For years, Penélope Cruz was seen as little more than an exotic beauty who could be relied upon to play the seductress. Now, after an Oscar-winning performance, she is finally winning Hollywood's respect. Dylan Howard reports. For a large part of her career, Penélope Cruz was best known as the sultry girlfriend of some of the world's biggest stars, most notably Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey. She gazed out of the pages of the tabloids and stared down from Ralph Lauren billboards. Everyone knew Penélope Cruz, but few knew whether she merited the attention. Not any more. Cruz is now a favourite with film critics, too, whose buzz about her acting ability has drowned out the tittle-tattle about her romantic dalliances. Cruz's coming of age, after more than a 15 years in the business culminated in March, when she became Spain's first female Oscar winner, for her performance in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. For the past 18 months, Cruz has been dating her co-star in the film, Javier Bardem. She has known Bardem, 40, since she was 16, and made her debut opposite him in Bigas Luna's Jamon, Jamon, a role that made her an overnight star in Spain. But she is coy about the relationship, batting away questions: "I am only going to talk about him as an actor; he is an amazing talent." In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she plays Maria Elena, the comically crazed ex-wife of sleazy artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) who is having an affair with two American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson). Maria moves back in while recuperating from a suicide attempt and embarks on a ménage à trois with him and Johansson. Though lauded as Allen's funniest movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway in the mid-1990s, it was not entirely a return to form for Allen, merely a lot better than his latest trio of dismal British-based projects. Cruz is the best thing in it, which accounts for the Oscar. Cruz, a longtime fan of his work, will hear nothing against Allen. "For my entire life, I've been watching his movies and always felt very inspired," she says. "Not as an actress, but as a person. When you see a Woody Allen film, you think about it for weeks and weeks after. Some of them, I watch over and over." So it was a dream realised when he summoned Cruz to Manhattan for an audition which, somewhat curiously, lasted just three minutes and had her agent worried. "It doesn't mean you won't get the part," Cruz's agent told her. "But Woody's auditions are usually much shorter." "Woody had said he saw me in Volver, and loved it, and that he was writing Vicky Cristina Barcelona and if it kept going in the direction it was, it would be great for me. He said he would let me know in a few weeks. Then a month later, when I was in Paris, I received a phone call saying, 'He wants you to make the movie.' There is no bull**** with Woody, which I love." Cruz says Allen has a knack of making his actors feel comfortable. "I didn't see him again until we were on set because there was not any kind of rehearsal process, because he doesn't like working that way. That is a very different system to the one that I know. When we started work I did all my scenes in four weeks, no rehearsal, and everything in two takes. "Woody has a way of making his actors feel really free. I love that he gave me the trust and the opportunity to play somebody so extreme and so different from myself. He expects you to get ready and come to the set with very specific proposals, and he knows very well what he needs from each actor. He gives you a huge amount of trust, but if you do something he doesn't like, he will fight for what he wants. Woody has the whole movie mapped in his head." The Best Supporting Actress statuette confirms Cruz is at the peak of her powers. What is more, it marked a huge cultural shift in attitudes towards actors from outside America. Few foreign actresses ever reach the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Cruz is the first in decades, following in the footsteps of Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren. Her performance won over Allen, too, who gave her a pair of his trademark glasses, as a memento during the filming. "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." Cruz shares a similar affection. "To me, Woody's a genius. His glasses are my treasure. I would love to work with him again and I would not even need to see the script." The daughter of a mechanic and a hairdresser in the working-class suburb of Alcobendas, on the outskirts of Madrid, Cruz left Spain in the early 1990s and found her way to New York and Los Angeles, where her natural charm secured her a spot in the art-house hit Jamon, Jamon. The film burst with sensual energy. So much so, an ashamed Cruz kept it secret from her parents, concerned at their reaction to the racier scenes. "It is true," she confesses, with a laugh. "But that movie changed my life. That director gave me an opportunity when nobody knew who I was." It wasn't until Pedro Almodóvar's 1999 Oscar-winning All About My Mother, in which she played an unchaste but well-meaning nun, that Cruz caught Hollywood's attention. As the film was showered with awards and accolades, Cruz suddenly found herself in demand. A series of big-budget blockbusters followed, including Captain Corelli's Mandolin with Nicolas Cage, All The Pretty Horses with Matt Damon, and, most famously, the psychological thriller Vanilla Sky, which sparked a three-year romance with her co-star Tom Cruise. It was a stratospheric rise, fuelled by huge ambition, a strong work ethic and determination. It hasn't always been easy, though. When Cruz got her first role in an English-language film, The Hi Lo Country, in 1998, she barely understood a word of English. "I would lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I didn't understand what was going on onset, because I didn't understand everything the director was saying or what the other actors were saying," Cruz says. Such was her sense of hopelessness that Cruz would hole up between films at LA's luxury Sunset Marquis Hotel with two stray cats she'd found on the street. "Many times I would pick up the phone and realise there was no one to call, because I just didn't have any friends." But the challenges of language and loneliness didn't stop Cruz from becoming one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood and Europe. She splits her time between Madrid and LA. "Spain will always be my home even if I'm not there all the time," she says. "When I am in Madrid, I live the Madrid way. I get up late - around 11 o'clock in the morning - and eat late, around 10.30 at night. Then I stay up until two. It always amazes people when they visit Madrid how people drive in to dine and go to the nightclubs in the city at 11 at night. But if I am driving that late, I leave my car at home and take a cab." She continues to have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. "I didn't like it immediately, but now it's good. I love my house and my little dog Vino." She can also pick up the telephone to call the who's who of Hollywood. Cruz counts Salma Hayek, Harvey Weinstein, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones and Antonio Banderas among her closest friends. Despite her high-profile dalliances with co-stars, Cruz says the most important man in her life is the director Almodóvar, who after All About My Mother and the acclaimed Volver, has again cast her - in Broken Embraces - which will be released later this year. "We see each other socially and talk about everything, but once we start working together on a film set, that relationship becomes very professional. There is no gossip or talk of what is going on at home. It is a way of protecting our friendship away from the film set," she says. Since Vicky Cristina Barcelona she has starred opposite Sir Ben Kingsley in Elegy, based on The Dying Animal, a Philip Roth novel, and will appear in a movie version of the Broadway musical Nine, with a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren. There's also a plan for a break from movie-making as she joins her younger sister, Monica, in designing a fashion line for the Spanish clothing chain Mango. "It's a very good collaboration," Cruz says. Yet like Penélope Cruz the actor, Penélope Cruz the fashionista has a deep fear of failure, something she never wants to give in to. "If one day I feel too comfortable, I'll give up," she admits. "I'm doing my fourth movie with Pedro and I am as scared as the first I made. But if I am ever not feeling that, then maybe it's time to do something else. I don't feel you can do acting without being terrified because you are playing something abstract." But fear, she explains, is the fuel which inspires her desire to want more success. "You can never be too secure," she believes. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is in cinemas now.