By now, at least in American movies, there’s an unstated rule that says Penélope Cruz’s male co-stars must greet her appearance with a spell of awed silence meant to imply that her beauty is beyond words.

Tom Cruise, in Vanilla Sky (2001), stops short and gazes in wonder the moment he lays his eyes on Cruz’s character. In Sahara (2005), Steve Zahn is briefly agog when he encounters the Spanish actress for the first time. Matt Damon, in All the Pretty Horses (2000), finds himself unable to process the exquisiteness of the woman peering back at him from beneath gleaming black tresses. “Did you see that little darlin’?” a fellow horseman asks Damon’s John Grady Cole, in the Billy Bob Thornton-directed western. But Cole can’t move, let alone respond, so taken is he with the lovely creature before him.

Great beauty is rarely a hindrance to an actress’ career, and Cruz’s distinctive allure—that skin, those eyes, that arched upper lip, which seems to bump up against the base of a long, slender nose— has helped make the 32-year old an international star. Yet, in part because Hollywood hasn’t always figured out how to meld her good looks with substantial roles, there’s a very real disconnect between the manner in which Cruz is viewed by the American film-going public and the way she’s perceived abroad. For the better part of 15 years, Cruz has been nabbing meaty roles in European movies, from Fernando Trueba’s Belle Epoque (1992), a romantic period piece from Spain that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, to Sergio Castellitto’s Don’t Move (2004), an Italian picture that found the actress doing her best, a la Charlize Theron, to make us forget that she’s pretty. Of course, there are also her collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, a fellow Spaniard who is directing Cruz for a third time in Volver. Featuring some of Cruz’s best work to date, Almodóvar’s estrogen-charged meditation on family and death arrived in theaters on November 3rd, 2006 courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Cruz and Yohana Cobo in Volver

Working in Europe, Cruz has typically managed to avoid the one-note “little darlin’” roles that she has sometimes been offered in the States. As MM sat down with her in New York, however, Cruz relayed that she’s not concerned about how her work in American movies measures up against the roles she has played in films made closer to home. “I’ve only done [about] six movies here and 30 in Europe,” Cruz says, “so that’s normal that I’ve found more complex characters there.”

Cruz is quick to characterize herself as “very grateful” for the parts she has landed in big Hollywood productions. Her credits include a starring role opposite Johnny Depp in Ted Demme’s cautionary drug tale Blow (2001), a turn as Nicolas Cage’s love interest in John Madden’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001) and a spooky performance in support of Halle Berry’s lead in Mathieu Kassovitz and Thom Oliphant’s psychological thriller Gothika (2003). But the actress says she wants more challenges in the movies she makes in the U.S. “I feel I can do more,” she says. “I feel there are a lot of things that I haven’t done yet here.” For example, Cruz says, “I haven’t done comedy in English; I want to do that.” She’d like to be in a Woody Allen movie at some point, Cruz says, and would also happily make another movie with Cameron Crowe, who directed her in Vanilla Sky. “I want to work with Scorsese, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers,” she adds.

Carmen Maura embraces Cruz in Volver.

As an actress whose best work has come in dark and demanding films, Cruz not surprisingly looks upon her trio of roles in Almodóvar movies as career milestones. Their first collaboration came in Live Flesh (1997), a film that opens with a prostitute (played by Cruz) giving birth on a city bus. Cruz’s Isabel quickly becomes a local celebrity— Madrid’s public transit system comically awards her a lifetime pass— and although she’s not around by the time her son Victor rights the wayward path of his life, her presence is felt throughout. In one of the movie’s many memorable scenes, Victor visits his mother’s grave and thanks her for his inheritance; he’s calculated how many men Isabel had to sleep with in order to leave behind a small but helpful sum, and the weight of it all has hit him hard. All About My Mother (1999), a movie that Almodóvar dedicated in part “to all women who act,” finds Cruz playing another pregnant woman, but one coming at her expectant months from an entirely different place. Cruz is Rosa, a Barcelona nun who counsels prostitutes and transvestites and becomes a sort of accidental surrogate mother for a woman who has recently lost a teenage son. The film captures Cruz at her most girlish and vulnerable; her performance is subtle and idiosyncratic, and though the movie belongs to other actors—most notably Argentine actress Cecilia Roth in the lead role—Cruz is nonetheless wonderful.

Cruz with Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother

Volver represents the apex (for the moment, anyhow) of the Almodovar-Cruz professional pairing. Cruz plays Raimunda, a working mother in Madrid who is soldiering through a series of life-altering events. Translated, the film’s title means “to return” or “coming back,” and so it is that Raimunda’s long-dead mother (the Spanish actress Carmen Maura, another Almodóvar veteran) makes an unexpected homecoming. As Almodóvar succinctly put it on his Website not long ago, “More than about death itself, the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born. It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.”

In what is surely among the best performances of her career, Cruz gives us in Raimunda a woman as multihued as the autumn leaves. She is at once judgmental (in her dealings with her sister); put-upon (her husband is a layabout, so she’s the bread winner); optimistic (in her latest business endeavor, a reopened restaurant); sweetly protective (of her teenaged daughter); and quick on her feet (when a neighbor sees blood on her neck from a terrible accident she’d like to keep secret, Raimunda announces that she’s having “women’s troubles”). Asked what appealed to her about the film, Cruz declares, “Everything. It was like a dream come true: This story, this character, with Pedro again. Working in my country for six months with him, it was like a perfect experience.”

Almodóvar’s Cruz is a long way from the eye candy that she’s sometimes played in big American movies. Still unmistakably glamorous and flashing some notable cleavage, Cruz spends much of the film in unremarkable plaid skirts, plain sweaters and even the odd head scarf. Almodóvar augmented his star’s calculatedly common appearance by having her wear some extra padding beneath her dress. “The ass is very important,” Almodóvar reportedly said at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I wanted a fake bottom like Dustin Hoffman had in Tootsie.”

As is probably evident from the previous paragraph, the director’s approach, Cruz reports, remains very much “hands-on everything. Every detail: The color of the chair, the material of [a given piece of clothing], the shoes—everything to the detail. And I think you can see that in every shot. I love that; I really respect that. I don’t like when a director tells you ‘Yes’ to everything, and ‘Everything is perfect.’ Sometimes you hear [from Almodóvar]: ‘Okay, that’s not working.’ And you don’t mind hearing it, because you know something’s not working. You always hear the truth from him—always. And when you hear something’s not working, it’s such a scary feeling. But then he helps you find it.”

Lola Dueñas and Cruz in Volver

Critics and moviegoers abroad have given Volver an unmistakable seal of approval. The movie cleaned up at the Cannes Film Festival in May, nabbing awards for its screenplay and the work of its ensemble cast of actresses, and in September it won the prestigious FIPRESCI prize, awarded annually to the year’s best film as voted by more than 300 critics. Meanwhile, it’s a commercial hit abroad, having grossed more than $50 million since it opened in the spring. “I love this movie,” Cruz declares, stretching out the word “love” for emphasis. “It’s so beautiful.” Of Almodóvar she notes, “He’s given me some of my most challenging characters. The more difficult the material, the more chances you have to create something interesting. Every actor wants that: Difficult parts, emotionally demanding parts. Anything that scares you, you want to do as an actor.” That’s how she felt about Volver, Cruz says, “because it was so well-written. I felt it was a huge responsibility that he was giving me. It was: Okay, he’s putting this character in my hands. I was crying the day before the beginning of the shooting, because I was very scared. But it was a great feeling—not an anxious feeling. It’s excitement.”

Asked if she’d ever cried before she was ready to start another movie, Cruz admits “Yeah, but not like this one.” How was this different? “I knew what this meant for my career, this movie at this point… In a personal way, and also the character. If I did it right it was going to represent a push in the direction that I’m interested in and maybe more credibility as an actress.”

More than perhaps any big-name film actress currently working, Cruz exists in two creative worlds: She’s a huge star in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, where she has been nominated for a total of five European Film Awards and three Goyas (the Spanish Oscars), but one who is still finding her niche in America. Though many fans of her work with Almodóvar and other Spanish moviemakers see a clear distinction between the two poles of her professional life, she’s not among them. “For me, it’s the same career—here and there,” she says. “And Volver is a continuation of that. I don’t see it as a different career. I never left Europe to work here; I feel very privileged that I can do both.”

Cruz, whose first name was inspired by one of Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat’s songs, was pointed toward a different career path for most of her early years. Raised in Alcobendas, a suburb north of Madrid, she studied dance: “I grew up as a dancer,” she says, “I was a student for 14 years.” She began pursuing acting roles in her teens, landed some TV work and then was picked for a role opposite Javier Bardem in Jamón, Jamón, her fellow countrymen Bigas Luna’s erotically-charged comedy. The movie represented Cruz’s breakout; the winsomeness and abandon she displayed in playing the role led to a series of others, and she spent the 1990s establishing herself as a talented and resourceful actress. She made her first major film in English in 1998, with Stephen Frears’ western, The Hi-Lo Country, which saw Cruz share the bill with Billy Crudup, Woody Harrelson, Sam Elliott and Patricia Arquette.

Cruz smells success in Volver.

If Cruz has less of a standing here than she does in Spain and the rest of Europe, it’s partially because American moviemakers haven’t always been sure what to do with her. For a variety of reasons—among them her uncommon, exotic attractiveness and the fact that although she’s fluent in English, Cruz is clearly not a native speaker—the roles she lands here aren’t always commensurate with her talent. Stinkers like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Sahara may have enriched her financial portfolio, but they did nothing for the way she’s viewed by American filmgoers. Cruz, though, says she’s not worried about that. “I don’t think about how I’m perceived anywhere,” she says. “I just care about how I’m perceived at home, with my friends and my family. With work, I try to do the best I can. I try to be honest with myself and learn through all these lessons like everyone else. But you cannot live your life thinking or wondering how you are perceived by the public. I mean, I know the reactions that I’m getting with this performance are the best ever in my career, and that is a great feeling, because it’s about the work and only about the work. But then, every time you make a movie, you try your best. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. There are little factors involved in that. That’s why every experience counts, I think.”

Asked about heroes in the film business and fellow performers she learned from, she mentions Almodóvar, of course, along with directors Crowe, Thornton and Trueba as well as onetime co-stars Depp and Damon. But she reserves the greatest praise for her parents, whom she credits with creating an atmosphere in which she and her siblings—her brother is a musician, her sister a dancer—were encouraged to be creative. “There was always a lot of music in the house, and they bought a Betacam video player. We were one of the first families to have one, even though we didn’t have much money. We could go into the video store and rent Beta tapes. I remember when that machine arrived, I was a kid, and my father had to explain to me what it was,” she recalls. “I was amazed that I could go and rent movies every weekend. We didn’t have the money to go to the theater; we didn’t even have a theater nearby. It was the beginning of me dreaming about making movies, because of that machine.” Lately, though, Cruz has begun moving toward other areas of moviemaking. This year she started a small production company called 88 Producciones, and she recently bought the film rights to Indian Passion, Spanish writer Javier Moro’s best-selling novel about the romantic life of a turn-of-the-20th-century Indian maharajah. She plans to act in the movie version. Another project would reportedly reunite her with Trueba. Cruz says she could see a time where she would “maybe shoot a little less as an actress and spend some more of my time developing these projects.”

When asked about working on big studio pictures like Sahara, Cruz notes that “You just to have make an effort to stay connected with the other actors, with the character. Because you shoot little pieces, and then wait maybe for two days and do nothing. So you can get disconnected very easy. It’s a different way of working that is interesting to try.” By contrast, she describes an Almodóvar set as “feeling like a second family.” Perhaps tellingly, Cruz has lined up a pair of relatively small films for her immediate future. She’s part of the ensemble cast (with Danny DeVito, Gwyneth Paltrow and Simon Pegg, among others) in director Jake Paltrow’s The Good Night, and will play the 1940s Spanish actress Lupe Sino in Dutch moviemaker Menno Meyjes’ Manolete, a biopic about a famed bullfighter (with Adrien Brody in the title role).

The Hollywood system has not always been kind to actresses of a certain age, and although she won’t have to concern herself with this for some years, Cruz has charted a career path that should stand up over time. It’s simple, she says: She’ll just take the interesting roles, regardless of where they take her, geographically. “As an actor the thing that gives me so much happiness is that I feel like when I’m 80 years old I will still feel like a child on the set, because I will have so much to learn. Because you never get to a place in acting where you feel you’ve done everything; there’s always another human being that you could play. So there’s always more—there’s always more to learn, and I love that about acting. You can always feel young and always keep feeling like you’re a student.” MM

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.