In the annals of Hollywood success stories, Penélope Cruz’s rise to stardom is typically described as quick and easy—maybe a bit too quick, and too easy. According to the standard version, Cruz, the daughter of a mechanic and a hairdresser, broke out in her native Spain in the mid-Nineties and then found her way to Los Angeles, where her natural charm and exotic-Bambi allure instantly scored her a spot as America’s next top Latin ingénue. Before long the young actress was appearing alongside A-list kingpin Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky and—bingo!—moving into his Beverly Hills compound. Even though she eventually moved out, and her career went sideways for a while, with roles in duds like Sahara and Bandidas, Cruz kept right on working, not to mention dating Matthew McConaughey, until the buzz about her acting talent finally drowned out the gossip about her love life. Thanks to a bravura performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, as a working-class mother in a clingy cardigan, Cruz snagged an Oscar nomination and had critics hailing her as a 21st-century Sophia Loren.
That take on the actress’s biography is neat and tidy, but according to Cruz, it leaves out a few key details. Like the moments on the set of her first English-language movie, The Hi-Lo Country, when she locked herself in the bathroom, crying, because her English was so iffy that she didn’t understand what her castmates were saying. Between films she used to hole up at L.A.’s luxury Sunset Marquis hotel with the two stray cats she’d found on the street. “Many times I would pick up the phone and realize there was no one to call, because I didn’t have any friends,” she remembers. Cruz still gets practically ill if she goes to the Sunset Marquis and tries to venture past the bar. “I cannot even look at those rooms now,” she says. “I have a weird physical reaction. Everything comes back from those years.”
Of course, there’s little reason for Cruz to hang out in West Hollywood hotel rooms anymore. She has a house in Los Angeles and another one near Madrid, where she’s currently shooting Almodóvar’s next film, Broken Embraces. On a warm May afternoon, as she settles into a seat on the terrace at the Madrid Ritz, Cruz is the picture of low-key poise, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, her head capped with a cylindrical wicker object that on many people would look like an upside-down wastebasket but on her looks like what it is—a chic straw hat.
Just seconds after she sits down, however, Cruz’s composure is tested when a Chanel-clad woman approaches with a camera and a young boy in tow. The woman tells Cruz that her son just celebrated his First Communion and is dying to have his picture taken with her. Cruz, polite but skeptical, turns to the kid and asks him if he actually wants a photo. “I don’t care,” he says with an embarrassed shrug. So Cruz declines the request, and the woman walks away. “You know what? That boy doesn’t even know who I am,” Cruz says. “He was very uncomfortable. I don’t like it when people use their kids for things like that.”