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THE ACTOR'S CRAFT

Woman on the verge

In Almodovar's latest, Penelope Cruz plays up her strength. And maybe U.S. audiences will see beyond her beauty.

October 29, 2006|Josh Kun | Special to The Times

IT'S the middle of a sun-blasted September afternoon, and Penelope Cruz is sitting in an empty hotel banquet room, Chanel bag by her side. She is trying to talk about acting, but she keeps coming back to legendary Spanish flamenco singer Camaron de la Isla.

Camaron devotees don't usually carry Chanel bags. He was raw, brash and dead at 41, and his singing was the sound of hurt, his cigarette-stained voice a cracking tumult of anguish that sliced through any adornment that tried to dress it up.

"Do you know his version of 'La Tarara'?" she asks, and then slips into the song's register-leaping chorus in her own impressively husky voice. "Anyone who knows flamenco knows the power of a singing voice but also knows it cannot be put into words. It puts you in an incredible place."

If all arts aspire to the condition of music, as Walter Pater once wrote, then Cruz's art, most recently on display in Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," aspires to the condition of flamenco. When a skilled flamenco singer starts to sing, it can seem as if the world has stopped and become pure pain. The beauty of flamenco is its fleshy brutality, its elevation of blood and sweat into art.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Penelope Cruz: In some editions of today's Calendar section, actress Penelope Cruz was inadvertently cropped out of a photo from the movie "Volver" that accompanied an article about her.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 05, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Penelope Cruz: In some editions of last Sunday's Calendar, actress Penelope Cruz was inadvertently cropped from a photograph from the movie "Volver" that accompanied a story about her.

"It's what good acting should be like," she argues. "All of the extra things go away and you are left just with the purity of the work. I am from Madrid, not from the south where flamenco is from, but I have something from the south in me. There is something in the south that I think all Spanish women have in common -- that strength, that toughness."

For most U.S. audiences, though, the strength and toughness of southern Spanish women and dead flamenco giants may not be the first qualities that leap to mind at the mention of Cruz's name. The 32-year-old actress is probably best known here for being pretty, for starring in some blockbuster stinkers ("Captain Corelli's Mandolin," "Sahara"), and for a pair of high-profile tabloid couplings (Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey).

A different image abroad

YET beyond the shores of stateside celebrity, we see a very different Cruz: a veteran of more than 40 films in four languages (Spanish, English, French and Italian) who has grown into one of international cinema's most artistically risk-ready performers. Her exceptional work as an anti-Nazi Spanish actress in Fernando Trueba's 1998 "La Nina de Tus Ojos" (The Girl of Your Dreams) earned her a Goya for best actress, and in 2004 she won the same honor from the Academy of European Cinema for her melancholic turn as a love-wrecked hotel maid in Sergio Castellitto's "Non Ti Muovere" (Don't Move).

"The press always wants to invent the story that I left Europe to go Hollywood or something like that," she says with a laugh, rolling her eyes. "That never happened. I would never stop working in my country or in Europe. That would be the most stupid decision. I feel very grateful that I can work in America, but I want to keep combining it. I did all my first castings in Europe. I never came here with my luggage and said I'm staying."

Cruz hopes that her latest starring role, as "Volver's" tough and tireless working-class mom Raimunda, will finally change the way American audiences see her. It already seems to be working. After earning a best actress prize at Cannes (an ensemble award given to the film's entire female cast), Cruz was honored at the Hollywood Film Festival as best actress of the year, and Oscar whispers have been trailing her ever since the film, which opens here Friday, started screening.

"I'm really glad that people prefer it when I do characters like Raimunda," she says. "I just love that woman. I have seen those women, who could easily become victims but refuse to do that. She goes through things that could have destroyed anyone but she keeps fighting because her daughter needs her to survive. I know women like that. So you forget about yourself because you are playing a woman who is actually an hommage to all those women who have survived. They are very special people, and I wanted to give her that dignity."

'She was very real'

THE first time Cruz worked with Pedro Almodovar, in 1997's "Carne Tremula" (Live Flesh), she played a teen prostitute screaming and grunting her way through childbirth on a Madrid bus. The second time, in 1999's "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" (All About My Mother), she was a pregnant, HIV-positive nun. While "Volver's" Raimunda seems far simpler on paper -- a mother who becomes enmeshed in the secrets of her family's past -- she is actually the most complex of all of her Almodovar characters, a subtle mix of hushed nobility and devastating force. Raimunda is a career-making role, and Cruz plays her, alongside veteran Almodovar actress Carmen Maura, with an emotional depth that few might have trusted she could pull off.

Few, that is, except Almodovar himself.

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