Role model: Penelope Cruz on her favourite characters
We catch up with the Spanish star as she celebrates two very different movie releases
It’s day nine of the 74th Venice Film Festival and the scene at the legendary Hotel Cipriani on the tiny island of Giudecca, overlooking St Mark’s Square, couldn’t be more cinematic. Penélope Cruz is sipping tea from a dainty china cup in the hotel’s Oro Restaurant, with not another diner in sight. Her hair is a little tousled and her chestnut eyes shine brightly as sunlight pours into the elegant waterfront room. In the distance, a little fishing boat bobs gently on the shimmering waters of the lagoon; two young men are sunning themselves on the deck, shirts off, bodies sprawled out as they enjoy the last of the summer heat. Roll the cameras and you’d have an idyllic vignette of life on La Serenissima. Except all is not quite what it seems.
“They are paparazzi,” says the press attaché with an exasperated sigh, pointing to the boat. “But what can anyone do when they are on the water?” she adds as I’m introduced to Cruz, who is sitting with her back to the restaurant’s panoramic windows, away from prying eyes. The sun-worshipping photographers, though innocuous enough as they enjoy their lunchtime riposo, are a reminder of the downside of movie stardom. Even here at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, which prides itself on discretion, total privacy uninterrupted by camera flashes is impossible.
Cruz, however, appears unfazed by the boatmen. In fact, she seems relaxed, happy and even a little sleepy, which only adds to her charm. At 43, she’s as striking as ever. The bewitching combination of her features – those dark almond- shaped eyes, pillowy lips and seductive smile – are really quite disarming up close. No wonder Woody Allen was so enamoured with the actress when the two first met. The director, who cast Cruz in his 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona – for which she subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – famously commented at the time, “I don’t like to look at Penélope directly. It’s too overwhelming.”
Yet the Spanish actress is warm and talkative, using her hands expressively as she speaks. Cruz pauses thoughtfully before each answer, careful to get her point across, particularly when describing the female characters she has portrayed. “I don’t have to like all of them; I just have to understand them,” she opines when asked what role empathy plays when taking on a new project. “But there are characters that I am more attached to.” She smiles as if recounting memories of time spent with old friends. “Magda in Ma Ma I like very much, for example, and I love Raimunda in Volver, even if she is hardcore in many ways. She is representative, I think, of strong women.” It’s true that both female characters are as headstrong as they are stoical, and passionately protective about the people they love, despite their own hardships. Raimunda, the heroine of Pedro Almodóvar’s bittersweet 2006 comedy drama, is the lioness- like mother who will go to any lengths to protect her vulnerable daughter, while in 2015’s Ma Ma she plays a single parent with breast cancer, who won’t let her own tragic prognosis overshadow her right to happiness.
It’s fair to say that Cruz’s most memorable characters are a beguiling mix of flawed and fragile, obstinate and feisty. She brings them to life thanks to her own unique blend of smouldering sensuality, maternal grit and soft femininity. The potency of this formula varies, but the essence of her character- making relies on this emotionally layered approach. In Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, she breaks our hearts as a pregnant, HIV- positive nun; in Rob Marshall’s musical Nine she turns up the heat – and the melodrama – as the sexy but needy burlesque dancer involved with her womanising director, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.
In this year’s The Queen of Spain, Cruz dazzles as a 1950s movie diva living under Franco’s dictatorship, carrying her own with a subtle humour to match the film’s farcical plot twists. And, of course, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona we see the full effect of this on-screen alchemy in her performance as Maria Elena, a passionate but hilariously unhinged artist involved in a love triangle with an American tourist (Scarlett Johansson) and her ex-boyfriend (Cruz’s real-life husband Javier Bardem). She will also soon be seen in the television drama American Crime Story: The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, cast as fashion tigress Donatella Versace.
“I feel lucky that I can play a lot of complex women,” says Cruz, pouring herself another cup of fragrant tea. “They are not perfect and they are not heroines. They are going through a lot of struggles, and some of them are not making the best choices in life. The older I am, the more interesting the characters are. It’s been like that for a while. I cannot complain in terms of the material that I get offered,” she says, eyes bright and sincere.
Last night, Cruz and her husband Javier Bardem attended the Venice Film Festival premiere of their new movie Loving Pablo, a biopic about drug lord Pablo Escobar’s relationship with Colombian journalist Virginia Vallejo. It was an emotional return to the Biennale, marking 25 years since they first participated in the event as co-stars: in 1992, the pair arrived together to promote Bigas Luna’s cult classic Jamón Jamón. Cruz was just 16 in the film, Bardem a fresh-faced 22-year-old. Now married with two children, their transition from romantic – if controversial – on- screen lovers to Spain’s real-life golden couple is nothing short of fairytale, which guarantees a lot of media attention whenever they appear together in public. Suffice to say, last night’s photocall was lengthier than anticipated, hence her laid-back manner today.
“It was great, because the public was so warm and loving with us. They were clapping for 15 minutes non-stop,” says Cruz, recounting the welcome that she and Bardem received on the red carpet the previous night. “A lot of feelings flooded back for me: being here for the first time [in 1992] and bringing our first movie to the festival, and seeing Jack Lemmon getting on a boat... I remember that Javier and I could not believe it. We were saying, ‘Wow, Jack Lemmon – look! He worked with Billy Wilder!’ We were flipping out!” Throughout our interview, Cruz peppers the conversation with endearing Americanisms, but she is passionately protective of the work she’s put in to forge a successful international career. Right from the get-go, she rejected the prescribed mould assigned to foreign female actors working in Hollywood: that of being bound by her culture and destined to always play the ‘outsider’. Instead she went for the leads, winning parts that could have easily have been offered to actors with English as their mother tongue (think back to Vanilla Sky and even to the fourth instalment of the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). She has now starred in more than 20 Hollywood movies and is the first Spanish actress to have won an Academy Award.
“I studied French before English and then Italian,” explains Cruz. “I have tried to turn this into an advantage by saying, ‘OK, I am European, I am Spanish, but I want to work in many languages.’ Yes, I have an accent, but I have made movies in four languages, including two in France and two in Italy. I have worked very hard for that. For the movie Non Ti Muovere [Don’t Move] I had to speak Italian with no Spanish accent at all, only a small touch of Albanian. It was eight hours of lessons a day for months. At the end, I just wanted to strangle my teacher and he wanted to strangle me, but we went through it and we made it happen. [Laughs.]”
Making it happen is indeed what Penélope Cruz has done all her professional life. She’s not from an acting family: her late father was a car mechanic and her mother ran a beauty salon in the suburb of Madrid where she and her siblings – sister Mónica and little brother Eduardo – grew up. Cruz moved to New York at 19 to learn English and pursue her ambitions as a dancer; she studied ballet for 17 years, but the pull of the movie set proved stronger, thanks in part to her idolisation of Almodóvar, whose film sets she would seek out in Madrid as a teenager. It wasn’t long before he took notice, casting her as a young prostitute in Live Flesh, which opens with a compelling eight-minute sequence of Cruz’s character giving birth on a bus. This was the start of one of cinema’s most fruitful pairings: actor and director have now collaborated on six films, and Cruz cites Almodóvar as the one of the most important male figures in her life. The other is, of course, Bardem, although she admits that working with her husband raises some challenges. “I enjoyed making this movie [Loving Pablo] but some scenes were very hard to do,” says Cruz. “They are very dark and, of course, it’s uncomfortable to go to some of those places. You cannot take home the energy of those scenes or characters. But I look back and I think, ‘We did it and we survived!’ I’m very proud of the movie, and Javier is amazing in it. The three of us have known each other 30 years. Well, me and Fernando [León de Aranoa, the director] go back 30 years, and Javier and I only 25,” she adds with a mischievous smile.
Cruz is already on her next project: she has just finished work on Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp, and she and Bardem are currently two weeks into shooting Spanish-language film Todos Lo Saben [Everybody Knows], by Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
“Farhadi, to me... well, he is a genius,” she says, clenching her hands together. Todos Lo Saben is a thriller about a couple whose lives are turned upside down during a family visit to Madrid. “We will work for 15 weeks, until the end of November. I really can’t wait until Monday to go back to the set, because you learn so much from him [Farhadi]. He uses time to get truth out of his scenes.”
But how she has found jumping from Versace to Agatha Christie to Farhadi’s drama in such quick succession? “In order to prepare for each role, you need a lot of time, but you still have time for a life,” Cruz says. “You’re not working five days a week for the whole year except for 15 days of holidays, like my parents did. They worked really hard. We work hard, but it comes in intense periods. It balances out.” Aside from her career in front of the camera, Cruz is also known for her fashion partnerships, having designed capsule collections for Mango, Agent Provocateur and Italian handbag label Carpisa with her sister Mónica. “I always make a point of working with accessible brands as well as luxury ones,” she explains. “I never look at something that is more exclusive as better.”
Today, Cruz is wearing a burgundy peplum frilled top with a matching mermaid-style skirt that splays into a cascade of laser-cut shapes just above the knee. “I have no idea where it’s from!” she laughs as she stands up, lifts her soft mane of curls and invites me to read the inside label of her top. It’s Jonathan Simkhai. “I love it. It looks just like Alaïa, non?” she teases.
Her diamond and emerald earrings, which she has played with throughout our conversation, are by Atelier Swarovski and are part of the label’s special ten-year anniversary collection. Remarkably they are cast from lab-grown stones and share the same optical, chemical and physical attributes as mined diamonds and emeralds. “I just love what they’re doing,” says Cruz of this new eco-friendly high-jewellery initiative. “This is true sustainability, and we have to take care of the signs that the planet is giving us.”
On a parting note, I ask about her favourite jewellery pieces, those that carry special personal memories. “My grandmother’s ring was the most important thing to me, but it was stolen many years ago,” she says. “It was just a simple garnet stone from the Czech Republic – not expensive, but the most important thing I had because it was irreplaceable.” Cruz gives one of her signature long pauses, then her tone suddenly changes.
“I know what I will do,” she says softly and cunningly, fixing me with those big doe eyes of hers. “I will design it again in her honour.” And with that, she must leave for the airport, to resume work on set and to see her beloved children. Making it happen: it’s certainly a good motto to live your life by, even if you are an international movie star.
Story Alexandra Zagalsky
Images by Greg Williams