IT'S the middle of a sun-blasted September afternoon, and Penelope Cruz is sitting in an empty hotel banquet room, Chanel bag by her side. She is trying to talk about acting, but she keeps coming back to legendary Spanish flamenco singer Camaron de la Isla.
Camaron devotees don't usually carry Chanel bags. He was raw, brash and dead at 41, and his singing was the sound of hurt, his cigarette-stained voice a cracking tumult of anguish that sliced through any adornment that tried to dress it up.
"Do you know his version of 'La Tarara'?" she asks, and then slips into the song's register-leaping chorus in her own impressively husky voice. "Anyone who knows flamenco knows the power of a singing voice but also knows it cannot be put into words. It puts you in an incredible place."
If all arts aspire to the condition of music, as Walter Pater once wrote, then Cruz's art, most recently on display in Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," aspires to the condition of flamenco. When a skilled flamenco singer starts to sing, it can seem as if the world has stopped and become pure pain. The beauty of flamenco is its fleshy brutality, its elevation of blood and sweat into art.
"It's what good acting should be like," she argues. "All of the extra things go away and you are left just with the purity of the work. I am from Madrid, not from the south where flamenco is from, but I have something from the south in me. There is something in the south that I think all Spanish women have in common -- that strength, that toughness."
For most U.S. audiences, though, the strength and toughness of southern Spanish women and dead flamenco giants may not be the first qualities that leap to mind at the mention of Cruz's name. The 32-year-old actress is probably best known here for being pretty, for starring in some blockbuster stinkers ("Captain Corelli's Mandolin," "Sahara"), and for a pair of high-profile tabloid couplings (Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey).
A different image abroad
YET beyond the shores of stateside celebrity, we see a very different Cruz: a veteran of more than 40 films in four languages (Spanish, English, French and Italian) who has grown into one of international cinema's most artistically risk-ready performers. Her exceptional work as an anti-Nazi Spanish actress in Fernando Trueba's 1998 "La Nina de Tus Ojos" (The Girl of Your Dreams) earned her a Goya for best actress, and in 2004 she won the same honor from the Academy of European Cinema for her melancholic turn as a love-wrecked hotel maid in Sergio Castellitto's "Non Ti Muovere" (Don't Move).
"The press always wants to invent the story that I left Europe to go Hollywood or something like that," she says with a laugh, rolling her eyes. "That never happened. I would never stop working in my country or in Europe. That would be the most stupid decision. I feel very grateful that I can work in America, but I want to keep combining it. I did all my first castings in Europe. I never came here with my luggage and said I'm staying."
Cruz hopes that her latest starring role, as "Volver's" tough and tireless working-class mom Raimunda, will finally change the way American audiences see her. It already seems to be working. After earning a best actress prize at Cannes (an ensemble award given to the film's entire female cast), Cruz was honored at the Hollywood Film Festival as best actress of the year, and Oscar whispers have been trailing her ever since the film, which opens here Friday, started screening.
"I'm really glad that people prefer it when I do characters like Raimunda," she says. "I just love that woman. I have seen those women, who could easily become victims but refuse to do that. She goes through things that could have destroyed anyone but she keeps fighting because her daughter needs her to survive. I know women like that. So you forget about yourself because you are playing a woman who is actually an hommage to all those women who have survived. They are very special people, and I wanted to give her that dignity."
'She was very real'
THE first time Cruz worked with Pedro Almodovar, in 1997's "Carne Tremula" (Live Flesh), she played a teen prostitute screaming and grunting her way through childbirth on a Madrid bus. The second time, in 1999's "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" (All About My Mother), she was a pregnant, HIV-positive nun. While "Volver's" Raimunda seems far simpler on paper -- a mother who becomes enmeshed in the secrets of her family's past -- she is actually the most complex of all of her Almodovar characters, a subtle mix of hushed nobility and devastating force. Raimunda is a career-making role, and Cruz plays her, alongside veteran Almodovar actress Carmen Maura, with an emotional depth that few might have trusted she could pull off.
Few, that is, except Almodovar himself.
"When I saw her in 'Jamon Jamon,' the girl was almost savage," he says of Cruz's first big screen role in 1992, where her character was billed only as la hija de puta, or the whore's daughter. "There was something in Penelope, a way of walking. Something not vulgar, but carnal, that caught my attention. There was nothing academic about her. She was very real. That rarely happens, finding people who are like animals raised to be caught on camera. When they are not in front of the camera, it's not that they are different, they are normal. It's the chemistry with the camera that converts them into something exceptional."
Cruz is one of Almodovar's favorite topics. Throw her name out, and he'll talk for an hour about the arc of her career ("Success has not changed her at all"), the perils of being a woman in Hollywood during the Lindsay Lohan era ("By 20, you are ancient and people throw you into the garbage"), and how her performance as an everyday housewife in "Volver" puts her in the same league as Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, actresses who melded refined grace with an almost brute strength. He calls them mujeres esplendidas, splendid women, "with all that force in their bodies, and in the most important part of their bodies. Women with a powerful sense of motherhood."
In "Volver's" press materials Almodovar devotes an entire page to his admiration of Cruz. At one point, he writes, "Penelope has got one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema."
"I say that with all the seriousness in the world," he later explains between press conferences on a recent L.A. visit. "In this film, cleavage represents many important things about the character. That chest represents motherhood. That is a Mediterranean mother. That is not an American chest. That is the chest of a mother who keeps working when the family is all sleeping."
While the chest belonged to Cruz, her bottom was another story. Says Almodovar, "I had to put a fake ass on her. The roundness and fleshiness of a mother's body is essential. It's what it means to be a mother."
Almodovar sees the three roles he's given Cruz as inverses of her development in real life. As she becomes more beautiful and glamorous, her characters become more plebeyo, more common and working-class, more saddled with distress.
"It's as if she has a bank of painful emotions that never dries up," he says. "She has a relationship with pain that is very intimate. She can call on it instantly, effortlessly. Technically speaking, I don't know how she does it."
Cruz won't give many details about what she calls "my dark side" but admits that it's a central part of who she is both as a person and as an actor.
"It's not something that I wear as a medal or something," she says, nervously clicking together the tips of her high heels. "But Pedro knew that about me before I ever shared it with him. He knows that I know pain. He knows that every day I am in contact with all those emotions. I have to fight to be at a peaceful place with myself. It's very difficult for me sometimes. Pedro looks at me and doesn't see the first layer. He sees everything else. Maybe he identifies with that."
'Nothing was too easy'
CRUZ grew up in the outskirts of Madrid. Her father was a store clerk and her mother worked as a hairdresser. There was little money in the family, but her parents made sure that she and her two younger siblings were always surrounded by art and music. It was a successful strategy. Cruz, named for Spanish singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat's hit "Penelope," studied dance for 14 years before turning to acting (her first role was in a music video). Her sister, Monica, is a TV actress, and her brother, Eduardo, is a pop singer who has just released his debut album.
"I saw my parents work so hard to earn enough for us to eat," she says. "That's real life to me. I thank God that I was able to grow up in an environment where nothing was too easy."
Without that upbringing, Cruz suggests, she would never have been able to play Raimunda. The character was instantly familiar to her, an archetype of all those hard-working mothers, including her own, she admired when she was young.
"They are strong, sometimes bossy," she says. "They are always very busy. Raimunda has no time to waste on stupid things. I identify with those people. I was raised like that."
In fact, the more you talk to Cruz the more it's apparent that she not only identifies with those women but wants to always be like them. Midway through our conversation she stresses that L.A. is where she works, not where she lives (home is in Madrid with her parents and siblings), and Chanel bag aside, the real Penelope is jeans and bare feet, the girl who ran around the house half-naked while helping her parents clean house on Sundays.
"Instead of asking my parents if I could go play in the street with friends," she remembers, "all of us kids would ask for another album to listen to. I would want to go home and sit in a corner and listen to flamenco and Mozart and opera. I have this image of all of us sitting on the floor listening to all that music and dreaming about having the freedom to grow up to do what we love. Once you get that high about the things you are connected to, there is really no way back."
On Thursday, AFI Fest will host a tribute to Penelope Cruz, followed by a gala presentation of "Volver." For more information on all festival screenings and events, go to www.afifest.com.