These days Cruz makes it clear she is not someone who says yes too easily, whether she’s on or off duty. After many years of signing up for what seemed like any movie that came her way—“always rushing from set to set, with the insecurity that comes with being an actor,” as she puts it—she’s getting pickier about her projects. Two new English-language movies, out in August, show off some of her best work yet.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the blithe romp from Woody Allen that was an out-of-competition favorite at the Cannes Film Festival, Cruz is a kind of latter-day Carmen, all histrionics and extreme mood swings. The story follows two American friends (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) in Barcelona who both fall for a seductive painter (Javier Bardem, Cruz’s real-life boyfriend). Cruz plays Bardem’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, who moves back in with him while recuperating from a suicide attempt; in short order she embarks on a ménage à trois with him and Johansson, fires a pistol in a jealous rage and erupts in any number of wild tantrums. Allen, who wrote the part specifically for Cruz, had never seen her onscreen until Volver. “I thought, My God!” the director recalls in Cannes the day after the Vicky Cristina Barcelona premiere. “She’s just a great actress, with such charisma. And she’s beautiful in a way that you can’t quite understand.”
Cruz says the role was a particular challenge since she’d never played anyone so unhinged: “Maria Elena is completely unstable in every way. She doesn’t have a second of peace in her mind.” On the set, Allen worked in his usual rapid-fire way, with few takes and no rehearsals. Cruz, a perfectionist to a fault, wasn’t sure she was delivering and kept asking the director for more takes. Allen always complied, but he says it wasn’t necessary: “Penélope is like one of those kids at school who says, ‘Oh, I did terrible on that test!’ And the results come back, and they’re 100.” After a few days of shooting, Allen trusted Cruz and Bardem enough to let them improvise explosive arguments in their native Spanish, even though he doesn’t speak a word of the language. (“They were just acting up a storm, and I had no idea what they were saying,” Allen recalls. “I just thought, I’m sure it’s great.”)
Cruz’s other new film, Elegy, is based on the Philip Roth novel The Dying Animal, about a doomed affair between an aging college professor (Ben Kingsley) and a younger but wiser Cuban graduate student (Cruz). The professor is a renowned wit who’s an expert on everything except his own self-destructive flaws; Cruz is the dream woman he pushes away. In one powerful scene, Cruz, who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, strips for Kingsley so that he can take some topless photographs of her before her surgery. Kingsley says the scene called for a particularly subtle kind of vulnerability that is very difficult to convey. “For that you need intelligence, stamina and great taste,” he says. “Penélope has those three qualities in abundance.” Director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words) adds that it’s a testament to Cruz’s talents that a nude scene can be so unerotic. “When she takes off her blouse, it’s the least sexual moment in history, even though we’re seeing the most amazing body,” Coixet says.