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June 06, 2018 at 12:43 PM EDT

Long before she was an Oscar-winning movie star, Penélope Cruz didn’t let anyone in Hollywood push her around — even if it meant losing her first lead role in an American film. During an interview for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, Cruz — who starred as Donatella Versace in FX’s  The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story — recalled her worst audition ever, and the incredible way she handled it.

After being sent an “amazing script” for a lead role in a major American movie, Cruz took four months of English lessons before flying to Los Angeles for her final audition. “When I get there, completely jet-lagged… they say, ‘Oh, we have to see you in the office.’ They wanted to add something to [my contract]. They said, ‘If you want to do the screen test, you have to accept that there are going to be some naked scenes [in the movie] that were not in the script.'”

The actress, who was just 21 at the time, was furious. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me 24 hours ago, before I got on the plane?’ Even if I did movies before that had [nude] scenes… at that time, I didn’t want to go through that. I felt like, for a few years, I’m just going to say no to whatever, when my heart is telling me no.”

Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Cruz refused to sign the new contract, but insisted on going through with the screen test as planned. “The director stopped talking to me, he left the room, he was furious. I called the heads of the studio. I didn’t speak English, but in that meeting, I spoke English. I said, ‘If you think you can treat people like this… with me, it’s not going to work. My family loves me, I’m gonna get back on the plane, and I don’t care if I don’t do your movie. But you know what? I’m gonna do your screen test.’ They looked at me like something was wrong with me.”

Though the director (who Cruz declined to name) refused to speak to her for the rest of the day, the actress went through with the screen test and headed back to the airport. “I knew that I didn’t get the movie,” she said. “But I can tell you today, I am 44 now, it is one of the moments where I felt most proud of myself. In that moment I felt, ‘The day that I die, I will remember this moment.’ A lot of people were telling me, ‘This might be the last time that you get a chance, because now they’re all gonna talk and they’re gonna say you’re very difficult.’ I said, ‘Okay, I don’t care. I’m going back to my family, and to my Spanish movie that I continue to shoot on Monday.’ I remember the feeling was so special to me, it made me stronger. And I think from that ‘no,’ many other ‘yes’ have arrived in my life.”

The memory is even more powerful in the wake of the Time’s Up movement, which Cruz helped launch in January. “Now everywhere we go, we are asked about abuse of power [in Hollywood] with women, and for me that story, that I never shared before, was important,” she said. “That’s what I always think when I get asked that kind of thing. Do what your heart feels and don’t be afraid, because that will pay off.”

Hear more from Cruz — including the one wardrobe piece she took home from the Versace set — in the video above.

 

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