Cannes - Penelope Cruz doesn't talk about her private life.
"I've been in the tabloids since I was 16 in Spain, and I still am - it never changes. That doesn't make me live my life in different ways. People in Spain don't even ask me about my private life, because they know I don't talk about it."
That's the point at which the table full of journalists gathered at the Carlton Hotel beach restaurant start scratching out their questions about Cruz's movie-star ex-boyfriend, Tom Cruise, and her then current movie-star boyfriend and Sahara co-star (the tabs report they broke up in early June), Matthew McConaughey.
Cruz is in Cannes to talk about another love of her life, director Pedro Almodóvar, and as the journalists make quick dashes to the buffet, Cruz is sipping a Coke and showing off her much-improved English.
If your impression of Cruz's English comes from her early American films like All The Pretty Horses and Vanilla Sky (where she reprised her role from one of her great Spanish successes, Open Your Eyes), let me assure you that though she still tortures English vowel sounds, she does speak the language.
Almodóvar's Volver, which jumped up as an early favourite for the Palme d'Or and best actress, stars Cruz as Raimunda. In a very short period of time, she loses her husband in a legally problematic way and discovers that her apparently dead mother is haunting a friend's house. The film would ultimately win Almodóvar his second Cannes best-director prize and, in an unusual move, a best-actress prize awarded collectively to Cruz and her co-stars.
Volver is Cruz's first film in her native Spain after five years building a career as an international movie star. The strategy hasn't quite worked in the U.S.; it rarely does for actors who can't convincingly play Americans. Gothika, Chromophobia and Sahara wouldn't make anybody a star. She did have a major success in Italy in Sergio Castellitto's Don't Move.
"There are people in Hollywood who are very interesting, and I'd like to work with them: Sofia Coppola, Paul Haggis.
"But I always work there as a European actress, because that's the way to protect myself from the negative things in that industry. There are a lot of positive things, but there are always things that are dangerous, maybe even more for a woman."
By that she means it's hard to be taken seriously when your role can best be described as "hottie doctor."
"Hollywood can be a trap. It has many shapes, the trap, ways to trick you. Sometimes I want to do small movies, because you have more respect for yourself after them than you do after big studio movies."
And, of course, in an American movie industry obsessed with thinness, no one ever asked the svelte Cruz to put on a fake ass so she could look heavier. Almodóvar did.
"My energy is very high - up here," says Cruz, pointing at her head. "I put the padding on and all my energy went down to my hips. It anchored me and showed me how the character walked.
"Pedro had me watch Anna Magnani movies like Mamma Roma and Open City. Pedro's idea of motherhood is from the south. The energy is very specific. But it's always tricky to talk about these things in an interview, because you can sound a little crazy."
From the buzz about the Cruz-Almodóvar collaboration, you'd think they were constant film companions, but Volver is only Cruz's third film with the director. She had supporting roles in Live Flesh and All About My Mother; this is her first starring role in an Almodóvar film.
Of course, if you're a Spanish actor and Almodóvar calls, you come running. Aside from the quality of the films, you're guaranteed international festival exposure and usually a U.S. release, so working with him is not only artistically satisfying but also a smart career move.
"I always loved Pedro even before I knew him. I was 17 the first time I met him. My heart was beating so fast, because I knew he was going to be someone who would affect my life and career.
"There are so many things about me that I think he doesn't know, that I think are secret, that I think I'm keeping from him. And then, one time at dinner, he surprises me and I find out he knows absolutely everything even before I say it. He has a special eye for that."
Cruz's final comment on Almodóvar's directorial style reveals something interesting.
"So many directors now sit back at the video monitor. Pedro never went to the monitor - he was by the camera. I could hear him breathing. I can trust him as a director because he's always there."
VOLVER GALA D: Pedro Almodóvar w/ Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura. Spain. 120 min. Friday, September 8, 9:30 PM ROY THOMSON HALL; Saturday, September 9, 9:30 AM RYERSON Rating: NNNNN
People who’ve only seen Cruz work in English think she can’t act. But in Spanish, with Almodóvar, she’s at home as a working-class mom who suddenly finds that her favorite aunt has died, her husband has died and her late mother (early Almodóvar stalwart Maura) has shown up, apparently as a ghost, and is living with another aunt, the mother’s ailing sister.
This is a return to the director’s early subjects, though the voluptuous, saturated colours and relatively stately style are in the mould of the later All About My Mother, Talk To Her and Bad Education. That is, it’s a fast story told slowly. It’s a little too slow and at two hours a little too long, but Cruz is stunningly good, and the rest of the cast (the female ensemble won best actress at Cannes) matches her.