Control of her craft

“Control is not a really good friend of acting” says Penélope Cruz over a late afternoon cranberry juice at the Chateau Marmont. Judging from her recent stint of uninhibited performances -- “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” for which she won an Oscar; “Broken Embraces,” in which she plays a rich man’s mistress in love with a film director; and “Nine,” in which she plays the ultra-needy mistress of a film director (we sense a theme for her) -- that might be an understatement.

At 35, after a rocky start in Hollywood where she played a fair share of the so-called handbag roles usually allotted to women, Cruz has turned into one of cinema’s most uninhibited and visceral performers.

“You learn to work without [control] and you jump with no net,” she says.

Of course, art is one thing. Life is another. On a recent winter afternoon, Cruz is completely controlled, proper and polite -- guided by a publicist to a cozy table, like a trainer leading a thoroughbred. Cruz looks scrubbed and clean, an impression accentuated by her sparkling white T-shirt and lacy sweater.

“Broken Embraces” is Cruz’s fourth collaboration with the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. For him, she has played a young woman giving birth on a bus (“Live Flesh”), a nun with AIDS in love with a transvestite (“All About My Mother”) and a mother determined to protect her daughter at all costs (“Volver”). Yet Lena of “Broken Embraces” is, says Cruz, the “saddest [character] that I have played. It’s almost like she surrenders to things going wrong. I always imagined the character walking with this gray cloud following her as she goes.”

Lena is certainly one of the most battered by fate and beauty, by men’s controlling desire. She’s a poor secretary who acquiesces to becoming the mistress of a wealthy industrialist to help her dying father, a Faustian bargain that destroys her when later she tries her hand at acting and falls in love with her director. Cruz plays all of Lena’s incarnations with the exquisite ability to render clearly for the audience the character’s true self and her various false ones. “She becomes a good actress in real life,” Cruz says.

The process of working with her close friend Almodóvar is an intense one, she explains, involving months of sitting in the director’s office and trying the scenes in different ways, as if rehearsing for a theater piece. Almodóvar is a meticulous taskmaster. “He will choose everything for the look of an actor, the shoes, the material of the shirt, every hat, everything. There is nothing in one shot that has not been chosen by him. And I really respect that because that takes double the time that most directors would take.”

Her role in “Nine” also required intensive rehearsals because of the challenges of mounting a musical. Growing up in the suburbs of Madrid, Cruz had yearned to be a dancer and studied for years, but by the point of being cast in the film, she hadn’t danced in what seemed like ages. She also had never sung on screen (she was dubbed for her famous singing scene in “Volver”). “We had a building in the studio where we had a room for singing and a room for dancing and a room for dialect coach. We would go from room to room, all of us,” she says.

The film, based on Fellini’s “8 1/2 ,” tells of a dissolute film director (Daniel Day-Lewis) grappling with creative block and the myriad women in his life, played by a starry array of actresses, including Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. Cruz says the first day was a little surreal. “You don’t know what to do. Everywhere you look it’s someone amazing.”

Already, Cruz has nabbed Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild supporting actress nominations for her ultra-sensuous performance in “Nine,” which puts her in good position for another Oscar run.

And while she downplays the control needed for such passionate roles, she clearly delineates each character’s specific emotional journey, which takes a toll.

“Many of them have left me very, very exhausted. You release a lot of things,” she says, adding, “I don’t take this job as psychology or therapy. I don’t think that’s very honest, but sometimes it becomes therapeutic in many ways. You get to understand a lot of things about yourself.”