Penélope Cruz Sanchez was born 28th April 1974 in Madrid, Spain to Eduardo Cruz and Encarna Sanchez. The Spanish beauty was named after Joan Manuel Serrat’s song “Penélope”.
Penélope’s father is an auto mechanic and her mother a hairdresser. “I grew up observing women,” she says, “all those different women, different attitudes, coming there to be pretty. I used to sit there and observe how they related to each other, to my mother. It was very interesting. It was like a good acting school.” Her parents are now divorced. Penélope has a younger sister, Monica, who is a professional flamenco dancer and a rising actress, and a younger brother, Eduardo Jr, who currently studies. The family lived in the working-class suburb of Alcobendas, about five kilometres north of Madrid.
Apparently Penélope was very restless and intense as a child and was tormented by many fears. “I am happier now because I don’t have so many fears. My first fear was about the devil, when I was around fire, something I saw in a movie. I think it’s about pain, in whichever form it comes. I had a lot of energy as a child – sometimes too much – and I didn’t know how to channel it. It was making me suffer. It was bigger than myself, and I was very young. It was a difficult time, no?” However, the actress grew up as a natural performer. Her parents signed her up for ballet classes when she was four. But by the time she reached early adolescence, the endless hours of being on her toes had lost their charm. “It’s a very sadistic thing,” she says. “You get used to bleeding and smiling at the same time.” Penélope spent a total of nine years studying classical ballet at Spain’s National Conservatory, three years of Spanish ballet under the guidance of Angela Garrido, a period of Jazz Dance lessons under Raul Caballero and four years studying Dance Performance with Cristina Rota in New York City.
She had been studying theatre for a few years, and as the dancing faded out, acting took centre stage. Leaving High School at an early age, Penélope beat more than 300 other girls at a talent agency audition when she was just 15. Landing her first job at 16, Penélope presented children television programmes on Spain’s Tele 5. However, the high demands of this position combined with having just finished studying feverishly throughout her pre-pubescence and teens, Penélope had to take a break to recover from over-exhaustion.
In 1991 she filmed El Laberinto griego / The Greek Labyrinth, which was not released until 1993. “I found a lot of magic in it, a lot of order to that chaos,” she says of her first experiences with acting. “I felt like a child. I was completely in love with it. I still feel like that. You can always keep learning with acting, because the school is life and yourself and your friends and your relationships. I’m fascinated by it! Its infinito!” This was followed by the TV thriller Framed and Belle Epoque / The Age of Beauty, which received nine Goya awards (Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) as well as an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. More success came with the controversial Jamón, jamón / A Tale of Ham and Passion in which Penélope is the lowly daughter of the local brothel-keeper. Penélope’s performance awarded her with a Goya nomination and the film received the Silver Lion at Venice. However, the sexual role left the actress confused and her boyfriend of the time, composer Nacho Cano, was not impressed with her going topless for the role. “There was some strong energy around me, and I didn’t know how to handle it,” Cruz says. “I had a strong rejection of anything sexual or sensual for a while. I cut my hair very, very short. I didn’t do any love scenes, not even kisses, for many years. I was told by everyone, ‘You are risking your career.’ But I followed my heart, and I never regret that.” She sighs. “No one forced me to make the movie. I felt very happy doing it. But I also suffered for it.”
Todo es mentira / It’s All Lies (1994) would be Penélope’s next successful film. In the rauncy comedy she played the highly-strung Lucia. The performance won her the Best Actress win at the Peniscola Comedy Film Festival. Next came the role of Sofia in Alejandro Amenábar’s critically acclaimed Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes and La Niña de tus ojos / The Girl of Your Dreams, an English spoken film, where she re-united with Belle Epoque director Fernando Trueba and won a Goya Award for her performance.
Next would be The Hi-Lo Country (1998), Penélope’s first Hollywood production. It has been rumoured that she donated a large part of her salary of the film to Mother Teresa’s children’s sanctuary in Calcutta. Early in her career, Penélope volunteered for one week at Mother Teresa’s hospital in Calcutta, which left a huge stamp on her life. In 1997, she also spent two months volunteering in Uganda, along with her boyfriend at the time, Faiz Ahmad.
Her big success came with Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother (1999). The film is still considered one of Spain’s most acclaimed movies. It won the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars and Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, among others. Penélope’s first American starring role, Woman On Top (2000), saw her move her into major pin-up territory. Next to come was All the Pretty Horses (2000). After wrapping the film, Penélope and Nacho Cano founded a non-government organisation called Sabera Foundation and went directly to India to shoot a documentary for the Foundation, which was aiming to raise money for deprived children. The Foundation built a home, a school and a clinic for homeless girls and TB sufferers. The Foundation no longer exists because of the founders different opinions. On her return from this trip, Ms. Cruz collapsed again from exhaustion. She describes this as the worst period of her life, “I had a horrible, horrible breakdown. It was just huge, like the worst period of my life, and it lasted for a couple of months.”
“She’ll travel anywhere to help people,” All the Pretty Horses director Billy Bob Thornton says. “I mean, she’ll run herself into the ground to go someplace for somebody. Look, we’re making the movies we want to make: we’re making money to support our families; we’re the luckiest people in the world. But she just cares so deeply that I think it’ll be her downfall. This is a long-winded way of saying that she’s co-dependent. And it makes life pretty tough sometimes.”
After recuperating, Ms. Cruz filmed Blow (2001) with Johnny Depp, of whom she has said, “Johnny is so special that he is like a Martian. In fact, that’s what I call him, Martian.” Later that year she filmed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001) with Nicholas Cage, and Vanilla Sky (2001), the American version of Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes. Along with the role came a highly publicised four year relationship with co-star Tom Cruise. Penélope was now a household name in Hollywood and the next few years saw her star in Fanfan la tulipe (2003), Gothika (2003) and the film that Penélope says changed her life – Non ti muovere / Don’t Move (2004). She learned Italian just to be able to portray the rape victim. Of the role she says, “When I find material that can make me feel so much, I feel so privileged that they thought of me for this.” For her fine performance, Penélope received a Goya nomination.
2004 saw Head in the Clouds (2004) Penélope Cruz in a ménage à trois with Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend and around the same time, the end of her relationship with Tom Cruise. Later she would film Sahara (2005), which was a very psychical role as the stunts in the film were done by Penélope herself. “I’ve never said no to a director for something like that because of fear. So I train and train and train”, she says. This film also saw the beginning of her relationship with co-star Matthew McConaughey. Penélope has been linked to many famous actors in the past, including Nicolas Cage and Matt Damon but the actress herself states that most of these are just silly rumours.
Penélope recently starred in Bandidas (2005) with long time best friend Salma Hayek. On the filming experience, Penélope said “I love working with her. She’s been my friend for seven years and is someone that I love very much. She’s a great woman and we are now even closer friends after the movie. We had to do all of those action scenes together, and my God, we worked so hard. We worked hard, but at the same time feeling so lucky that we could do that.”
In 2005 Pedro Almodóvar and Cruz re-united for their third collaboration for Volver (2006) which will be in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year. “Pedro Almodóvar is my favorite director and it’s a gift, this character. He had the trust to bring to my hands such an amazing, difficult, complex character and that’s what I look for. I don’t look for easy things,” said Cruz, who has been receiving rave reviews for her performance. “When I watched it, I felt I’d done one of those things that I know I’m going to be proud of for the rest of my life.”
In January 2006, Penélope was honored by the French government with a Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held in Paris, France. In 2007, she received an Academy Award nod for her stunning performance in Volver (2006) but the Oscar went to Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006). Well, in our eyes Penélope is the winner for her wonderful, refreshing and multifaceted portrayal of Raimunda.
Next Penélope filmed a small independent feature called The Good Night (2007) and co-starred in Manolete (2007) next to Adrien Brody. Both films are still awaiting wide release. Ms Cruz traveled to British Columbia, Canada to star in Elegy (2007) next to powerhouse actors, including Ben Kingsley, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard. Elegy (2007) will be released in 2008. Next Penélope fulfilled a great dream of hers as she received a call from Woody Allen, who cast her as María Elena in his new movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). The film brought Pe back to her native country and re-united her with her Jamón, jamón / A Tale of Ham and Passion (1992) co-star Javier Bardem. According to reports, the two have become a couple.
Cruz recently founded her own production company, 88 Producciones, and will soon produce and star in Indian Passion. With the long awaited and very well deserved international critical success that films like Volver (2006) are bringing Ms. Cruz, we can look forward to many amazing things from the actress!