Born: 28 April 1974
Where: Madrid, Spain
Awards: No major award nominations
By 2002, Penelope Cruz had become one of the most famous actresses in the world. Aside from her cinematic output, she stared down from Ralph Lauren posters everywhere, and there was the small matter of a relationship with Tom Cruise, then daily tabloid fodder following his split from Nicole Kidman. Unfortunately for Cruz, everyone knew who she was, but few knew what she did. Her huge success in Europe, where she’d appeared in two movies awarded Oscars as Best Foreign Language film and a slew of other notable productions, had passed most people by. To them, she was simply Tom’s latest glamorous squeeze. So, having toiled to achieve Hollywood success (not easy for a non-English speaker), then been totally overshadowed by her illustrious partner, 2004’s split from Cruise would see Penelope battling to maintain her position and win the respect she should have already received. The road had not been long — she was still only 30 — but it had been bumpy, indeed.
She was born Penelope Cruz Sanchez in Madrid on the 28th of April, 1974, her first name being inspired by a song by Joan Manuel Serrat. Her father Eduardo was a retailer, her mother, Encarna, a hairdresser, the family living in the working-class suburb of Alcobendas, about five kilometres north of Madrid. She has one younger sister, Monica, a professional flamenco dancer and TV star (she’d break through in Un Paso Adelante in 2002), and one brother, also younger, named after his father. Penelope was a natural performer, mimicking TV ads as soon as she could walk but, from the age of 4, it was dance that captured her imagination and dominated her life. She spent 9 years studying classical dance at Spain’s National Conservatory, including three years of ballet with Angela Garrido, and a period of jazz dance with Raul Caballero. There were also four years of courses with Cristina Rota in New York City. Dropping out of secondary education early, at 15 she beat off the 300-strong competition at an agency audition and became a part-time fashion model. Pursuing drama studies in Madrid, she also appeared in music videos, one being for the popular band Mecano with whose singer, Nacho Cano, she’d have a relationship till 1996.
National fame arrived at 16 when she began to present Kids’ TV programmes on Tele 5. There also arrived her first breakdown. Having studied feverishly throughout her pre-pubescence and teens, then stepped straight into pressurised work, she had over-extended herself and, having to take a break to recover from over-exhaustion, paid the penalty. This would happen again, once worldwide fame was beckoning.
Now concentrating on movies, Cruz found her career progressed quickly. First, in 1991, would come an appearance in Rafael Alcazar’s The Greek Labyrinth (not released till 1993), an erotic mystery where a woman became obsessed with a disappeared dancer and hired a detective to dig for clues among the man’s gay lovers and dodgy acquaintances in Barcelona. Penelope would add to the intrigue as the detective’s precocious daughter, entering the fray in the world’s skimpiest pair of shorts and revealing a rapacious taste for older men. She’d then move on to Framed, a Lynda La Plante TV thriller (later hacked to movie-size) where Timothy Dalton played a con arrested for his part in a major heist and ostensibly grassing his partners. Holed up in a safe-house, he attempts to cannily corrupt his police guards, Cruz adding glamour as the sensuous Lola, one of playboy Dalton’s girlfriends.
These two would have constituted a reasonable opening to any screen career, especially as Penelope was only just 18. But she’d also now appear in two films that would make her a major player in Spain and the darling of art-houses across the globe. In Fernando Trueba’s Belle Epoque, set in rural Spain in the 1930s, an army deserter is sheltered by an anarchistic artist and decides to stay on when his benefactor’s four beautiful daughters arrive from Madrid. Thus begins a warm and charming celebration of sex and the human body as he seduces the young women one by one, Penelope playing Luz, the youngest, who’s innocent but, annoyed at not being party to her more experienced sisters’ secrets, would really rather not be.
The film was a huge hit in Spain, garnering nine Goya awards. It would also take the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. And there’d be more success with Bigas Luna’s Jamon, Jamon, a steamy sex comedy where a rich family ran an underwear factory in a provincial town. When the son of the family falls for Penelope, the lowly daughter of the local brothel-keeper, his mother hires Javier Bardem to seduce Cruz and thus end the shameful affair. But the sneaky mum then herself falls for Bardem and, what with Cruz’s lover regularly visiting her prostitute mother on the sly, the film mines a rich seam of outrageous, offensive, sexy and hilarious fun. Both Cruz and Bardem would be nominated for Goyas, while the movie would take the Silver Lion at Venice. The acclaim did much to calm the furore over Penelope appearing topless, which had enraged her boyfriend, Cano.
Now she served a further six years’ apprenticeship in Europe’s burgeoning and wildly inventive movie industry, first courting more controversy in the Italian production For Love, Only For Love. This was an offbeat biopic of Joseph, father of Jesus, with Penelope starring as Mary who, after a chaste relationship with the poor carpenter, turns up several months later pregnant. He knows the child is not his, despite the talk in the town, but marries her anyway, then begins to lose it when she demands that he now remain celibate. It was vaguely blasphemous stuff, but interesting, as was The Rebel, where she played a 16-year-old dropout, arrested for shoplifting with her sister and sent to a harsh nun-run reformatory. Here, teased by the other girls for being a virgin, she falls prey to predatory boys as sex, love and tough life-decisions enter the frame.
1994 would bring Fernando Colomo’s Allegre Ma Non Troppo where 20-something gay guy Pere Ponce, disapproved of by his father and dumped by his boyfriend, auditions for the Spanish National Youth Orchestra, only to discover that his dad is one of the judges. Enter Penelope as a fellow musician who, with Ponce, wins a place in the orchestra and sets about "curing" the homosexuality that’s causing him all these problems, first by sending him to a psychiatrist, then by seducing him and becoming his girlfriend. It was silly, saucy stuff, all the more so when the ambitious Cruz makes a play for Ponce’s father.
Next came Life’s A Bitch (also known as It’s All Lies), another raunchy comedy concerning dysfunctional relationships. Here a series of couples would suffer problems with kids, sex and money, Coque Malla playing a misanthropist who thinks his miserable life will change if he wins the heart of Penelope, the girl of his dreams, only to discover that she sends him completely barmy. She was excellent as the highly-strung Lucia, winning Best Actress at the Peniscola Comedy Film Festival. More serious would be Entre Rojas, set in 1974 Madrid, where she played a well-bred young woman jailed for 10 years for her relationship with a dissident protesting against the brutal regime of General Franco. Once inside, her horizons are broadened by contact with intellectuals and illiterates, friends and killers, and she regains hope and her love of life.
Having briefly reunited with Fernando Colomo and Coque Malla when she popped up as a party guest in The Butterfly Effect, where Malla played a Spanish student who falls for his own uninhibited aunt on a visit to London, Cruz then rejoined her Life’s A Bitch director, Alvaro Armero, for Brujas — literally Witches. This would be a thoughtful drama where three women from separate generations are forced to spend a day together in a small town abandoned by its population due to the extreme heat. Contemporary Spanish society would be examined as the women discover their differences and similarities.
Having headlined in both drama and comedy, now came a series of productions marked by their variety and inventiveness, Cruz clearly attempting to widen her range. First came La Celestina, a version of Fernando De Rojas’s classic 1499 novel which related the tragic romance of Calisto and Melibea (a precursor to Romeo And Juliet). Here Nancho Novo’s Calisto would employ his servants and wise woman Celestina to woo Cruz’s Melibea, only for it all to collapse into jealousy and murder. Next Penelope would reunite with Novo and Javier Bardem when she took a cameo in Not Love, Just Frenzy, a notoriously graphic depiction of Madrid night-life, rammed with drug-use and kinky sex. This would be followed by Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health which would track a crazy on-off relationship over three decades. Penelope would appear in an early segment, as a Beatles-mad girl in 1965, who breaks into John Lennon’s hotel-room and finds herself hiding under the bed with a bell-boy, while Lennon services a groupie above them. Not to be left out, they get it on themselves, thus beginning the aforementioned sporadic 30-year affair.
1997 would bring a small role in the Danish drama A Corner Of Paradise, starring Samuel Froler and set in the 1950s. Here Froler would play a Swedish botanist and early environmentalist, working on research in Costa Rica, who realises that both the forests and indigenous peoples are being gradually eradicated by Agent Orange-spraying land barons. Romantic complication would be added by Froler’s relationships with his girlfriend and with Penelope, playing the daughter of one of said barons. Then, having produced Jamon, Jamon with Bigas Luna, one of Spain’s great maverick directors, she moved on to the grand-daddy of them all — Pedro Almodovar — then infamous for his Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Live Flesh, again seeing her cast beside Javier Bardem, would explore the complexities of love in a tale of betrayal, adultery, violence and unrequited desire, with Cruz playing the main protagonist’s mother, a doomed prostitute we see in flashback as she gives birth to him.
But her big success of that year would be Alejandro’s Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes, a wild ride of a psychological thriller that saw Eduardo Noriega find what he thought was true love with the stunning Penelope. Unfortunately, his nutty girlfriend has other ideas and causes a car wreck that sees her killed and Noriega terribly disfigured. And then it gets really strange as he wakes up in a prison hospital, clad in a mask, accused of murder and no longer sure what has happened. Has he had an operation to rebuild his face, is he back with Cruz, and why does he keep seeing his dead girlfriend’s ghost? Messing with time and minds it was a brilliant movie, fabulously entertaining and very influential, and it would have a very marked effect of Cruz’s career.
1998 would be a big year for Penelope, seeing no fewer than five releases. First would come an adaptation of Moliere’s Don Juan, following the adventures of an over-sexed nobleman in war-torn 17th Century Spain as he seduces castles-full of women. Penelope would play one of his victims, promised the world but given only a rogering, as would Emmanuelle Beart and Ariadna Gil (Cruz’s co-star in Belle Epoque). After this, there’d be Twice Upon A Yesterday, a fantastical London-set romance where Douglas Henshall would play a cad dumped by his girlfriend but given the chance to travel back through time to sets things a-right. Penelope would play a mysterious barmaid who provides a shoulder for him to cry on.
Twice Upon A Yesterday would see Cruz begin a run of predominantly English-speaking movies. Next would come Talk Of Angels (actually filmed back in 1996), based on Kate O’Brien’s novel Mary Lavelle and set against the Spanish Civil War. This saw Polly Walker as a betrothed Irishwoman who flees to Spain to work as governess to the three daughters of a wealthy family, then falls for Vincent Perez, playing their older, married brother. Produced by Miramax, this bodice-ripping epic had much in common with Gone With The Wind and Penelope, still extremely youthful in her looks, would somehow manage to convince as Pilar, the eldest and most sophisticated of Walker’s charges. She’d then move on to The Girl Of Your Dreams where she reunited with Belle Epoque director Fernando Trueba to tell the true story of a group of Spanish film-makers who fled the Spanish Civil War to work in Germany, only to end up under the beady eye of Goebbels, Minister of Nazi Propaganda. With the team forced to work with German actors, there was plenty of room for comedies of misunderstanding. There was also a sub-plot where Penelope, star of the show (in reality this had been Imperio Argentina) and lover of the director, is forced to shack up with the repulsive Goebbels in order to keep him sweet — an indignity that would at least win Cruz a Goya.
The year would end with The Hi-Lo Country (originally a pet project of Sam Peckinpah), directed by Stephen Frears and Penelope’s first Hollywood production. This would involve a bizarre love pentagon in small-town New Mexico just after World War 2, with young cattle driver Billy Crudup falling for a local man’s wife, a flighty and adulterous Patricia Arquette. Arquette, though, is soon seeing Crudup’s ex-marine buddy, a raucous and macho Woody Harrelson. Penelope would appear as a local good girl and Crudup’s pre-war lover, who tries to persuade him that Arquette is nothing but a tramp. Having spent a week as a volunteer worker in Calcutta, Cruz donated her entire Hi-Lo paycheck to Mother Theresa’s children’s sanctuary (in 1997, she’d also spent two months working in Uganda, along with boyfriend Faiz Ahmad).
1999 would see her back with Pedro Almodovar for All About My Mother, where a woman wrecked by the death of her young son is gradually redeemed by the extraordinary characters she meets, including famous actresses, transvestite prostitutes and Penelope, playing a pregnant nun who runs a shelter. Amazingly, given the quality of Live Flesh and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodovar had not been Oscar-nominated since 1988’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. He was now, All About My Mother actually winning as Best Foreign Language film.
Keeping with the cream of the Spanish directorial crop, she now returned to Bigas Luna for Volaverunt, based on Antonio Larreta’s historical novel about the Duchess of Alba, an inspiration for Goya, a liberal pioneer and a famous beauty. Bubbling over with desire, greed and court intrigue, the movie would see the great duchess poisoned at her own banquet, with Goya, the prime minister and Penelope (playing the prime minister’s peasant mistress) being major suspects.
2000 brought Cruz her first US starring role, and her first major Stateside promotion. In Woman On Top, she played a Brazilian chef in San Francisco whose food and looks make her absolutely irresistible to men but who’s cheated on by her husband due to her extreme motion sickness. The film was publicised with posters featuring Cruz naked beneath a scanty covering of chili peppers, and moved her into major pin-up territory. Now it was the Big League as she starred alongside Matt Damon in Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses. Here dispossessed Damon and friend Henry Thomas would ride into Mexico in 1949, seeking what remained of the Old West. Damon would find work as a horse-breaker for rancher Reuben Blades but would then fall for Blades’ foxy daughter Penelope, a taboo-shattering relationship that would see the couple driven apart and forced to face the brutality of familial justice. Rumours were rife that a real-life relationship between Cruz and Damon caused him to split from Winona Ryder, but the pair insisted they were simply very good friends.
Now came the visually impressive Blow where she played Johnny Depp’s high-maintenance wife in the true-life tale of smuggler George Jung, helping Pablo Escobar break into the US cocaine market in the Seventies (she came to nickname the defiantly idiosyncratic Depp "Martian"). Then came Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, based on the bestselling novel by Louis de Bernieres, where she was the daughter of Greek village doctor John Hurt. First she falls for local fisherman Christian Bale then, when he leaves to fight the Nazis, she’s romanced by Nicolas Cage, leader of an Italian holding force. Naturally, this relationship is frowned upon by the townsfolk and matters are made dangerously complicated when the German army arrives.
Next Cruz would return to her homeland for No News From God, where two angels, one good, one bad, were sent to win the soul of a dumbo boxer needed in a battle between Heaven and Hell (Gael Garcia Bernal would play the infernal overlord, Fanny Ardant his heavenly counterpart). The good angel would be Victoria Abril who poses as the boxer’s ex, while bad angel Penelope would pretend to be his cousin, a demonic slinkster with a vicious right hook and a penchant for drinking and sensuous lesbianism. Abril has few equals in the sexiness stakes, but Cruz managed to match her, particularly when performing a martial arts dance to Kung Fu Fighting and the movie, combining heists, musical numbers and philosophy, proved to be excellent fun.
Back in America, Cruz’s 2001 would end with the most important movie of her career thus far — Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. This was an out-and-out remake of Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes, with Cruz reprising her original role. The major difference was that her co-stars were now Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, with the resultant finances allowing for eye-popping effects, like Cruise running through an empty New York City and a breath-taking car crash. The first part of the movie did not bode well, with Cruise and Cruz involved in a meet-cute so sickly sweet it must surely have offed many diabetic viewers. But soon it settled, and began to capture much of the original’s paranoia and weirdness.
Vanilla Sky would change Penelope’s life drastically. Not only was it her first $100 million hit, lifting her high up the Hollywood ranking system, it also saw her begin a relationship with Cruise. This would have been high-profile at the best of times, but now, with Cruise having recently split from wife Nicole Kidman, it was a tabloid extravaganza, with Cruz coming off especially badly as the Matt Damon accusations had left her with an undeserved reputation as a man-thief.
Perhaps because of the furore, Cruz now kept her major Hollywood projects to a minimum, instead honing her craft in impressive cameos and European productions. 2002 would see her reunite with Billy Bob Thornton for the comic Waking Up In Reno, where Thornton, Patrick Swayze and their wives Natasha Richardson and Charlize Theron cross the country on a trip to a monster truck rally, on the way discovering the roots of their personal dissatisfactions. Penelope would pop up as a Reno hooker who, taking a fancy to Swayze, would provoke him into realising what he already had. The next year would bring another brief role in Masked And Anonymous, a quite incredible Bob Dylan vanity project where the great man would play — surprise, surprise — a vaguely messianic, hugely enigmatic singer pulled from jail for a benefit concert. Dylan’s name would draw a plethora of stars, including Jessica Lange, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater and Giovanni Ribisi, with Penelope playing the religious girlfriend of Bridges’ rock journalist, a massive Dylan fan improbably named Pagan Lace and prone to spouting lines like "I love his songs because they are not precise — they are completely open to interpretation". It was not an embarrassing performance, simply an embarrassing script.
Next Cruz would widen her scope with the French production Fanfan La Tulipe, a Luc Besson re-imagining of the life of the titular and legendary French adventurer, here played by Vincent Perez (earlier Penelope’s co-star in Talk Of Angels). The movie would see Cruz reprising Gina Lollobrigida’s 1951 role as the fortune-telling daughter of an army recruiting sergeant, who tricks Perez into signing up with promises that he’ll enjoy a glittering career and a marriage into royalty. From then on he works towards this prize, with the swashing and buckling at a maximum.
Very different would be Penelope’s next Hollywood outing, the stylish psychological horror flick Gothika. Here prison psychiatrist Halle Berry is involved in an accident and wakes to find herself banged up in her own jail and accused of murdering her husband. Cruz would stand out as one of Berry’s former patients, now a fellow inmate, a supremely witchy woman who believes she’s being sexually abused by Satan (which she rather enjoys) and explains to Berry that, as an inmate, no one will ever believe a word she says.
Stepping far from this high-budget insanity, Cruz now returned to Europe for the Italo-Spanish production Don’t Move. Here a surgeon involved in an accident with his young daughter would recall the events of 15 years before when he had a fling with a destitute Penelope, remarkably playing a blowsy, gap-toothed, bow-legged tramp living on a building site. Their relationship, which begins with him raping her (again, she quite likes it, having been raped by her father from a young age) and ends with her pregnant, would allow the movie to examine the nature of parenthood, passion, commitment and the awful finality of the choices we make. Cruz would once again find herself Goya-nominated.
Back in the States, Penelope would join Susan Sarandon in the ensemble cast of Chazz Palminteri’s Noel, which tied together the tales of several New Yorkers, each seeking redemption on Christmas Eve. Penelope would play the long-suffering fiancee of cop Paul Walker, unable to curb his explosive jealousy even with private sexy dances and eventually having to postpone the wedding. Walker, meanwhile, is being tailed by a besotted Alan Arkin, who, strangely, believes the cop to be the reincarnation of his own dead wife.
Following this Yuletide oddity, Cruz would finally see the release of the delayed Head In The Clouds, another sweeping romantic epic that would see her reunite with Charlize Theron. This had student Stuart Townsend smitten by notorious free-spirit Theron and, several years later, invited to join her in Paris. Here he finds she’s a famous photographer, living with Penelope, a former stripper (and probably whore) who’s now her model and lover. Cruz is also training as a nurse to help fight the fascists in Spain and draws Townsend into her idealism as war descends and the friends are tossed about on waves of heroism, espionage, betrayal and death.
Head In The Clouds would see only a very limited release, but still 2004 would see Penelope dominate the headlines as her relationship with Tom Cruise now came to an end. Soon she would be seeing Matthew McConaughey, co-star of her next production, Sahara. Based on the bestselling Clive Cussler novel, this would see McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, an Indiana Jones-type adventurer who’s searching for treasure on the Nile. Having saved scientist Penelope from assassination, he’s drawn into her investigation into why thousands of North Africans are being driven to madness, cannibalism and death, and together they battle tyrants and billionaire industrialists as they follow clues leading all the way back to the killing of Abraham Lincoln.
The movie would arrive in 2005, another busy year for Cruz. Aside from this epic, she’d see the release of Chromophobia, directed by Martha Fiennes and concerning the destruction of old London society by new American attitudes towards money, power, beauty and success. Another ensemble piece, this would see Damian Lewis suffering at the hands of his manic wife Kristin Scott Thomas and insufferably attention-seeking child. His father, Ian Holm, meanwhile, has had an illegitimate love child by his mistress, Penelope, a whore dying of liver cancer whose social worker, Rhys Ifans, can’t help prying into her past and present. And then, as one friend (Fiennes brother, Ralph) lies horribly beaten, another (Ben Chaplin) comes up with a plan that will make him a star but betray everyone around him. It was fascinating, well-made and brilliantly acted stuff.
Following this would come the far more physical exertions of Bandidas (again written by Luc Besson), where Cruz joined her great friend Salma Hayek in 1880s Mexico. With Penelope a European sophisticate and Hayek a peasant, the pair do not immediately hit it off, but eventually become a bank-robbing partnership (Bonnie and Bonnie, if you will) and freedom fighters battling an evil enforcer who’s terrorizing a town. The movie would be fast and frenetic, and reminiscent of Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, which had seen Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau involved in Mexican revolution.
Still in the pipeline would be a projected reunion with McConaughey in The Loop, where lonely highway patrolman McConaughey and friendly college librarian Cruz would seek the original owner of a parrot that spouts brilliant philosophical axioms. Then there was a possible return to Almodovar with Volver, involving the relationship between a grandmother, mother and daughter. Being Almodovar, there’d also be ghosts and tango.
Cruz is clearly keen to balance a Hollywood career with work in Spain and the rest of Europe. She’s also begun to pace herself better. After filming All The Pretty Horses, she went directly to India to shoot a documentary for the Spanish Sabera Foundation (set up by former boyfriend Nacho Cano) aiming to raise money for deprived children — they’ve already built a home, a school and a clinic for homeless girls and TB sufferers. On her return she collapsed again, as she had done back at the age of 16. She quit smoking, returned to vegetarianism (she’d earlier been a strict veggie for some years) and began practising meditation. She plans to be around for a long while yet. And who’d bet against it?