Penelope Cruz's return to greatness -- The actress gives a knockout performance in Almodovar's ''Volver''

When Pedro Almodóvar called ”Cut!” for the final time on the set of Volver last fall, Penélope Cruz felt ”a strange emptiness” wash over her. For the previous six months, she had collaborated with her friend Almodóvar every day and become unusually attached to her character, Raimunda, a working-class single mother who stares down tragedy like a bullfighter. ”I didn’t want to leave the set. I didn’t want to take off my costume. And that’s never happened to me,” Cruz says. ”Pedro had to take me by the hand and walk me to my trailer. I changed [out of my costume], crying and laughing and crying. Then I opened the door. And Pedro was there. He said, ‘Welcome to your new life.’ It was so beautiful.”

Cynics will note that when actors are giving interviews, life is almost always beautiful. But Cruz’s euphoria over Volver — her third movie with her Oscar-winning All About My Mother director — has the conspicuous ring of truth. In Spanish, volver means to return, and the movie (see review on page 56) marks more than one homecoming for Cruz. It takes her back to Spain and her native language, to Almodóvar, and, perhaps most significant, to top creative form after toiling in a string of underwhelming American movies for the past six years. Since screening last May in Cannes, where the jury awarded Cruz and her five female costars an ensemble Best Actress prize, Volver has been earning the 32-year-old Madrid native the best reviews of her career. As Raimunda, Cruz — clad in cleavage-baring tops and tight skirts that showcase an ample (padded) rump — grapples with her troubled teenage daughter, the murder of her no-good husband, and the sudden reappearance of her dead mamá. It’s Cruz’s most substantial role to date, and as awards season percolates, it’s looking more and more likely that the Academy will take notice. Which would make Cruz the first Spanish Best Actress nominee ever. ”It’s exciting, and I feel flattered,” she says, settling into a couch in her downtown Manhattan hotel suite a few nights before Volver‘s screening at this fall’s New York Film Festival. ”But I don’t want to expect [an Oscar] nomination. The truth is, if I’m ever nominated — if it’s for a movie that Pedro has given me — then it’s like a dream, because what he has done for my career — it’s amazing.”

Had Cruz never met Almodóvar, she might not have had a shot at American stardom. After earning the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar nomination at 18 for her jaw-dropping debut opposite Javier Bardem in the sexually explicit satire Jamón, Jamón, she contemplated trying her luck in Hollywood. At the time, no Spanish actress had ever flourished in the States, and Antonio Banderas was the country’s only true success story. ”So many people said that it was impossible, that no women in my country had ever worked [in the U.S.] with continuity,” explains Cruz, who now splits her time between Los Angeles and Madrid. ”And it almost did seem impossible because I didn’t have a reference to look at to say, Okay, I want to do [what these Spanish] actresses did. But I just decided to listen to the people that believed that I could do it.”

A few years later, in 1997, Almodóvar cast Cruz in Live Flesh. Her brief but explosive scene at the beginning of the film, during which she gives birth on a city bus, convinced Stephen Frears (The Queen) to cast her in The Hi-Lo Country, opposite Woody Harrelson. She was 23. ”Everything felt big,” she recalls of her first experience on an American set. ”I remember, it was like, Oh, all these trailers are huge! I had never had a trailer before that.” The movie flopped, barely breaking $150,000 at the box office. And overall, it was a lonely time for Cruz, especially since her English was still shaky back then: ”Going to a reading and not being able to understand what everyone was saying — I would hide in the bathroom and cry.”

But by 2000, things seemed to be turning around. She thrived on the energy of New York, where she had an apartment. She made friends, including her best pal, Salma Hayek (with whom she starred in the comedy Bandidas, which recently got a limited U.S. release). And she kept working, following up the treacly romantic comedy Woman on Top and Billy Bob Thornton’s well-publicized dud All the Pretty Horses with a trio of high-profile films. Released one after the other in 2001, each movie found Cruz paired with one of Hollywood’s top leading men, and taken together, they seemed an unstoppable campaign for stardom. In Blow, Cruz snorted coke with Johnny Depp; in the WWII drama Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, she melted Nicolas Cage’s fascist heart; and in Vanilla Sky, she bewitched none other than Tom Cruise. Blow made a decent showing at the box office, grossing $53 million. But Corelli‘s was skewered by critics, and eked out just $26 million. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes (in which Cruz herself had starred) took in $101 million, thanks to Cruise’s then-invincible star power. The critics’ knives, however, were still sharp.

Many reviewers felt that her performances were lost in translation. ”Uncomfortable in English, she comes off like an Iberian cartoon character,” New York Newsday sniped about her turn in Vanilla Sky. Her subsequent romance with Cruise, which went public after the movie wrapped and a few months before Cruise’s divorce from Nicole Kidman was finalized, further diminished her credibility. She became the target of the tabloids, which treated the relationship as an elaborate publicity stunt. Cruz was painted as a beautiful but talentless opportunist. A home wrecker. For Almodóvar, who watched the three-year Cruise-Cruz love circus from Spain, the media coverage of the affair was distressing. ”Tom is a very controversial person, and the fact that she was his girlfriend, far from being an advantage for her, has been a huge disadvantage,” says the director, who still gets riled up when talk turns to those years. He’s no less passionate when it comes to defending Cruz’s talent. ”People who are admiring her so much in Volver are surprised because they never imagined that she could do such work,” he says. ”Of course she can do that — and more. But she needs the right kind of characters, the right kind of directors, the right conditions. And sometimes in Hollywood, they don’t have it at all. I worried about how she would live through [all the negativity]. But one of the things I learned about Penélope is that she’s strong. She has been able to emerge [gracefully] from being steamrolled over.”

Cruz never discusses her personal life — ”You have to protect yourself” — and won’t comment on Cruise or on her subsequent two-year liaison with her Sahara costar Matthew McConaughey. But she insists that the harshness of the media doesn’t bother her. She’s been weathering criticism since her very first film. ”On the same day that they told me I had been nominated for Jamón, Jamón, I went walking with my family, and somebody from a car screamed ‘Whore!”’ she recalls, breaking into a fit of giggles. ”And I was like, Well, I guess that’s what fame is. The good stuff feels too good to be true. And the bad stuff,” she adds, smiling wide, ”always makes me laugh.” Still, starring in a string of Hollywood duds — 2005’s Sahara floundered as well — has to be frustrating, no? ”I don’t feel frustrated,” Cruz insists, shaking her head. ”Things have been going step-by-step.” As for her oft-criticized English, it’s perfectly fluent in person. And Cruz says she feels ”more relaxed” about it now. In Manolete, the bullfighting drama she recently shot with Adrien Brody, ”it was a surprise for me to feel like, Wow, I’m not thinking about the words. I’m just talking to Adrien in character. You can’t force that feeling. You can’t. I know I still have an accent, but I keep working on it. Keep fighting and keep moving forward.”

Night has fallen outside Cruz’s suite and she’ll soon have to pack up the piles of clothing and paper-stuffed manila folders that are scattered around the place. Almodóvar is staying uptown, and to be closer to him for tomorrow’s press junket, she’s checking out and joining him. There are other ways she could spend the rest of the evening — like, for instance, getting some long-overdue rest, or watching her friend Salma’s new hit television show Ugly Betty — but Cruz doesn’t mind the inconvenience. ”I love traveling with him,” she says. In fact, over the past few months, she has put off committing to any projects so she could stay by Almodóvar’s side to promote Volver. ”[I’ve been] reading scripts, but I wasn’t ready to go to the set again,” explains Cruz, who’s also been looking into becoming a producer. ”I wanted to travel with Pedro and do this right. I feel so lucky. It’s just…his mind, his heart, his humor. It’s like winning the biggest lottery I could imagine.”

The affinity is clearly mutual. In September, at the Toronto International Film Festival, director and star sat side by side, laughing and joking, and reflecting on the Volver shoot. Cruz called the experience the ”most complete” of her career, and explained her only fear was that she might never top it. ”Don’t worry,” Almodóvar said with fatherly assurance. ”You will.” Maybe they’ll reunite for a fourth collaboration? ”I’m sure we’ll work together again,” the director said, nodding.

Cruz, unable to suppress a grin, whispered, ”That’s what I want.”

Bosom Buddies

In Toronto, Pedro Almodóvar deconstructed his impassioned — if nonsexual — admiration for his star’s figure.

EW In the press notes, you say that Penélope has one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema.
Almodóvar ¿Canalillo? ¿Cómo se dice?
Cruz ¿Canalillo? Cleavage.
Almodóvar Cle??
Cruz Cleavage.
Almodóvar Cleavage.
EW Penélope, how do you feel about having the most spectacular cleavage in world cinema?
Cruz I’m gonna let him answer for me, because those were his words.
Almodóvar Absolutely, I am deeply in love with that part of her body. [To Cruz] You should be flattered. This is life. Not only something sexy. It’s also the base of life. You feed your future babies… [Cruz laughs] You will feed them with that. You also give pleasure to the men that you…
Cruz What?!
Almodóvar When you will be in love, that will be a fountain of pleasure, too.
Cruz Oh my God.
Almodóvar So it’s important. It’s life, pleasure, and spectacular. And everything is positive, related with el canalillo. [Cruz is hiding her face.]
EW [To Cruz] I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.
Cruz No, I never know what to say…
Almodóvar She’s very shy. Sometimes.
Cruz I always let him answer the question. I don’t talk about those things.
Almodóvar I remember in my childhood — because also this goes back to maternity — cleavage blessed by a lot of medals. This is an image that I have fixed in my mind. Two big boobs [extends hands in front of chest] but with many, many medals of the Virgin, like blessing this part of the female body.