best movies for a long time.
The petite actress did not learn English until she was 19, and she talks quickly with a strong accent.
“I wanted to be able to work in other places, not just in my country, so I learned English late and when I was 23 I got my first movie in English, Hi-Lo Country with Stephen Frears and I learned my lines phonetically,” she says.
“I didn’t have any command of the language and it was very painful because I didn’t know what people were saying. I was just thinking what I had to say and concentrating on being clear and understood.
“It was very frustrating and that pushed me to spend a lot of time studying with different teachers.
So now when I am on the set and working in English I feel happy that I don’t have to be thinking about the words because when I do that, it takes away a lot of the freedom and the pleasure of acting. I’m happy that nobody complains about the accent any more and I worked hard for that and I’m still working on it.”
Cruz grew up in Alcobendas, a working-class suburb on the outskirts of Madrid. Her father, a car mechanic, is divorced from her beautician mother but she remains close to them both. After studying ballet, she auditioned at 15 for a talent agent, who signed her immediately.
At 18, she went to New York to continue her dance studies in the East Village and burst on to the international scene in 1992 in the sexy art-house hit Jamón, jamón.
It was in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 Oscar-winning All About My Mother that she caught Hollywood’s attention, since when she has skilfully divided her time between big-budget blockbusters that pay the bills and art house-style films (Volver, Non ti muovere) that continue to build her reputation as an actress.
On film sets she has established a reputation for sweetness banded with steely professionalism. She has starred with a remarkable crop of leading men – Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses, and, most famously, Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky.
Cruz went on to have a three-year relationship with Cruise, and then dated Matthew McConaughey, her co-star in Sahara. “I’ve never fallen in love with someone I’m working with,” she has claimed. “It’s always been afterwards. If something becomes friendship, then maybe months later it becomes something else, but you can never know. It’s always a mystery. You can’t plan those things.”
She fell in love with Bardem while playing his fiery and tempestuous ex-wife in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Woody Allen recalls that during the filming in Barcelona, Cruz and Bardem often spoke passionately to each other in Spanish, and he had no idea what they were saying, although he is full of praise for Cruz.
“She has everything,” he says. “She’s very sexy, is very, very beautiful and she’s also a great actress who can get a laugh if you need a laugh or be tempestuous if that’s what you need. There are no limits on her career.”
After Vicky Cristina Barcelona wrapped, Cruz remained in Spain to star for her old friend and mentor Almodóvar in the noir thriller Broken Embraces. “I think it is the most complex and most demanding of his movies. I love working with him. It is always a very intense experience.
“Pedro and Woody – what they have in common is so much talent that sometimes I cry on the set just from seeing how somebody can be so good at what they do and how they are touched by something that is so difficult to put into words.”
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as in many of her films, she plays a woman searching for happiness, which is something she can relate to.
“In the end we are all looking for the same thing, no? We all want to be happy and we all have different ways of looking for it and finding it. I guess that’s why we’re all here.”
Vicky Cristina Barcelona will be released later this year.
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