Belfast Telegraph

Penelope Cruz: Me and Meryl, mascara and being a mum

By Sarah Caden

She is the only Spanish actress to win an Oscar, but Penelope Cruz doesn’t mind admitting she reads weight-loss books ... and can’t help kissing Meryl Streep.

It is Penelope Cruz's habit, whenever she sees Meryl Streep, of going and kissing the older actress. “We only know each other from seeing each other at awards ceremonies, or those kinds of events,” she says. “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.”

It's unlikely that Meryl Streep thinks she's crazy and much more likely that she enjoys the passion of Penelope Cruz. It is, after all, the passion of Penelope Cruz that sets her apart from her peers.

American actresses couldn't begin to match her European earthiness, while her European peers are often too eager to assimilate and go all Hollywood.

Penelope Cruz is, however, that unique thing in Hollywood — herself. And the more she determinedly remains herself, the more we like her.

Though it seems unlikely, Penelope Cruz was something of a child star in her native Spain, where she had an agent and was a TV presenter at the age of 16.

She had been a dedicated ballet dancer until her teens, when the ambition to act arrived, thanks to her father's purchase of a huge Betamax machine. This video player was a rare item in the working-class Madrid suburb of Alcobendas and Penelope and her younger siblings, Eduardo, now a singer, and Monica, an actress, would sit in front of it for hours.

At 15, Penelope lied about her age to get into the cinema to see Pedro Almodovar's over-16s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! She has described walking the streets of Madrid after seeing it, plotting how to convince her parents to let her get an agent and pursue her acting dream.

The dream was, she says, “to work with Meryl Streep and Almodovar.” She has said that she turned up at her chosen agent's office three times before he put her on their books and she stuck with them when she made it big.

This sums up something about Penelope Cruz. She's come a long way from Madrid, but she hasn't forgotten who she is. She's an Oscar-winner, but she has never abandoned her first directorial mentor, Almodovar.

She's one of the most successful actresses in Hollywood, but she has retained her Spanish accent. She carefully guards the names of her two children — a son (3) and a daughter (1) — but happily talks about breast-feeding and sleep-deprivation.

She's stunningly beautiful, but she seems neither plastic nor perfect. Four years ago, Penelope Cruz replaced Kate Winslet as the face of Lancome's Tresor fragrance.

The actresses are aesthetically opposite — one very sultry Latin, one very blonde English rose — and yet there was something central in common. Both actresses have an earthiness and an accessibility that makes them appealing to men and women alike and, in many ways, makes them all the more powerful as a beauty ambassador.

This summer, Penelope is the face of Lancome's new mascara, Grandiose, with an innovative bent wand for reaching every lash and she's a perfect fit for the role.

After all, if anyone can demonstrate the eye-opening wonders of a good mascara, it's someone who says they're getting far less than a full night's sleep.

“Mascara's like a little black dress for the eyes,” Penelope says. “In some people, like in children, you can read who they are, how they feel, just by looking at their eyes.

“For me, it's true that eyes never lie. They truly are the door to someone's soul. Eyes will be able to express feelings that words will be unable to express. It is not easy for me to hide my emotions, but I don't try to fight that. The older I am, the least interested I am to pretend to be something I'm not and more comfortable with showing exactly who I am.”

Who Penelope Cruz is now is a woman of 40, who splits her time between her native Madrid and the US. She has two kids and a husband with a job that is as demanding as hers and she has a career that is famously tough on women as they age.

She seems unafraid of this, however, possibly because she has made her peace with attempting to change to fit what Hollywood wants. Instead, Penelope Cruz is about making Hollywood fit to who she is.

Penelope was 17 when she starred in the Spanish film, Jamon Jamon. Though it was almost two decades later that they became romantically involved in real life, Javier Bardem was her co-star in the film and his mother played the woman who helped Penelope's character to give birth on a bus.

She was 23 when she began her ongoing collaboration with Almodovar in Live Flesh and her first major, English-language film came the following year, with Stephen Frears's The Hi-Lo Country.

Sometimes, Penelope says, she has brought too much of herself to her roles. It was, she says, slightly dangerous for her, as she became too emotionally and psychologically invested and involved.

The earthy, feisty Raimunda in Almodovar's 2006 Volver, for example, was very close to her heart and close to her true self. It's a constant process of learning, however, and that's what she enjoys about acting.

“I watch my movies so that I can continue to grow and improve,” Penelope says. “See what I would have done differently, or whatever I was happy with. But I love acting and it is less and less about the result and more about the continuous research, the magic of the process and the lack of control that comes with it. You are always a student in this profession and I love that.”

A pivotal film for Penelope was 2001's Vanilla Sky, a remake of the Spanish Open Your Eyes, in which Penelope also starred. On the set of Vanilla Sky, she met Tom Cruise and their subsequent relationship lasted three years and immediately raised Penelope to a new level of celebrity and scrutiny.

This was, perhaps, the point at which she could have left Spain and her past behind her and utterly assimilated in Hollywood, but, in the long run, she found a way to blend both.

Beauty, says Penelope Cruz, is “about deciding to love and respect oneself, to celebrate oneself. To become your best friend.” Being true to Spain, while making it in America, is key to that.

In 2006, she became the first Spanish woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for her role in Volver. In 2007, she was the first Spanish woman to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which Javier Bardem became her co-star again.

Having started out together in Spain and having both made it in America without selling their souls, or losing their accents, the pair found a kinship that became a relationship and they got married in 2010. The wedding was in the Bahamas, at a friend's house and it was small and private and done without fuss. The following January, their son was born, followed by their daughter a year ago.

After her daughter was born, she talked about how she planned to breast-feed her for 13 months, as she had done with her son. Breast-feeding, she said, is addictive, and stopping with her son was heart-wrenching.

Interestingly, her favourite book at the moment is Within, by Dr Habib Sadeghi, which argues that self-love is the key to weight-loss and physical fitness.

“It is a masterpiece and can help a lot of people,” says Penelope. “Reading this book can be a life-changing experience and I know those are big words, but it is what I feel.”

In May, she made a return from motherhood to movies and started filming Ma Ma, with Spanish director Julio Medem. “I'm producing this movie and really involved in every aspect, because I really believe in it,” Penelope says.

“It is one of the best characters I've had in my hands. I play a cancer patient that goes through so much, but this story transmits so much light and love.”

When she accepted her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Cruz didn't forget the people who had helped her to get there and where she had come from. “I grew up in a place called Alcobendas,” she said, “where this was not a very realistic dream.”

She achieved the dream, but without forgetting everything and everyone who got her there, and if, as she says, the eyes don't lie, then hers tell of the happiness to be found in a success where you don't sacrifice your true self.

The Spanish actors who made it big

Among the other Spanish leading ladies is Assumpta Serna, the 56-year-old Spanish actress who has starred in major British television series and films. We know her as Sean Bean’s wife in the historical action TV series Sharpe, where she played the feisty guerrilla leader Teresa, and in Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone, playing the King’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Carmen Maura starred in the 2010 Spanish version of the US TV hit The Golden Girls. The 68-year-old has been a longtime muse for acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.

Antonio Banderas, who’s in the process of getting divorced from actress Melanie Griffith, also started off his movie career with director Pedro Almodóvar. He hit the big time after starring alongside Tom Cruise — who had enjoyed a long relationship with Cruz — in the 1990s movie Interview with the Vampire and the musicals Evita and The Mambo Kings. More recently, his voice talents have found new fans as Puss in the Shrek.

Cruz’s husband Javier Bardem famously won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as the psychopathic assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He became the first Spaniard to be nominated for the award (Best Actor, 2000, for Before Night Falls), as well as going on to become the first Spanish actor to win one.

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