Some years ago, when Penélope Cruz was still on her way up the movie-star ladder, I had a behind-the-scenes adventure with her that gave me a chance to see what the Spanish actress is made of. I had arranged for her to do a cover shoot for Interview, the magazine I then edited, and on the day of the shoot I got a call from the photographer, who was freaking out. She had planned a bunch of fun setups, but the day hadn’t even begun yet and now Cruz’s minders were demanding that the photographer make it snappy: there wasn’t time to do anything but a few basic shots. The huffs and snits were about to spoil the shoot, so I headed over to the location, a nightclub on 14th Street, to see if I could fix things. I quickly sussed out the real reason Cruz’s people were trying to cut the shoot short: she had been summoned for a meeting later that same day with the other Cruise, as in Tom, who back then, in 2000, was still considered Mr. It. I got nowhere with her Spanish rep—apparently our rinky-dink photo shoot was chopped liver in comparison with a meeting with Hollywood’s top gun—so I marched into hair and makeup, where the actress was getting spiffed up for the first picture, and pleaded our case directly. She looked horrified that we’d been made to feel rushed and small, and asked me to tell our photographer that she was honored to be working with her and was committed to posing for all the images she wanted.
The shoot proceeded and the Cruz team backed off till many hours later, when they just couldn’t stand by anymore. “Penélope is very late for her meeting,” one of them complained, explaining that it was to be at the Carlyle hotel, all the way uptown. “Just one more picture,” begged our photographer. This was to be the money shot—an image of Cruz in a tart-yellow Cadillac convertible. Cruz’s people had had it. But still game, and in an effort to keep everyone happy, the actress suggested a bit of multi-tasking: she’d do the photo in the car while it was being driven uptown for her appointment. Perfect solution!
We all rushed outside, only to discover that the vehicle was a mere prop—it didn’t have an engine. (Our budgets were tight, so the photo editor had rented the cheapest Caddy possible.) Someone had the brain wave to put the car back up on the flatbed that had brought it there and drive the whole Rube Goldberg contraption up to the Carlyle. Anybody on Madison Avenue that evening would have caught the hilarious sight of Cruz languishing in a hot-pink Versace dress in the backseat of a car that had been jacked up on the flatbed, surrounded by flashes popping like fireworks. Some of us followed in a car.
The truck pulled up to the Carlyle and Cruz was set free. She flew through the revolving door and into the elevator—at which point I screamed, “You still have the Versace on—we need to give it back!” Penélope jumped out of the elevator and into the ladies’ room off the hotel’s lobby. There, in record time, she did a quick change into her own clothes, handed over the dress, and was back in the elevator with her agent, going up to the floor where her now historic meeting awaited. The whole scene was worthy of a film by her greatest director, Pedro Almodóvar.
Since then I’d run into Cruz a few times (even watched a flirty moment between her and Prince at an awards dinner in L.A.), but we hadn’t really had a chance to talk until we got together for this article. I reminded her of our crazy escapade together and asked her what happened that evening at the Carlyle when she finally opened the door and met Tom Cruise. Not that there was a direct cause-and-effect, but as anybody who follows the real-estate market in Los Angeles will recall, it wasn’t long before Tom was packing up his pj’s and the then Mrs. Cruise, Nicole Kidman, had the family house to herself; soon after that, Tom and Penélope were going in and out of their own driveway. Cruz already had a few American films on her résumé—she’d turned heads as a coked-up sexpot in Blow, opposite Johnny Depp—but the romance with Cruise made her something of a household name in America and put a whole different spin on her image. So I’d long pictured any number of scenarios unfolding on that first evening. Dim the lights. Music, please. Tom seducing Penélope with an invitation to race go-carts or learn how to pilot his plane? Penélope sliding the do not disturb sign on the suite’s front door and throwing Tom onto that big cushy Carlyle bed? Scientology honchos landing on the roof of the Carlyle with their e-meters to measure Penélope’s aura before anybody got any big ideas?
If only it were that interesting. But nope—it seems it was just another night of deal-making. “Tom and Cameron Crowe and, I think, Paula Wagner were there,” says Cruz, remembering a triumvirate of actor, director, and producer. “That evening was when they told me they wanted me to do Vanilla Sky. I was very happy to hear it because I had done Open Your Eyes“—the 1997 Spanish film upon which Vanilla Sky is based—“and I really wanted to do the movie and do it with them.”
It’s funny how things work out. At the time this high-profile job may have seemed like a coup for Cruz, but let’s be honest: I’d rather have gum surgery—even by Cruz, one of whose big lines in the film was “Truthfully, I also work mornings as a dental assistant”—than see that creepy excuse for a film again, a rare misstep for Crowe. It was hardly a move up for Cruz, who was widely panned, not that the script gave her much of a chance. Then again, at least in terms of ambition, Vanilla Sky was something of a peak in Cruz’s early Hollywood career, which also included the likes of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Gothika, All the Pretty Horses, Sahara, and Bandidas. Some of her American films may have looked good on paper, with impressive talent attached, but to varying degrees they just didn’t have it, even though Cruz never disses them. Hollywood, in the view of one director, “didn’t know what to do with her.”
From today’s perspective—when Cruz is at the top of her game, in demand in Europe and the States, both critically respected and, increasingly, a box-office draw—the disappointing days seem long ago indeed. With phenomenal performances in some recent winners, including last year’s Woody Allen gem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, thanks to which she now has an Oscar on her mantel, Cruz is poised to become a new member of the tiny firmament of actresses who began their careers in a language other than English and went on to become truly international stars: the Marlene Dietrichs, Greta Garbos, Ingrid Bergmans, Sophia Lorens, Anouk Aimées, Catherine Deneuves, Jeanne Moreaus, and Liv Ullmanns. Like some of those actresses, Cruz isn’t cookie-cutter pretty—she even has a bit of a schnoz—but her unusual features come together in a memorable aria of real beauty. As Woody Allen says, “I don’t like to look at Penélope directly. It is too overwhelming.”
This month, he’ll have to work hard at ducking her. Cruz will be showing off her talents in two highly anticipated films, one European, one American, very different in tone but which share a theme: Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, a love letter to the art (versus commerce) of filmmaking, which represents her fourth collaboration with the Spanish director; and Rob Marshall’s all-star singing, dancing, showstopping Nine, a tale about a film director’s artistic crises and his refound passion for making movies. This twofer—continued respect in her own country and ever rising stardom in the States—is big news for Spanish performers. In the past only Spanish-American Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) got anywhere near stardom in Hollywood, and changing her name was just the beginning of what she had to do.
Such a rarefied, coveted position in the entertainment world would have seemed way beyond her reach when Penélope was a little girl growing up in the 1970s and 80s in Alcobendas, just outside Madrid, watching her parents break their backs trying to provide the basics for the family. There were three kids, Penélope, then Mónica, and eventually Eduardo. Both parents worked six days a week—her dad, Eduardo, in the family hardware store; her mother, Encarna, at her own hair salon. Penélope was very much “on watch” at the salon, where she and Mónica hung out every day. She says, “It was my first acting school. I would pretend to be doing my homework, but I was really observing the women. I found their behavior mesmerizing—what they were hiding, how they left feeling a little different after they’d been helped to become a little more like whom they wanted to look like. They treated the place a little bit like a psychologist’s office. They would share all their secrets.”
It sounds like Penélope herself was always something of a performer. When I asked Mónica if there was any incident from their childhood that might have foreshadowed what her sister would become, she replied, “Now, when we watch videos from when we were little we fall about laughing because it was so obvious. Whenever Penélope appeared in front of the camera she was acting or singing or dancing or all of them at once.”
By the time Cruz entered high school, in 1987, she was taking the bus or metro into the city at night to go to ballet classes. Sometimes she’d figure out how to finagle a ticket to whatever movie was showing at the nearby cinema (at 13 she was still too young to be allowed to see some of them officially). She was already an Almodóvar fan, having watched his earlier movies over and over on the family Betamax—“the darker they were, the more interested I was”—and one night in 1990 she caught his Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a loony kidnapping/love story/sex-and-bondage caper starring Victoria Abril. That was it. Epiphany time. “That was the day I decided to be an actress,” Cruz says. “I fell in love. I’d found what I wanted to do. I really didn’t want to have to be in an office. I was a good student, but not happy. I thought, I have nobody in my family and no friends who can make a living out of anything related to an artistic profession, but I want to try. I decided to look for an agent.”
Hound an agent is more like it. Apparently she was and is still a bit of a bossy thing—“In our family,” Mónica says, “all the women have a little sergeant in them.” Penélope did her research and looked up Katrina Bayonas, who remains her agent to this day. But after her first audition, Bayonas turned her away for the simple reason that Cruz was too young. “She said, ‘Go home and come back in a few years,’” remembers Cruz with a laugh. “I came back the next week and auditioned again.” A third try, not long after, did the trick.
Her first two movies, both released in 1992, were Belle Epoque, a costume drama, and Bigas Luna’s Jamón, Jamón (variously translated as A Tale of Ham and Passion; Ham, Ham; and, my favorite, Salami, Salami). The latter was a jaw-dropper—a wild and crazy concoction of camp, kitsch, melodrama, humor, class politics, and a whole lot of sex, starring a decidedly studly Javier Bardem and a va-va-va-voom Cruz, who turned 17 during the filming, having lied about her age to the producers to get the part, and lied again to her parents about the nature of the picture to win their approval. In the film, she and Bardem make the phrase “on-screen chemistry” seem mild. Call the fire brigade! (The heat seems to sizzle offscreen too: Cruz and Bardem are now very much a couple.) Her bold, unself-conscious embrace of a role that required her to show a lot of skin and schnog or schtup more than her fair share of the film’s men surprised a lot of people, including her idol, Almodóvar, who made a congratulatory call and brought her in to read for his 1993 film Kika. Cruz says she was very nervous auditioning a scene in the director’s kitchen, but that didn’t stop her from characteristically trying to convince him she was old enough to play the main character, who was supposed to be more than twice her real age. Almodóvar, no monkey, didn’t buy it, but made it plain he wanted to work with her in the future.
The next four years saw Cruz acting in a dozen European movies as well as spending a couple of years in New York City taking ballet classes, going to the gym, shopping at D’Agostinos (which she still loves), and taking English lessons. She had her eye on making it on the bigger American stage, but at the same time her anonymity in Manhattan must have been a relief after half of Spain had seen her nipples in Jamón, Jamón. Besides, how could anyone miss the charms of New York living opposite an old-time gay bar in the West Village called Two Potato, as Cruz did? Perfect training for the next Almodóvar call.
In 1996, when the director handed her a role in Live Flesh—a young prostitute with a big personality who gives noisy, painful, primal birth on a public bus on the way to the hospital—the result was unforgettable, and the beginning of a collaboration as essential to movie history as the hookup between George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn or Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Cruz’s knockout performance—so vulnerable and visceral and sad—takes up the first eight minutes or so of Live Flesh, and then she is gone, but she stays in the mind. Even Almodóvar got more than he was counting on. “She had a kind of strength that was earthy and eternal—surprising in someone so young,” he says. “Many people have told me that they called her after that because they were so impressed by those eight minutes. Eight minutes of real talent is a lot. Judi Dench won an Oscar for those eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love.”
This collaboration came to full flower in her next Almodóvar project, 1999’s All About My Mother, the director’s highly personal, contemporary version of an old-fashioned “women’s film.” Cruz’s ability to carry off the wild twists of plot and tone—the mark of any Almodóvar film—is absolutely convincing. She shows a perfect ear for comedy, but when her character, a young nun in training who is pregnant with the child of a sexed-up transvestite, weeps as she finds out that the oaf has made her H.I.V.-positive, it breaks your heart.
And then came her first foray into Hollywood, though it’s not as if Cruz turned her back on Europe. She remembers, “When I did my first movie in America, I already had my return ticket to Spain.” But the American films were a kind of test of how big a traditional Hollywood star Cruz could be. Whatever else they lacked, what those films did have were major leading men, which led to a sequence of major liaisons, reportedly including Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, Matthew McConaughey, as well as Tom Cruise. The notion began to circulate around L.A. that she wasn’t safe with any leading man—or was it the other way around? She also struck up an enduring friendship with Salma Hayek; attempts by the industry to pit these two “spitfires” against each other for parts only strengthened their bond.
I asked Almodóvar what he thinks went wrong during her period of blah American films. While he’d rather not appear to be taking potshots at American filmmakers, many of whom he admires, he is a truth teller. He said, “It was bad luck for Penélope, because some of the movies were very ambitious, but this happens. They only saw her as a beautiful girl. It is the problem with the market, the agents, the studios, the film industry as a whole that labels actors in a way that is not very subtle at all. The problem is that it happened with 10 or 12 movies for Penélope, and it could have been the end.” Then he laughed: “But I was there to save her. I’m joking now.”
He may be joking, but in fact it was Almodóvar’s 2006 Volver that relaunched Cruz as an actress, not just a movie star. He has described his connection to Cruz during a movie’s shooting as if they “were bound together by a catheter.” Her performance as Raimunda—a daughter who is alienated from her mother and who, by the by, helps cover up her own daughter’s act of murder—was full of gravitas, humor, and surprises. Almodóvar even gave Cruz a prosthetic rear end, which was as transformative as the fake nose that Stephen Daldry gave Nicole Kidman when she played Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Volver earned Cruz a best-actress Oscar nomination—the first ever for a Spanish actress—and it also made other directors sit up and take notice, including Woody Allen, who wrote the part in Vicky Cristina Barcelona for her after seeing Volver. Cruz’s character in Allen’s film, Maria Elena, a painter who is a loose cannon as well as an irresistible temptress—she seduces her ex (Bardem; ah, him again) and then beds his new girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson)—really gave the actress room to show her stuff. She certainly did not hold back on the pheromones. Regarding her famous make-out session with Johansson, I asked who was better: Scarlett or Charlize Theron, whom Cruz smooched in the 2004 film Head in the Clouds. Cruz just laughed. “No matter how I answer that I will be in trouble. Both were pretty beautiful partners.”
Not only is Allen effusive in his assessment of Cruz’s ability, he also seems to have liked the woman herself, after his fashion: “I never thought about her as a person, because when I work I’m not interested in the person except as a performer. When she turned out to be lovely, that was nice, but I would have been O.K. if she had been a bitch.” Perhaps most consequential to Cruz’s career is the fact that Allen tuned in not just to her fieriness but to her fine comedic talent as well—the first American director to do so successfully. “She has a natural sense of humor,” he says. Because of Cruz’s looks and the fact that the camera loves her as much as it does, her comedic flair has often been left untapped. But she could just be the great 21st-century screwball talent, the Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard of our time.
Almodóvar uses this ability very much in his own way, in combination with her strengths as a dramatic actress. One sees Cruz walk a tightrope of emotions in Broken Embraces. Her character, Lena, is the girlfriend of a controlling bully with big bucks. She dreams of becoming an actress, so boyfriend finances a film for her. The only catch: she takes up with the director—with tragic consequences. Cruz plays Lena with a pitch-perfect combination of high drama and understated camp; it is one of the most demanding roles she has taken on. She says, “Pedro would push me to the limit. He really knows how to press all my buttons. You can only go into something like that when it’s somebody you really trust. I always feel like he’s my safety net. Like I can fly and go far, because he’s going to catch me. The biggest [panic] attack I had during the movie was the scene where, for the first time, Lena makes the decision to try to become an actress. I don’t know what happened to me that day, but before and after we filmed I could not breathe.” I wonder who she reminded herself of?
Cruz says the role she has always coveted is Carmen. I think of the moment in the opera when Carmen appears and the men ask her when she will love them. She replies, “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame.” It may be Cruz’s refrain, too. No one has yet stepped up to the plate to let Cruz have a go at her favorite heroine, but when Rob Marshall’s Nine comes out, in November, audiences will have a chance to witness Cruz’s skills as a hoofer and gauge her gifts as a vocalist when she belts out the number “A Call from the Vatican.” The film, an adaptation of the 1982 Broadway musical, is a distant relative of Federico Fellini’s film 81?2—same story, very different feel. The company Cruz keeps in this mostly female cast is nothing to sneeze at: Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Fergie, and Kate Hudson, with Daniel Day-Lewis holding it all together as the film director played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s semi-autobiographical original.
By all accounts Cruz fit right in with the international sisterhood that evolved during the shoot at Shepperton Studios, just outside London. In addition to bonding on set, the cast had its own evolving version of a sorority house—let’s call it Phi Beta Actress—with Loren, Cotillard, Fergie, and Cruz all shacking up in the same apartment building. Loren, for her part, is unstinting in her praise for Cruz. She says, “Penélope is very accurate in her work. She wants to be very precise about what the director wants. And she takes her career very seriously, which she should. I think she loves what she does and it shows on the screen. She has become a real friend. We talked a lot about life and our careers. I talked about De Sica, she talked about Almodóvar. When it was my last day she came to my dressing room. She was crying, and I was crying. This is the first time that I have left a film crying because we got so upset about leaving each other.”
Marshall says he considered Cruz for each of the female parts because of her range, but eventually he and she focused on Carla, the mistress—touching, loving, and a bit of a nutjob. Cruz seems to have wanted the filming to go on forever. Marshall remembers, “She’d be the last one in that soundstage working, and I’d have to say, ‘Penélope, it’s over.’ The day we were shooting her big song, ‘A Call from the Vatican,’ she was out there working so hard. In the middle of the number she does all this work with ropes—she was swinging on them and it was scary and she had formed calluses and her hands were bleeding. Daniel was screaming to her from the back of the soundstage that she is a warrior. We had told her she should wear gloves, but she was like, ‘No, no, no—I have to feel it.’ There’s this huge sheath of pink satin that she slides down on. When we finished the number she had disappeared behind the satin and was in tears. I said, ‘Are you unhappy with what you did?’ She said, ‘No, no. It’s that it is over, and I loved every second. I want to install ropes in my bedroom so I don’t have to let go of it.’?” The blisters were worth it. Cruz takes what could have been a generic tits-and-torch number and turns it into a highly personal tour de force.
‘Penélope was born to be an actress,” says Almodóvar, who knows her better than anyone in the business. “She is someone who is extremely emotional, and if she was not an actress it could be a problem for her. It’s luck she has chosen a profession that allows her to express something that would be too much for a normal person. Otherwise she would suffer a lot. And even now maybe she suffers too much.” Apparently this tendency goes way back. “I’ve always been a worrier,” says Cruz. “Since I was a little girl I’ve always felt that if I had a moment of peace I’d wonder: Are you sure you can afford to feel like this?”
This anxiety is fascinating, coming from someone who is so fearless on-screen. One senses it in the way she clams up when asked about Bardem. I knew she’d been mum about her high-profile assignations for years, so I was expecting her to forget her very good English when I went anywhere near the Pratesis. Still, I was surprised by her mantra-like response: We can’t go there …we can’t go there … It’s not that she pretends the relationship doesn’t exist—one can’t really do that successfully these days, not when everything ends up on the Internet, true and false. It’s more that she is protective of her privacy to a point that is striking, even for performers who don’t like to kiss and tell. (Her wariness of the press may date in part from the early notoriety she earned for Jamón, Jamón.) Her discipline about not even confirming what she knew I already knew—and what I knew that she knew I knew—was both touching and almost comic. There were long pauses and big eyes. (She slipped up only once. I brought up a U2 concert that she and Bardem had attended in Paris, mentioning that I’d heard she was playing air guitar during some of the songs. She squealed with delight, saying, “Javier is even better at air guitar!”) My most nosey Parker question—one that I felt it was my duty as a reporter to ask—was whether the widespread rumors that there was a wee Cruz-Bardem on the way were true. (The blogs have been a riot with their speculation about baby bumps and “strategically placed pleats.”) Here, unlike before, there was no telling silence from Cruz. Instead she answered in the negative but in a rather baroque, roundabout way, detailing how Almodóvar had tried, to no avail, to put that rumor to rest when a journalist asked him about it recently on a red carpet.
She and Bardem, who is famously private, are probably Spain’s two greatest living actors and they’re spicy, which makes them fodder for many a paparazzo’s long-range lens; they seem to be trying hard to figure out how to have a lasting relationship with each other, and not with the world as the third party, as so many Hollywood couples do now. But that doesn’t mean Cruz locks herself up in a tower. For our talks for this piece, she suggested we meet at the Boathouse in Central Park, a very public venue. I imagined her being pursued by tourists and us having to get in a boat to be able to talk in private. So instead, we ended up sitting in my back garden in Greenwich Village. But the boat capsizing would have been a perfectly Almodóvar-esque sequel to our adventure years ago with the flatbed. Penélope making a splash yet again.