Penelope Cruz : Caught in the act
Pénelope Cruz is famously proud of her Spanish heritage – indeed, you will struggle to find a global film star who goes about both their private and professional life with as much vim, vigour and veracity as the beautiful 43-year-old directs towards her native country. Cruz’s dedication to Spain is complex, but loyal. Yes, she’s sparred with Hollywood, even embarking on a three-year relationship with one its greatest sons, Tom Cruise. But despite flirtations with France – in the form of her ambassadorial work for L’Oréal - and philanthropic projects in locations as distant as India and Nepal, the sense was that the actress would always return to her home country.
She has achieved that without question. A stunning home in Madrid, a perfect marriage to fellow Spaniard and actor Javier Bardem, and two children: Leo, seven, and Luna, three. But looking at Cruz’s film choices offers a further nod to the pride she has for her country of birth, choosing to take up countless Spanish-language productions in preference to bigger paydays in Tinseltown.
And while her recent portrayal Donatella Versace in Ryan Murphy’s latest American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace may have seen her stepping over the border to Italy, her commitment to iconic, informative and important characters means she will continue to go about her work with style, enterprise and humility. Sure enough, the Oscar winner lights up the screen as the Italian powerhouse, who takes over the reins of the family business when her brother (Edgar Ramirez) is gunned down by serial killer, Andrew Cunanan
(Darren Criss). It’s the role Cruz was born to play as she nails the performance with biting flamboyance and strength. And yet, in person, she is a contrast of Versace brashness. With tousled raven locks over a structured Chanel tweed jacket and jeans, she’s a cool mix of subtle elegance and Latin fire. Her dark eyes give an intense gaze while her full lips pout and crease.
“I didn’t want this to be an imitation, I wanted it to be an honest, genuine representation of who she is, an amazing, inspiring woman who I look up to,” Cruz explains. “Because I really love her. I feel connected.” Away from the set, Cruz is reserved and cautious, lively but quiet. In all, you feel she is in a good place right now, and clearly wants to stay there.
Penelope Cruz : Caught in the act
After nearly 30 years in the business, how do you look at your career then and now?
I feel very lucky to be in a place in my career where I am still given wonderful opportunities to work with talented directors and actors - I feel very blessed. And I think the more work I do, the more interest-ing opportunities I’m getting, which is wonderful.
Let’s talk first about your latest project. What was your ini-tial feeling when asked to play Donatella Versace?
I had an inner conflict and was a little scared. I thought maybe about saying no but then I am a big admirer of Ryan’s work and his team, so I was torn. When he called me, I wanted to say yes but it was a difficult choice, one of the most difficult I have made in my career, because I knew what a great undertaking this was and how sensitive and raw these events still are for the family. I knew Ryan would insist on total respect and tread very carefully, but there was still so much to consider. And I said to him, ‘I want to say yes because I love everything you have ever done, but I have to speak with Donatella first; I have to grant her that respect and see what she thinks, and only after that can I make my decision’.
So did you become friends with Donatella?
I don’t have a close relation-ship with Donatella, but we have worked together and known each other for many years and I have nothing but utmost re-spect for who she is and for the Versace family.
Were you nervous to approach her about it?
I was not nervous. Maybe I should have been, but we knew each other, and she knew of the plans to make this pro-ject about her family. But yes, I should have been nervous to say those words, ‘Okay, I received an offer to play you’, but I wasn’t. I was calm, and she was very respectful and warm.
She didn’t know you were going to play her before?
No, I told her, it was the first time she learned.
How did the conversation go?
We spoke for one hour. It was amazing. She was very generous with her stories about her life and about her experiences, we opened up to each other. It was a beautiful, emotional conversation and I was so very blessed to have that audience with her. And afterwards she said to me: ‘I feel if someone is going to play me, then I am very hap-py and comfortable that you are going to do it.’ That was my blessing there. That was all I needed.
Is it more difficult playing someone from real life, when you know them? Or easier?
Probably it’s more difficult. Playing someone who is real and alive is a huge responsibility; but playing someone who you’ve met, it’s very intimidating.
How did you go about learning. How to play her?
I had her in my ear for three months. Everywhere I went, I had her voice in my head; I be-came a little obsessed maybe. I wanted every piece of footage out there so I could feel fully prepared and researched. Donatella had given me her blessing and I was going to work as hard as I could for her. The trouble was trying to learn to speak English with an Italian accent, and Donatella has the most unique tone and signature to how she speaks. My voice is very different, compare to hers, it’s very high. But her voice, her way… it’s unmistakeably her. It’s very rock and roll!
Penelope Cruz : Caught in the act
Did you ever meet Gianni?
No, I never met him. I have worked with Versace many times, dressing me. But no, I never meet him. But I love the designs they are timeless, and every time I have worn them, I feel transported and so regal. They are pieces of art, beautiful creations.
Do you still feel driven as an actress?
For a long time I enjoyed working very intensely and travelling a lot. I loved being able to explore many different kinds of characters and I was always full of energy and passion. I’m still very passionate when it comes to my work, but I’d rather make one or two movies a year and that’s it. My family is my priority now.
Both you and your husband are actors, so is scheduling a problem for you to both find that balance with your family?
I think we are very lucky in our professions to have the ability to bring our family to work with us. Not many parents have the same luxury or flexibility, it’s an advantage you cherish. When they were younger, it was not so easy to move around as a unit. It was too disruptive, but it’s much easier now.
What does being a mother mean to you?
Everything changes the sec-ond you become a parent you start seeing the world through different eyes. It’s a revolutionary change. It even changes your relationship with nature. You experience many things for the first time again that’s the real beauty of it. You get to revisit your own childhood because now you’re experiencing it with your own children. I think the relationship between a mother and her children is a very intense and joyful experience, and it’s important to me to help my children grow up to be confident adults. So I always try to bring my whole family along with me while I’m working.
What’s the secret to staying looking young?
I drink a lot of water and try to get a good night’s sleep even though that’s difficult with a young child. Since I’ve become a mother, I have a more woman-ly body now. Your body changes when you go through this life-giving event, and it’s something magical. I try to stay in good shape, but I don’t obsess about it. I usually go to the gym with friends and I love swimming and diving. I enjoy cooking and eating well, and I never go on extreme diets. I’m more careful of what I eat, but I love food and that will always be one of my great pleasures in life.
And life in Madrid is good?
Yes, I’m able to go everywhere. I go to shopping at the super-market, the pharmacy, and I go see movies. Sometimes people will stop to talk to me and ask me to take a selfie with them, but usually they are very kind and friendly. It’s a pleasure for me to be able to have that contact.
How would you describe your life these days?
Every day I understand more about life and I learn a little more about who I am which is always the biggest question. But I feel good. I have a beautiful family and a job that I love, and which gives me a lot of freedom. I feel very grateful.
By Karen Overton