When Penélope Cruz was 18, she was blow-drying her hair one day at her home in Madrid and the phone rang. Her first film, Jamón, Jamón, with its casual nudity and sexy plot, was a sensation in Spain, and Cruz was an emerging star.
That afternoon, she was listening to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Mission, mostly because she loved the music the composer had written for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Pedro Almodóvar’s instant classic. “I listened to The Mission every day, all day, for a month,” Cruz told me with her usual mix of adult passion and childlike intensity. “That way, in my mind, Pedro was present in my house. My biggest goal was to work with Pedro.”
Her then boyfriend answered the phone and told Cruz that Almodóvar was on the line. She thought it was a joke, some kind of prank, and came to the phone expecting to talk to an impostor. “But it was that voice!” Cruz exclaimed, as if the phone call had just happened. “That ‘hello’ changed everything.”
Although Cruz was eventually wooed from Spain to Hollywood, where she would star in dozens of movies in which she all too often played the beautiful, exotic love interest, it was Almodóvar who saw beyond her looks. When he cast her in Volver in 2005, he made her the centerpiece of his film—a complex, sexy, real woman. It was personal: In many ways, Cruz was playing a character based on Almodóvar’s own mother—Volver is the only film the director has shot in his hometown. Speaking in her native language, playing the richest, most varied part she has ever been offered, Cruz was captivating. After Volver, and after more than a decade in the movie business, she was discovered as a serious actress.
In 2007 Cruz was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for Volver, and in 2009, she went on to win best supporting actress for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She recently appeared in Allen’s To Rome With Love as a businesslike prostitute, and later this fall, she will star in Venuto al Mondo (Twice Born), an Italian film set in the nineties amid the Bosnian war. Cruz speaks Italian in both movies, but she will return to Spanish in Almodóvar’s next project, I’m So Excited, in which, for the first time, he has cast her alongside Antonio Banderas. As always with Almodóvar, the plot is a secret.
When I interviewed Cruz in 2006, she told me she was longing to work with Javier Bardem. Although they had briefly appeared opposite one another in Jamón, Jamón, Cruz said: “It’s so obvious that we would make a great onscreen couple. Why are we not working together?” Allen may have been listening: He cast Bardem and Cruz as battling lovers in Vicky Cristina, and the two are now married and have a son, named Leo. Though Cruz has always been fiercely protective of her personal life, she is even more private when it comes to her child. “She would like to shoot the paparazzi who try to take his picture,” Almodóvar only half-joked. “But seriously, I always knew Penélope would be an amazing mother. She has no fear of love. You can see that in her work.”