Penelope Cruz is one of Europe’s great screen actresses, and it’s probably no exaggeration to say she’s the most successful actress in the history of Spanish cinema. Her eight film collaborations with Pedro Almodovar are a fruitful testament to a very healthy director-muse relationship—one which has led her to two Oscar nominations for Best Actress for Volver and for Parallel Mothers—although her Supporting Actress win came for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
At the major festivals, she won at Cannes for Volver and is the current holder of the Volpi Cup at Venice, leading from the front with her superb work in Parallel Mothers which opened proceedings on the Lido last year. Cruz, whose Hollywood forays include All the Pretty Horses, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Vanilla Sky, Blow and even a Pirates of the Caribbean, has for over two decades balanced a globally-recognised movie career with modelling assignments, celebrity status (she is of course married to equally well-known Spanish actor Javier Bardem), a family life, and continued international success with Spanish, Italian and English-language films, boosting art house titles with her star wattage, beauty and her magnetic, committed performances.
As if to illustrate her continued appetite for work, Cruz, who had two films at Venice last year in Parallel Mothers and the recent UK release Official Competition (a comedy about a film in a festival), returns to the Lido in 2022. Perhaps she won’t have to hand back the Best Actress trophy she won last year, because she’s now starring in another two titles: Italian film L’immensità for director Emanuele Crialese (Respiro, Terraferma) and Spanish thriller On the Fringe (En los márgenes), which she also produced for first-time director Juan Diego Botto.
To discuss a stellar career which has seen her navigate a path from European sex-symbol to stunning beauty, to thoroughly respected actress and industry figurehead, Jason Solomons put The Rabbit’s Foot questions to the fabulous Penelope Cruz.
Good morning. Congratulations on being Best Actress. How does it feel to go back to Venice as the holder of the Volpi Cup?
Hello, good morning. It is such a great honour to have won the Volpi Cup, and I have incredible memories from last year, being there with two films in the official competition. Winning with a movie I made with Pedro [Parallel Mothers] made everything even more special. I went to Venice for the first time with him when I was eighteen, for Bigas Lunas’ Jamón Jamón, and I couldn’t believe I was there. I was also with Javier [Bardem] and Jordi [Mollà] and the rest of the team, but especially us three; we were so young and mesmerised by the festival, and the fact we had made it to Venice with our film. So, to finally win with Pedro was very special, and I feel very happy to be back with another two films that are so dear to me this year: L’Immensità and En los márgenes.
I know Pedro Almodovar has compared you to Sophia Loren. How do you feel about that comparison and now being in an Italian film? That must be something you think about.
No. When it comes to Sophia, I don’t think about that. She’s a complete icon—one of the references to my work in so many ways, ever since I was a teenager admiring her performances and the way she lives her life. I was lucky to be able to meet her, to work with her, to even become friends, and she has always been so kind to me. She has taught me so many incredible lessons, and even though we don’t see each other so often, when we do, it’s like catching up with family, because we became really connected from making Nine (2009) together. I love her. So, I would not dare compare myself to her [laughs] because I admire her way too much for that.
What has Italian cinema meant to you throughout the years?
I mean, there are so many incredible directors I grew up studying, like Visconti and Pasolini, and as an actress, the work of Anna Magnani or Sophia. I am also a huge Fellini fan! I have been fortunate to work with some of Italy’s greatest current directors, like Emanuele Crialese and Sergio Castellitto who I worked with twice, and hopefully many more times. Actually, my first project with Castellitto [2004’s Don’t Move] was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as I was obsessed with the source material. Italian cinema remains a constant inspiration for all of us in this profession, not just its past. But also, the music: Nino Rota and Morricone’s work have influenced certain moments in my life in such a profound way. So, starring in Italian films makes me feel blessed and lucky to, in a way, be part of that history.
Parallel Mothers opened the festival last year. What has your journey with that film been like, and what has that part meant to you?
The journey with Parallel Mothers never ends, as the movie will be there forever, but I am so lucky to live this incredible adventure with Pedro. I think the character was actually quite tough, but Pedro helped me to find her. I had many months of rehearsals to get to the point where I found her, and it was an intense experience, but it had to be in some ways. But now I look back, and I remember it as a happy moment, a very present moment, and a magical time, even though the character was hard. Pedro is a very special man; very unique and funny and clever.
How do you find working in the Italian language?
As a matter of fact, I’m playing an Italian woman in an upcoming film on Ferrari with Michael Mann. It’s in English but I need to do an Italian accent. Whereas last summer I was portraying a Spanish woman who lives in Italy, so in Italian with a Spanish accent [laughs].
How close culturally do you think Spain and Italy are, having worked in both industries?
Yes! I feel at home in Italy. Of course, I love Spain and I live there and I will keep working in my country. But I find so many similarities between Spain and Italy in particular, the main one being the relationship with our families, and the importance of the figure of the Mother. I’ve played many characters, especially with Pedro, but even with Crialese, and En los márjenes—the movie I produced—they tend to be mothers, and they would do anything to help their children. I think Italian and Spanish cinema always creates these great homages to mothers. I think that’s beautiful. Family is the most important thing to me, in my life, and to be able to honour that is a privilege.
It seems to me Italian cinema puts the role of women to the centre of the action. How important to you is the sense of female character on-screen, and when you pick roles?
That’s true. If you look back at the sixties, and even before, there are many great Italian films where the lead is a woman. We’re only starting to see that more and more in other industries, particularly in America. Look, I’m not saying we’ve arrived at a place where it all feels fair, but it’s slowly improving. But in Italian cinema, as well as in French and Spanish, there have been many incredible roles about women, especially the mother—and I think mothers deserve that!
Do I look for these roles? Of course, but it’s not just up to me. But this is one of the reasons I created a production company, Moonlyon, to try to contribute to making interesting stories about women—for women. But we also depend on the material that arrives to us, so I don’t take it for granted that in my career I get a lot of interesting female characters, from Pedro’s movies, for example, or with Michael Mann. Especially in the past few years, I’ve felt lucky because great material is finding me. But you also have to say ‘No’ to roles that are empty, or that are tempting in certain wrong ways. That was one of the first lessons I learned when I began so young. In my twenties, I received a lot of offers, and it was confusing. But from the ‘No’, a more important ‘Yes’ will arrive.
What is the power of the strong female character on the cinema screen? Especially in the context of L’immensità?
Emanuele has created an icon of a character; one who is dying inside, because she cannot tolerate the pain her daughter is going through, or the pain of a broken family. There is a dark atmosphere in that house, a feeling they are not living the life they deserve. The mother suffers so much. She has such a great connection with her daughter but cannot give her what she needs. But at least she listens to her, and tries to understand her. It’s really emotional, I cried like ten times while watching it. Even the trailer gets me. Something happens in the film that puts you in a place of truth and makes you ask yourself so many questions. So, when the musical numbers appear, they can heighten the emotion because you understand the freedoms they deserve. Only in their imaginations can they fly and continue through their mediocre everyday lives.
What are the differences of the shoot on the Spanish set and with an Italian crew with Crialese?
Sure, I would say it’s a very similar atmosphere. The same rhythm, because whether it’s Italian or even Spanish, it is often independent, and that sets another sort of tone. For example, I’m doing an American film, and they only tend to work with a longer shoot and bigger budget. But I just want to add that the experience of making L’immensità taught me many lessons. Crialese is full of wisdom. We had an immediate connection when we met in London a few years ago. He told me the story, and our hour meeting went to three hours, and I felt we became friends from that moment. So, I’m happy his film is going to Venice. There are a few festivals I love, but this movie was made for Venice—in his home and country. And I’m happy the children in the movie, who gave us incredible performances, are going to be there, too.
Everyone is talking about streaming services.What is the power of being on the big screen for you?
Yes, it is important to me. The ritual and magic of seeing a film on a big screen cannot disappear, we have to protect it. Going into a theatre is a sacred time. You’re there for two hours, totally present, and surrounded by strangers. It will be sad if newer generations don’t get to experience that. Of course, these platforms are making interesting work, and in producing En los márgenes, we had the choice of doing it in a way that could’ve been much easier, but where we wouldn’t have a theatre run. This has been a six-year-long project, stalled by the pandemic, and we picked it up again two years ago. We were unsure if the movie would survive. I have to say that the director, Juan Diego Botto, and I have been friends since we were thirteen, and we studied theatre with his mother, Cristina Rota. I asked him to write something for us to act in together, and after the first draft I said, “this is yours, your heart, you must direct it!” and days after, he agreed to. I produced Ma Ma with Alvaro Longoria, so I went back to him to make sure the movie would get a theatrical release, and not just a symbolic few weeks. We want to contribute as much as we can to keeping the theatre alive, and our negotiations with streaming platforms can be great, but I will only do it if we will have a proper theatrical release. I’m sure both can coexist, but it is very important to me personally to keep the magic of the cinema alive.