With her large, dark-brown eyes, silky black hair and olive complexion, it would be easy to imagine Spanish actress Penelope Cruz as an Andalusian lady, dancing a fandango, wearing a mantilla and playing castanets.
But born a Madrilena (from Madrid), and in an age when everyone wears Gap clothing, Cruz found a different way of becoming a lady from the south of Spain: acting.
Last year, the role she had dreamed about as a child materialized in Fernando Trueba's "Girl of Your Dreams." Playing a young Andalusian cabaret singer trapped in Germany during the Nazi era, Cruz could finally play out fantasies she created in her childhood.
The role was close to Cruz's heart. Her grandmother is from Andalusia, an area in southern Spain where the passion of Gypsy culture, flamenco and bullfighting are as much a part of the landscape as the blood-red-colored hillsides speckled with olive trees. The vibrancy and passion of Andalusian music and poetry was ingrained in Cruz as a young girl by her grandmother.
Her transformation into the character was so complete, so real, that she won a Goya--Spain's equivalent of an Oscar--for best actress.
"I always admired these women from the 1940s who were so open," she said. "From when I was very small, I was always listening to these coplas [two-sentence refrains or verses]. I had been rehearsing all my life for this movie."
Rehearsing comes naturally to Cruz--she's been doing it since she was a young girl. Her acting career began when she was 15, and by her late teens she was a star throughout Europe.
Now 25, Cruz is on a roll. Her first English-language film, "The Hi-Lo Country," came out at the end of last year; her second one, "Twice Upon a Yesterday," opened Friday. Her most recent Spanish-language film, "Open Your Eyes," was released in the U.S. last month.
Her next Spanish film, Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," was the toast of Cannes this year--Almodovar won the best director award for it--and likely will be released in the U.S. later in the year. And soon to start shooting is another English-language film, "Woman on Top."
For a young actress, Cruz has a surprisingly wide range. She has gone from a Mexican girl with an unrequited love for cowboy Bill Crudup in the drama "Hi-Lo Country" to a bookish writer in the romantic fantasy "Twice Upon a Yesterday" to a pregnant nun in "All About My Mother." In the comedy "Woman on Top," she'll play a Brazilian chef.
But perhaps her best chance at stardom, Hollywood style, is about to come. She's just completed shooting Columbia's "All the Pretty Horses," the movie version of the award-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Billy Bob Thornton; she stars in the film with Matt Damon.
The buzz in Hollywood is that with her looks and acting ability, Cruz is primed to become a truly international star.
"She has that incredible sparkle that movie stars have," said Amy Pascal, Columbia Pictures' president, who compares her to another actor from Spain who's gone on to bigger things. "Antonio Banderas had it. So does Penelope.
"She is very sexy but not threatening, vulnerable and strong at the same time--and, of course, being beautiful doesn't hurt."
Landing a coveted role in "Pretty Horses" is all the more surprising given that five years ago she didn't speak any English. Her English-language debut in Stephen Frears' "Hi-Lo Country" won critical acclaim, even if the movie did not.
In "Pretty Horses," Cruz plays the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher who falls in love with Damon's rebellious American character. The minute Thornton saw Cruz's demo tape, he knew she was it, he said.
"She was exactly what I had envisioned for the part," Thornton said from the set of the movie then shooting in New Mexico. "There are very few actresses like her--she was head and shoulders above everybody else.
"There is something so sincere and serious about her as an actress, but then I saw her sense of humor. She has such a great little girl quality about her. She has this sense of innocence about her, and she is not afraid to show that."
Though she is excited about her English-language debuts, Cruz has no intention of abandoning her native land. She can afford to be selective about what movies she will do.
"I don't want to do whatever, just because it's an American movie," she said. "The bigger the field of work, the more options I will have. In Spain, I think they are doing beautiful things. Maybe they are movies that cost less, but that does not mean they are not good."
Cruz doesn't spend much time thinking about celebrity or fame. As a matter of fact, she doesn't enjoy being the object of attention--she would much rather observe others. She thinks of herself now as a kind of voyeur, taking in the world and enjoying her time away from the spotlight.
"Before, when I was much younger, the only thing I wanted was for people to look at me. And now, I like to stand in a corner and watch," said Cruz, over lunch in Los Angeles. "You see such interesting things."