Penélope Cruz: Force of Nature

She came from a modest background, dreamed of being a ballet dancer and took the world of cinema by storm

Penélope Cruz is rarefied company. One of the few actors who navigate between big Hollywood productions and European arthouse cinema. The recipient of the grand slam of international awards: best actress at the Cannes Film Festival and a Goya for Volver (2006); an Academy Award and BAFTA for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008); and most recently, the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival for Parallel Mothers – a role that also earned her a fourth Oscar nomination.

Her performances are audacious and tender, her talent as sublime as her beauty. In an ongoing collaboration with the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, dating back to Live Flesh (1997), Cruz has produced a series of fascinating performances portraying women filled with contradictions and dark secrets. In conversation, Cruz is warm and full of humor, a born storyteller. The Chanel ambassador discusses childhood memories at her mother’s beauty salon, the profound encounters of her life and her desire to someday direct a film of her own.

Penélope Cruz photographed by Nico Bustos.

SARAH LASRY Your mother had a hair and beauty salon, and you grew up around women. In what way did this influence you as a child?

PENÉLOPE CRUZ It affected me a lot in very creative ways because I was kind of a spy in the beauty salon, especially in the conversations, the secrets. When they were not saying something, I always wanted to know why. And they were always very relaxed with my mother. She was not only a hairdresser – they treated her as a psychologist, and they would share so much. I would sit there, pretending I was doing homework, but I was really studying their behavior. It feels similar, in a way, to Pedro Almodóvar’s childhood because he would do that in his village, too. He would sit out in the street with his mother, sisters and neighbors, and he would just observe them. He got a lot of inspiration from that.

SL You started classical ballet very young. What is your relationship to dance?

PC Dance gave me so much discipline and focus and helped me to channel my energy. I had a lot of energy as a kid, and sometimes I didn’t know what to do with it. And after sitting in school all day for so many hours, I needed to move and sweat, and I found that in ballet. I realized early that I was acting when I was doing my ballet classes. That’s what I loved so much about it – that I could become different characters. For many years, I wanted to be a ballerina.

SL Did you find you had to make a choice?

PC When I got offered my first few movies, I was trying to combine the two. Then I realized I couldn’t, and I had to pick one. I thought, “Maybe if things went well, a career in acting would be more long-lasting.” Because I knew, as a dancer, that it ends soon, and then you become a teacher or create your own school or become a choreographer. Your career as a dancer is short – so I also had that in mind. I wanted to bet on something that maybe could be longer term, but I had no security of any kind that I would be doing more movies. I had to take a risk.

Penélope Cruz photographed by Nico Bustos.

SL Parallel Mothers is a very powerful film about motherhood and transmission. In what way did your character’s story speak to you?

PC I had to understand her fear and anguish and the threat she experienced in the possibility of losing a child. To me, that was the motivation every day: to find a truth that did justice to those kinds of dark feelings that any woman in the world could experience.

SL The film also explores the heritage of the Spanish Civil War as your character, Janis, investigates the death of her great-grandfather and other townspeople who “disappeared” during Franco’s dictatorship. Is this still a delicate subject in Spain today?

PC It depends with whom you’re talking, but I think that most people understand Pedro’s message in the film. Janis is trying to inspire a younger generation, through Ana, to learn from mistakes of the past and not repeat them, so they get educated and know what happened not so long ago. The funny thing about the character is that Janis does that, but at the same time, she is lying about the most sacred thing, which is her own daughter. She has to lie in her own house and be a great liar in life to survive. That is the wonderful contradiction of the character, and it makes her suffer a lot, but it’s wonderful to play that kind of contradiction. Of course, I couldn’t wait for her release in the film, when she’s able to speak the truth.

SL You play a photographer in the film, and you’ve worked with some of the greatest photographers in front of the camera. What memories do you have of some of them?

PC I had incredible moments with Annie Leibovitz because I’ve shot so much with her. She gave me a Leica camera – which I still have – because she always saw me carrying my camera before we all had iPhones. I have great memories of Herb Ritts. It’s sad how soon he left us – he was such a nice man and so brilliant. And the light! He had the best light. And, of course, Peter Lindbergh, who was a friend. He really managed to capture the essence of each person’s personality. There was nothing fake about what he did.

SL What do you like about photography?

PC I think that because I am a Taurus – an astrological sign that’s very visual – I need my sight. I’ve had that all my life. I’m always looking at places thinking, “How would I shoot that?” Someday, when my kids are older, I would like to direct a film. Since I was 16, I’ve always seen things from that point of view: where is the good shot?

Penélope Cruz photographed by Nico Bustos.

SL You once traveled to Calcutta to do mission work with Mother Teresa…

PC I was invited to go and interview her, and I felt very lucky to get that offer. I thought it would be hard to see her, but I saw her every day, and she sent me to do some work in the babies’ house, in the leprosy house, in the older women’s house. She gave me a schedule, and she would ask me to join her at five in the morning to pray with them, and then go and work in all the different buildings that they had to help people. That trip was really life-changing because I didn’t know how I could come back and continue my normal life after seeing that. She was very inspiring in that way. She said, “You don’t have to quit your profession – you have to use it the best way you can and try to help every time that you can.”

SL Do you have a memory of her that you’ll never forget?

PC The last day, I went to say goodbye to her, and it was very early in the morning. The sun was coming up. I asked for her, and they said: “She’s praying in that room. You can go in.” And I said: “How is that possible? I can go in alone with her when she’s praying?” That’s the way she lived: anybody who wanted to help could go see her. So, I went inside, and she was there, alone on the floor, praying, and I was able to sit next to her and close my eyes. What I experienced in those moments, I could never transmit with words, but it was such a gift. Those 20 minutes with her alone, I can’t explain with words.

SL Your relationship with Almodóvar is so special and unique. What is the greatest advice he has given you?

PC With Pedro, the thing is that he is honest. He always tells me the truth, and he expects the same from me. So, when I do a take, I look at him, and I know if he liked it, if he didn’t, if he hated it. He will not lie to me to make me feel better. What makes me feel better is his honesty, knowing that whatever I’m doing, he will see it, and he will say it. He will talk about what he sees, and that will push me to be better with him or to try to find some truth through this process of total honesty that we have with each other.

SL Does he continue to surprise you in your collaboration?

PC It stays very alive because I have a lot of fear when I’m working with him, even if he’s my friend, and I love him so much. I have so much respect for him. It’s a healthy fear. His energy is very strong, and everyone respects him very much. His work ethic is admirable. He takes things very seriously, and I do, too, on set. We don’t make a lot of jokes. But sometimes, he surprises me. He’ll come in and say, “Okay, today we are going to improvise this scene in the kitchen when you’re cooking, and you’ll say this and that,” and then he gives you two pages of script, looks at you very seriously and says, “You have five minutes to learn it,” and he leaves! And you have five minutes to learn either a monologue or a scene of two to three pages. I’ll look at him with pure terror! He looks at me, smiles and says, “You have to do it.” I love surprises like that.

Penélope Cruz photographed by Nico Bustos.

SL You also share your life with the actor Javier Bardem. Do you discuss the work you do?

PC Yes. Sometimes, we give each other scripts to read and ask: “What do you think about this one? Or that one?” And we give each other our opinions. We take advantage of having the same profession. And also, sometimes, preparing a specific scene, we’ll do something together and share ideas. We don’t talk about work all the time – it’s not something that we do at home – but once in a while, it’s natural that it comes up, and it’s a beautiful thing to share.

SL Your determination throughout your career is inspiring. It feels like you never took no for an answer. For example, you returned three times to audition for your manager when you were 16, even though she said you were too young.

PC Sometimes, I’ve had to take no for an answer because a role was given to somebody else. I had to understand that very young. But to my surprise, I got a lot of answers that were yes in the beginning, and I was really confused about it. How did I get one movie, then another, then another? I was happy but shocked. The most difficult thing was to learn when I had to say no. When other offers were coming from directors I admire, but the characters were not right for me or they had things that I didn’t want to do in that moment, I had to say no. That was very confusing in the beginning.

Penélope Cruz photographed by Nico Bustos.

SL What do you look for in a project? What excites you?

PC A challenge – when I see that the character goes through a lot of things, and I have to become somebody else. The more difficult the material, the more excited I get when I read it and prepare it. And I have to be scared, of course, but it’s a necessary fear in this profession.

SL You once said that one of the hardest things to film are sex scenes. Since you’re considering directing, how would you shoot a scene like that?

PC I would love to direct what happens inside a movie, when the crew is there, shooting a sex scene, and the crazy things that can happen. There was one time where we were shooting a sex scene, but you could only see the back of the actor and my back. The bodies had to be rolling, and there was a fly in the shot, and it was ruining every take, so they put a guy on set who was there, hitting the bed, trying to kill the fly. And all I could think about was, “How would I shoot this scene?” If only the audience could see the many incredible things that happen on movie sets…

SL You’ve had a long collaboration with Chanel. What dress have you worn on the red carpet that you’ve loved the most?

PC The one that I wore to the [2021] Oscars was pretty spectacular. Virginie Viard is doing incredible things. I think she’s so talented and so “Chanel,” but she stays herself. I also have a great memory of the dress I wore at the Emmys when I was nominated for playing Donatella Versace [in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story], from the spring-summer 2017 couture collection. It was one of the last dresses that Karl Lagerfeld designed for couture. And it was emotional, as you can imagine, to wear that dress.

SL What was your relationship with Karl Lagerfeld like?

PC It was fascinating. We were always talking about doctors because we both love talking about medicine. I remember the last time I was with him – it was the Métiers d’Arts collection in 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the show, we were all standing up, applauding. It was the last show he walked. And after that, he asked me if I wanted to come with him in the car to the party in Central Park. I went with him, and we took a walk in Central Park in the middle of the night, talking. He was so sweet, full of energy and life. I didn’t even know he was sick – he didn’t look sick at all. He was always smiling and so kind to me. I loved that man.

This interview was first published in Mastermind 11, May 2022 – buy it here.

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