Penelope Cruz for “All the Pretty Horses”

It is no surprise that Spanish actress Penelope Cruz is on the verge of superstardom. Both stunningly beautiful, sexy and a major presence, both on and off the screen, Cruz is one busy movie star. Either she is being romanced by Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s secretive Vanilla Sky, doing drugs with Johnny Depp in Blow, or starring with Nicolas Cage and Christian Bale in the World War 2 adventure, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In her latest film, All the Pretty Horses, we see Cruz cavorting around with Matt Damon in the modern Western. Paul Fischer recently had the pleasure of chatting to the gorgeous actress in New York.

Even with a thick and accentuated Spanish accent, it is no surprise that Penelope Cruz is a very much a woman on top. Beautiful and alluring, Cruz, who turns 27 this April, admits that the timing is ripe for her burgeoning Hollywood career, “Something was about to happen, when I was about 19 or 20, but I wasn’t ready for it because of my English, and because my head wasn’t ready. In the end, I was happy it wasn’t earlier”. Cruz says that her head is far better attuned for what lay ahead, “because I don’t have it as idealised as much. It’s now more about the work; to get different material and stuff I haven’t done before and play as many different characters as possible. My English is a lot better, now I study it every day with a teacher”. Such a role is that of the Mexican landlord’s daughter who falls for Texan Matt Damon in the Billy Bob Thornton-directed All the Pretty Horses. Clearly passionate about this film, Cruz recalls that her attraction for it went beyond simply the character she plays. “I knew something special was going to happen with the movie and being on that set, meeting Billy, [Bob Thornton] and after I read the story, I knew I just wanted to be a part of it”.

Based on the popular Cormac McCarthy novel, the film tells of two young men (Matt Damon and Henry Thomas) who celebrate the recent ending of World War II by riding out of their native Texas into the wild west, meeting friends and fellow adventurers along the way. Once they reach Mexico, they become smitten with a young woman (Cruz) who is the daughter of a ranch owner. As foreboding clouds threaten their so-far sunny skies, the men throw themselves headlong into danger. Cruz also loved the fact that Pretty Horses talked about “so much stuff, like love, pain, loss and hope. The way it talks about this is so brave, and it’s not fake, but full of truth”. Cruz agreed that the film adopts an old fashioned approach to American movie making. “I felt that Billy was making something that would awake things in people and I don’t think there are many movies like that. I also think he respects people so much because he doesn’t treat them like idiots. He knows that people ‘get him’ and that if you see this movie, something will happen to you in the process”.

Pretty Horses is the third time the Madrid-born actress had to work in English, followed by Stephen Frears’ The Hi-Lo Country and the comedy Woman on Top. Surprisingly, the actress admits that working in English is even easier than when she performs in her native Spanish, “because it gives me a bit of distance with myself. I don’t recognise Penelope talking. The more different the characters are from yourself, the easier it is to create something, because there’s less self-criticism and your ego disappears with that kind of fear”.

Penelope has come a long way since bursting onto the screen in her native Spain. Born in Madrid on April 28, 1974, Cruz was one of three children of a merchant and a hairdresser. After years of intensive study in ballet and jazz, she broke into acting in 1992. That year, she had starring roles in Jamón Jamón and Belle Epoque, two very disparate films. The former cast her as the desperately poor daughter of a village prostitute, while the latter featured her as one of four lusty daughters of a wealthy man in pre-Franco Spain. Belle Epoque proved to be a huge success, winning nine Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of an Academy Award) and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Its success gave Cruz a dose of international recognition, and, after starring in a number of Spanish films; she enhanced this recognition in 1997 with the Sundance entry Abre los Ojos. That same year, she had a brief but memorable role in Pedro Almodóvar’s Carne Trémula.

In 1998, Cruz had her first starring role in an English language film, playing Billy Crudup’s Mexican-American love interest in The Hi-Lo Country. She had another go at English later that year in the Spanish-British romantic comedy Twice Upon a Yesterday, [aka The Man with Rain in his Shoes] which cast her as a Spanish barmaid living in London. In 1999, she returned to Spain to collaborate once again with Almodóvar on Todo Sobre Mi Madre, [All about my Mother] a wildly acclaimed film that premiered at Cannes that year. Earlier this year, Cruz had her first starring role in a Hollywood film with the unsuccessful Woman on Top, followed of course by All the Pretty Horses.

Hollywood success doesn’t seem to phase this most down-to-earth of movie stars, and downplays the importance of success in America. “This is like the biggest industry in the world and there are many people I admire and whom I’d love to work with. A lot of that is happening and I’m really happy about that, so I just want to keep on learning. The great thing about the States is that you have the possibility of finding great material, and whenever someone comes up with anything interesting, whether it’s from here, France or my own country, then I’ll be there. Because that’s what really gives me happiness, based on the REAL work. The other bullshit around, the circus? I think it’s interesting to go through it, but I also realise how impermanent it is and how fake it is in a way. You have to play that game KNOWING that it is like that, and I don’t get angry at it, but I don’t LOVE it either”.

What is really for Cruz remains the work, she adds, and the process, “like sitting on the floor with someone like Cameron Crowe rehearsing the lines, as if I was 18 again and learning new things. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me happy and I know that’s not going to turn against me. The other stuff you just can’t avoid, otherwise, you can go work in the theatre where fame won’t touch you. If you want to be an actor in movies, you know you’ll just have to deal with that”.

When we spoke, Cruz was in the stages of filming Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, in which she stars opposite Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise. “I think he’s amazing”, Penelope exclaims when asked to describe working with Cruise. “I’ve always admired him a lot as an actor, but I don’t know if you’ve met him, but he’s incredibly nice, not to mention the hardest worker on the set, always worried about everyone else. I understand why he is where he is today”.

Aside from her acting, Cruz is spending some time working with Ralph Lauren on his latest campaign, an unusual switch for a movie star. “He called me up after he saw some of my movies and we had a meeting. I thought he was a very nice and kind man. I always like what he does, because I dig fashion and I’ve been into fashion photography since I was a kid. I also love his work and what he’s created – so special and so sexy at the same time. I thought it would be cool to work with him and collaboration would be good. We just shot the new summer campaign, which was exciting. I also want to be a photographer some day and combine it with my work, so when they call me less, I’ll have something to fall back on. Working with great photographers is a blast, and as I watch and learn, it makes you appreciate being on the other side of the lens”.

With all that has happened to this extraordinary young woman, Cruz remains grounded, thanks to her family. “My parents met when they were 18, married at 20 and I was born when they were 21, so they’ve given us all their youth and they’ve worked so hard to raise us. We never had a lot of money growing up, just everything we needed. They taught how to take care of everything, how to value all we have. Sometimes we take things for granted, like a plate of food. I know those things sound obvious, but simple stuff is important to remember. My mother always tells me the truth – If she sees me doing something weird, she’ll be honest with me. She’s very scared of all this, but is also grateful”.

Grateful, Cruz says, “because she’s so generous that she never shares her fears with me. I know that sometimes she worries about what I’m involved with now and all the pressures, but she sees that I’m happy so she’s ok. She doesn’t care about all this money and fame”. As for Penelope, who remains fiercely guarded about her private life, she will at least admit to having one. “I have my private life and I think there are ways to manage that. I have a lot of friends, the same as I’ve had since I was 14. I don’t feel so lonely anymore. But work is important to me and I enjoy that very much”. Apart from Vanilla Sky, Cruz will also be seen as a coke addict opposite Johnny Depp in Blow [“That’s a wild trip and I get to swear a lot”] and the actress will next return to Spain to shoot a new film.

Woman on top? Most assuredly.