The Broken Embraces star Penélope Cruz talks to Kaleem Aftab about her career, her new projects and her role as inspiration to some of cinema's most celebrated directors She may now be the subject of speculation as rumours of pregnancy swirl around her, but Penélope Cruz appears to be far more interested in talking about her latest performance in the new Pedro Almodóvar film than in her off-screen relationship with the actor Javier Bardem. In Broken Embraces, her fourth film with the flamboyant director, Cruz plays the woman of a filmmaker's dreams, the love he cannot forget.
She is an aspiring actress who triumphs over adversity. With her natural beauty and sassy charm, it's a role made for Cruz, but then again, that's probably because Almodóvar had her in mind when he wrote the part. The 35-year-old actress says of her working relationship with the director: "It's difficult to explain. We have something with each other, we connect, we understand each other very well. I was 17 when I met him and since then it has been like that, and now we have developed a good friendship working together. We also hang out as friends and talk about everything in our lives."
Cruz first appeared in an movie directed by Almodóvar in 1997, the film noir Live Flesh. It was here that Bardem handed over the baton to Cruz to become the director's new muse. Two years later, she was in a much more prominent role, as a nun in All About My Mother. In 2007, Cruz was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Volver, in which she plays a hard-working mother trying her best to raise a teenage daughter.
Almodóvar knows what strings to pull to get the best out of the actress, but it's a relationship that is continually evolving. "He's been a very good friend to me, someone I know I can count on," Cruz says. "And then we have the work relationship that always changes a little bit when we are on the set. The friendship is there, but it is more like a director-actor relationship - we don't talk about our private lives and we don't go out at night. It changes in a natural way to protect both the work relationship and the friendship because when you know someone too well you can sometimes cross the line. I think we have maintained a good balance."
There is no timidity when they are on set. It's a relationship that Cruz believes is governed by honesty. "I can tell him my opinion. I can say my doubts or if I want to try to change something, but he is very honest," she says. "He will say if it is OK to change it and if not he will say: 'No, find a way, you have to say it how it is written.' He listens, but he's very specific about what he wants."
This will sometimes involve the director setting Cruz homework. "Sometimes he is reading a book and says: 'Read this. I might make a movie out of this one.' Or when we are working he asks me to see things for references. In Broken Embraces this happened many times, because we do little homages to a lot of different actresses at different moments of their careers. In Volver we watched so many movies from the Italian neo-realists, many that I had seen before but I was watching over and over to get the energy of those women, how they speak, the way they move. He wanted something very specific."
In Broken Embraces, a more comic touch was demanded of the actress as she flits from melodramatic fictional soap character to director's muse. This is something that Cruz managed with remarkable ease in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which she won an Oscar for her role as Bardem's soulmate. "Sometimes people think comedy is easier but it's hard, because it's a very delicate and subtle tone, especially with Pedro," she says. "It is like an orchestra, very precise. I don't think it's easier at all."
Cruz's journey to international superstar and Oscar winner is a classic Cinderella story. The actress was born in Madrid to a hairdresser mother and a mechanic father. She studied ballet as a youngster and it was while dancing in a music video for the Spanish group Mecano that Cruz first made her mark. When she moved into acting, she proved herself willing to take on risqué roles in the French TV serial Serie Rose and in her first major feature film, Fernando Trueba's hilarious Jamón, jamón. The director then cast Cruz in the Oscar-winning Belle Époque. Her early run of fine performances in great films continued when the actress appeared in Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes in 1997.
Then Hollywood came calling. But after her turn opposite Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses, Cruz's career seemed to hit a cul-de-sac. Talk became centred on her modelling contracts, product endorsements and personal life rather than her films, which included Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, an ill-fated remake of Open Your Eyes starring Tom Cruise. Another disappointment was the much-anticipated adaptation of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. But whenever the actress returned to Spain to work, the improvement in her work was marked.
On working in Spanish as opposed to English, she says: "More relaxed? No. it is important for me to work in my language and in my country, and I don't want to say goodbye to that. I love being able to do both. But I don't feel more relaxed or more secure, because every time I'm making a movie, I feel insecure and I feel scared, and that's part of the way I work. If one day I'd be on the set feeling too secure, that would really scare me even more. I wouldn't be able to find it."
Nonetheless, it was still unexpected that she would win an Oscar for an appearance in an English-language Woody Allen film. She says: "If someone had told me that all of this was going to happen, that I'd work with Pedro so many times, that I would win an Oscar and work with all these amazing directors and actors and actresses, I don't think I would have believed it. I grew up in a place where I didn't know anybody who could make a living out of a job related to art - that seemed like science fiction. Even to become an actress and be able to eat seemed almost impossible. I never thought that I could have a real film career working with all these people. I wanted to, but I didn't think it would be possible."
She is remarkably candid about the differences between working with Allen and Almodóvar. "I loved the experience of working with Woody and I loved working with Pedro. They are so different. One rehearses a lot, the other doesn't rehearse ever, but it is good when you know you are working with a genius like the two of them. You know you can really trust them when you go into that adventure. When you ask what do you want me to do and it sounds crazy, then I know it will work, because you know you can trust them."
Despite the Oscar and the acclaim, she remains modest about her success, saying that she operates in a director's medium. "I think I am very lucky with the variety of characters they are offering me. Even if I want that, they don't give them to you, you can't do it by yourself. So I feel grateful that all these great directors are trusting me over and over again." However, that is downplaying her talents, which have recently seen her being compared to a young Sophia Loren. It's a comparison that she has heard before, but she's quick to pour water over it: "That is too big of a compliment. I just worked with Sophia and I adore her. She is an amazing woman and she has been very good to me. She is a lovely woman, so warm and so open. The film is called Nine, it's a musical. We all sing and dance."
Cruz laughs as she says this. Shooting the adaptation of the Broadway hit musical took place at Pinewood studios in London. The film is being directed by Chicago's Rob Marshall and features Daniel Day-Lewis as a famous film director who is struggling with his women, who include such luminaries as Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson in addition to Cruz. The actress said that making a musical was unexpectedly difficult. "We trained for many months," she recalls. "We had lessons for the songs and for the routines. I remember the morning we had to record the songs, the song that I sing by myself, we recorded at Abbey Road, where the Beatles made The White Album and it was very impressive. You go there and wait, and now it is your turn to open your mouth and sing. I remember being very nervous that day. I thought I couldn't have contact with any human being, that everything would make me nervous or take my concentration away. I got too much inside my head, too much worry. But I think everyone goes through this because when you have to sing, it's a very different experience. You become very vulnerable, you can't hide anything and most of us were new to the experience. But it was so much fun. After you are there and you start singing and dancing and things come together, you can really be in the moment and it is an amazing experience."
It seems that Cruz just can't stop embarking on amazing new experiences. Luckily, her public profile means that these are adventures we will get to enjoy nearly as much as she seems to herself.