The last year and a half has been a transformative time for -Penélope Cruz. Her comically unhinged performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) netted her an Academy Award. She completed her fourth film with Pedro Almodóvar, Broken Embraces, and joined the star–studded ensemble cast of Rob -Marshall’s new screen version of the Broadway musical Nine. But perhaps most -significantly, the 35-year-old Cruz has both reestablished and reinvented herself as an actress. It’s safe to say that, not too long ago, Cruz’s appearances at the multiplex—though plentiful and numerous—were largely overshadowed by her appearances in the tabloids. This was due to a variety of factors, chief among them a string of not-so-good -movies—did anyone see Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)? Waking Up in Reno (2002)? Head in the Clouds (2004)?—which, however unfairly, fueled the perception that she could only act in her native Spanish, but also a succession of relationships that Cruz was reported to have had with her leading men, including Matt Damon (All the Pretty Horses, 2000), Matthew McConaughey (Sahara, 2005), and of course, Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky, 2001). (Which, just as unfairly, fueled another perception about her that needs no further fueling).
The turning point for Cruz was her performance in Almodóvar’s 2006 film, Volver—an intensely dramatic but darkly funny film (Almodóvar outfitted Cruz with a prosthetic rear for the role) in which she played a working-class woman who discovers that her husband has tried to rape her teenage daughter and that her sister has begun receiving what she believes to be visitations from their dead mother—which earned her both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Her performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as a passionate but emotionally volatile artist who is intent on maintaining the white-knuckled grip she has on her ex-husband’s (Javier Bardem) heart, was equally combustible; Cruz’s unrelenting fire and intelligence not only propelled the comedy but lent it an emotional weight.
When Cruz made her first American movie, The Hi-Lo Country (1998)—which was directed by a Brit, Stephen Frears—she spoke very little English. But even as her language skills improved, the chief attraction for directors often seemed to be her dark Castilian beauty: She was routinely cast as sexy temptresses, hot-tempered Latinas, and clichéd exotic foreigners. A big reason for her recent resurgence is that Almodóvar and Allen managed to tap into an aspect of her makeup that’s easy to miss if you linger on the surface: that while so much of being a leading lady in American cinema is about projecting an idealized vision, Cruz does her best work when she’s allowed to revel in the messiness of life—digging away at characters and searching for the ugly things they don’t want -others to know, the passions they can’t seem to contain, the dreams they want to fulfill, and the realities that they don’t want to confront. There isn’t a lack of ego in Cruz’s work—she will tell you as much. Nor is there a distrust of vanity. But it’s the jagged edges that have defined Cruz’s most memorable performances: in Bigas Luna’s Jamon Jamon (1992); in Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (1997); in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Volver; in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Videos about Cruz’s upcoming films:
Nine, which is out in December, is a departure—a musical that required Cruz to both sing and dance. The film, which is loosely based on Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), stars -Daniel Day-Lewis as an Italian director who struggles to contain relationships with the various women in his life: his long–suffering wife (Marion Cotillard), his sexpot mistress (Cruz), his overbearing mother (Sophia Loren), his temperamental star (the ex–Mrs. Cruise, Nicole Kidman), a journalist from Vogue (Kate Hudson), his longtime costume designer (Judi Dench), and a prostitute (the Black Eyed Peas’ Stacy “Fergie” -Ferguson). Late one Sunday night in October, Cotillard, an Oscar winner herself for her performance as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, reconnected with Cruz from Los Angeles, where the French-born actress was filming Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio. Cruz was in Bali, where Bardem—her three-time leading man and real-life love interest—was shooting Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts.
MARION COTILLARD: I think one of the main things about being an actor is trying to understand people. So let’s start by talking about this for a moment. Imagine that you meet some extraterrestrials. How would you describe humankind to them?
PENÉLOPE CRUZ: That question actually brings me to the reason why I decided to become an actress, which is my constant curiosity about the endless mysteries of human behavior. Because we are dealing with the beauty and complexity of human confusion, no? And we are always trying to get answers.
COTILLARD: So you would describe humans to the extraterrestrials as mysterious and complex…
CRUZ: Well, they would never be bored studying us, that’s for sure.
COTILLARD: Were you always interested in becoming an actress?
when I am dreaming at night, I see everything as a shot from a movie. I have cranes and extras in my dreams.Penelope Cruz
CRUZ: I think since I was around four years old. I remember playing with some friends and being aware that I was acting as I was playing with them—I would think of a character and pretend to be someone else. My parents also took me to ballet school, and there I think I was able to start communicating those feelings or emotions—I danced for so many years. And then, when I was 10 or 11, I became a very big fan of movies.
COTILLARD: What was the first movie you ever saw?
CRUZ: I don’t remember the first one, but I remember that my father bought a huge Betamax machine, and that was very rare in our neighborhood at the time. We didn’t have a theater nearby, but with the Betamax machine, I would go and rent these huge tapes that were bigger than me, and I would watch them over and over again. So my first relationship with cinema wasn’t going to see the movies at the theater—it was this machine.
COTILLARD: What kinds of movies did you watch?
CRUZ: A lot of Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, actually—I got obsessed with him at an early age. I watched every one of his movies on the Betamax. It wasn’t until he released Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!  that I finally saw one of his movies in a theater. I remember I had to take the bus and the metro to get there. I went alone and lied about my age because I was not 16 yet, and that’s how old you had to be to go. After I saw the movie, I took a walk by myself around Madrid. That was the day that I decided that I would at least try to get an agent and be an actress.
COTILLARD: It’s beautiful that your obsession with Almodóvar’s movies turned into what it has become. Broken Embraces is your fourth collaboration with him?
CRUZ: Yes, it’s our fourth movie together. I can’t believe it either. It’s been an amazing thing, my adventure with him.
COTILLARD: How has your relationship with him evolved since you first met?
CRUZ: I think it’s been growing and evolving gradually. Right now, we get to the set, we look at each other, and I know if he slept the night before, if he’s in a bad mood or in a good mood. He is the same with me—he looks at me and he knows what I am thinking. So that makes it easier. But at the same time, he’s a very big presence, so I don’t get less nervous when I’m working with him now because we are friends—I get maybe even more nervous because I’m always worried about disappointing him.
COTILLARD: How is he with you as a director? Because you have this strong friendship, is your relationship with him different when you’re working?
CRUZ: It changes a little bit when we’re on the set. From the moment we start the rehearsal process, which might last sometimes three or four months, our friendship changes. There is a trust that we’ve had for so many years, but we don’t gossip. We don’t talk about our private lives so much. There is a line that we put there without planning. It just happened in a natural way, to protect the work—I think that this comes out of an intuition from both of us to want to keep a balance in our lives. And then, the day the movie ends, our friendship goes back to being the same as what it was before the shooting started. But things change on set—he’s very honest and very demanding. He tells me if a take is not good. He also calls me at the end of the day to celebrate if things are going well. He’s very generous, but also very honest, and because you know he will say the truth, it can be a scary feeling. But I’d much rather have that honesty and be scared than work with somebody who doesn’t demand as much. I just like how much it becomes his life, the movie. He doesn’t make any compromises, so we have total honesty.
But the older I am, the more I refuse to treat my work as therapy and the more I think it’s less honest to do that, less about acting.Penelope Cruz
COTILLARD: How do you choose your movies now? Is it stories? Characters? Directors? What’s persuading you?
CRUZ: I try to look at the whole thing and say yes to the projects that I cannot stop thinking about. If I read a script and the subject stays with me—then that’s when I want to go to work. Before, I was very addicted to being on set, and I was doing three or four movies a year for many years. Now, fortunately, I can go to work only when I am passionate about a project, and the rest of the time, I can live my life. I’m not interested in doing movies just as a marathon. When I go to work now, I have much more to give. But the other way, you get empty.
COTILLARD: What is your favorite place in the world?
CRUZ: I really like the Caribbean. Anyplace in the Caribbean. I get there, and I feel like a monkey—the perfect state. [laughs] Of course, I also like my city very much because I live there part of the time.
CRUZ: Yes, Madrid. My family is there. I love New York, but being there the whole year, it gets a little crazy with the speed and rhythm of things. But I lived there when I was 20. I lived in the Village for two years, and I was happy there.
COTILLARD: Where in the Village?
CRUZ: Christopher and Greenwich. I came to New York to study ballet and English. I was taking a break between movies. I learned English kind of late. I remember when I got my first opportunity to work in America, I didn’t speak a lot of English, so I only really knew my lines for the movie I was doing. The director who cast me had just seen me on tape, so when I got there, he realized that I only knew the dialogue I had learned for the casting! Beyond that, I could only say, “How are you?” and “Thank you.” [both laugh] You know, it was not planned that I would ever work in America, but I didn’t close the door to it. I don’t want to ever stop working in my own country and in my own language, but I feel like we are both very lucky to be able to do what we’ve done.
COTILLARD: I have a question that might be four questions in one. What inspires you—as an actress and as a woman? Because I guess those are sometimes different inspirations.
CRUZ: Yes, yes. As an actress, I really love people like Anna Magnani and Debra Winger. I also think there is nobody better than Meryl Streep. I watch her movies over and over again—I saw Silkwood  again a couple of weeks ago, and it made me just want to kiss her feet. We only know each other from seeing each other at awards ceremonies or those kinds of events, but whenever I see her, I always go up to her and start kissing her. I don’t even say anything—I just kiss her. She must think I’m some crazy person. [both laugh] And then, from the women in my life, I have to say that I have a very special relationship with my mother. She had me when she was 21, so she was very young. I’ve always been able to talk to her about everything. Since I was a little girl, nothing was taboo in my house. She’s been the person who I’ve looked to for inspiration for many of the characters that Pedro writes because she’s really a force of nature. She’s very strong.
COTILLARD: Do you remember your dreams?
CRUZ: Yes, because when I am dreaming at night, I see everything as a shot from a movie. I have cranes and extras in my dreams. [Cotillard laughs] I swear to you! It doesn’t happen every day, but many nights my dreams are like a movie. I don’t see normal movement—I see things in very complicated shots. That’s why I do remember many of them.
COTILLARD: Okay, now you have to organize a dinner: If you could have four guests, who would they be? The guests can be anybody—even Marilyn Monroe.
CRUZ: This is very interesting. I would take Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, and Pedro Almodóvar, and I would make broken eggs, which is a Spanish dish. It’s all fried, and it’s very fattening, with a lot of oil, salt, eggs, and potatoes. I know how to make it, and it’s so greasy, but there is a truth to it. Can you imagine this group?
COTILLARD: Yes, I can. [laughs]
CRUZ: I remember when we were working on Nine with Sophia [Loren]. We drove her crazy asking questions—at least I drove her crazy asking her every day about [Vittorio] De Sica and Fellini and [Marcello] Mastroianni and all of the amazing people who she’s had the opportunity to work with. She is so incredible, this woman.
COTILLARD: Yeah. She’s the perfect mix between la mama and the movie star.
CRUZ: It’s true. She looks like a goddess. But she was always worried to see if we were eating enough. I was eating like a pig during that movie because I wanted to gain a few kilos. I was eating nonstop. But it was never enough for Sophia. She would say, “You’re not eating enough, and then you’re doing all this exercise! And I just saw Marion, and she left the table. That one eats less than you do—nothing!” [both laugh]
insecurity is something that comes with being an actor—I don’t know actors who aren’t insecure. I do think I kind of lie to myself—there is a percentage of ego involved. And I don’t say that’s a bad thing—it’s good to know that it’s there whether we like it or not. But ego is like a lion that we have to keep under control.Penelope Cruz
COTILLARD: How did you get involved in Nine?
CRUZ: I had a lunch with Rob Marshall. It was at the very beginning—I wanted to be in the movie, but I didn’t know yet which character. I wanted to do it because, as I told you, I did ballet for many years and I love music. For me, music is the most powerful art—even more powerful than movies, literature, anything. It’s the one that goes most directly to your heart. So I had this talk with Rob. You know, there is so much bullshit in this business and so much talk. But I believed every word that Rob said about the movie and what he wanted to do. It was so beautiful to see that I was right to believe him because of how honest and truthful he turned out to be.
COTILLARD: How do you prepare? I know that for Nine, you watched a lot of Italian movies.
CRUZ: Yes, I watched a lot of Italian movies and also movies with Italian actors working in English, because I had to do an Italian accent. I’ve played an Italian before, but in that film I was speaking Italian, so this was the first time doing English with an Italian accent. I also watched a lot of musicals. And then for my character, Carla, one of my little secrets is that she made me think about the Pink Panther—for some reason, that’s the image I was getting.
COTILLARD: That was your inspiration for Carla?
CRUZ: It was one of them. Because I think she’s a little bit goofy—not that she tries to be funny, but something is a little bit off about her. And at the same time, I wanted to have an image for the musical number. The musical number had to be sexy, and thinking about the Pink Panther would help me get into the mood. But I never told that to anybody! When I was climbing the ropes to the ceiling, all I could think about was the Pink Panther.
COTILLARD: [laughs] I love it so much! Would you say that you are confident in yourself?
CRUZ: No. [laughs] I think about that a lot. It doesn’t matter if you have more success or less success—confidence is not really measured by that. I think most actors . . . We are insecure, in general. I think to be an actor, you need to have an ego, but then, our ego is our worst enemy.
COTILLARD: You seem to have a very healthy relationship with your ego.
CRUZ: Well, I try for things to be that way. I really think insecurity is something that comes with being an actor—I don’t know actors who aren’t insecure. I do think I kind of lie to myself—there is a percentage of ego involved. And I don’t say that’s a bad thing—it’s good to know that it’s there whether we like it or not. But ego is like a lion that we have to keep under control.
COTILLARD: Yes, because we’re dealing with emotions and we’re playing with emotions.
CRUZ: And we’re showing a lot of things that are very intimate.
COTILLARD: You said about your character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Maria Elena, that she thinks she will not be creative if she’s not torturing herself. Do you think we as actors need to keep the connection with our failures to be able to do our jobs with depth and authenticity—you know, the dark side?
CRUZ: Yeah, I mean, maybe. It’s actually a similar thing to the ego, because you don’t want to let that go. You have to look deeply inside of yourself to find something to use in your work. But the older I am, the more I refuse to treat my work as therapy and the more I think it’s less honest to do that, less about acting. When I was younger, I sometimes used personal things in creating characters, to the point where I thought maybe it was a little bit dangerous—at least for me. But I don’t feel that somebody can only be good in a character if they are really becoming that person or really suffering. I have played with that before, especially with emotional scenes, and there have been times when I have been close to throwing up because it was hard to get out of that place. It’s always a bigger challenge when it’s a dark character or something very emotionally difficult, but I think my purpose is to find a way where you can have a dance with that, where you go and you come back, instead of maybe being in that state for weeks.
COTILLARD: That’s the thing that’s hard to explain. I remember when I finished La Vie en Rose—I didn’t know how to come back, you know? You go somewhere far deep for the role, and then you try to understand yourself like you understand the character.
CRUZ: Yes, yes. That’s why to talk about the theory, about getting close to that type of character, is so hard, because it’s such an ambiguous and abstract territory that as soon as we try to put it in words, the ideas fly away.
COTILLARD: So what would be a challenge for you as an actress right now?
CRUZ: I feel like I’ve been very lucky with the directors. The characters I’ve been offered, especially lately, have given me the opportunity to play all of these different women. I always wanted that, and it’s something that you cannot do by yourself. If you want to play a diversity of characters, somebody else has to have the imagination to give you a role completely out of the box. We depend on somebody else’s trust, and these directors are giving me their trust, and I am grateful for that. But I don’t know. . . . I still feel like I have so much to learn. I love that feeling, that next time I go to set, I will be terrified again. I don’t want it to be any other way.
Marion Cotillard is an Academy Award–winning French actress.
Read Interview’s feature on Pedro Almodóvar.