The visions of Penélope Cruz

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The visions of Penélope Cruz
Penélope Cruz arrives before the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2020. Calla Kessler/The New York Times.

by Kyle Buchanan

NEW YORK, NY.- You have to wonder if Penélope Cruz manifested her first phone call from Pedro Almodóvar. As a young girl growing up in Madrid, she watched Betamax tapes of his movies over and over, hoping that the Spanish auteur might find a place for her in his bright and bold world. She dreamed about it so often that the day he did phone her about a role, it didn’t even feel like the first call — it felt like the tenth, or the hundredth, from someone she already knew very well.

That bond was further confirmed when Almodóvar summoned her to his apartment to read scenes. Cruz was still a fledgling actress — it was 1992, and her first two movies, “Jamón Jamón” and “Belle Epoque,” had only just come out — but as she batted lines back and forth with the far more established Almodóvar in his kitchen, their connection couldn’t have been more natural.

“It’s hard to explain without sounding weird,” she told me, “but we know each other, we can feel each other, we can read each other’s minds.”

Cruz isn’t kidding about that last part: When it comes to Almodóvar, she claims to possess an almost mystical intuition. He didn’t cast her in that first meeting — the role was for a 35-year-old, and she was still just 18 — but over the next few years, she kept dreaming about Almodóvar, imagining where in Madrid he might be. Then she would go to the theater or nightclub she had pictured him in and there, among much more conventional silhouettes, she would spot his distinctive pouf of hair.

What do you do when you feel a connection that’s both natural and supernatural all at once? If you’re Cruz and Almodóvar, you eventually give in to it and make seven movies together. Their latest, “Parallel Mothers,” is also one of their greatest, starring Cruz as a mother wrestling with a terrible secret. Her finely calibrated performance won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival and best actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics; it may also earn the 47-year-old Cruz, an Oscar winner for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” her fourth Academy Award nomination.

I emailed Almodóvar to ask what he thought of Cruz’s witchy visions, and he was initially tempted to debunk them: At the time they first met, his every movement was well-known in Madrid and he was hardly difficult to find. Still, he said, the uncanny power of Cruz’s belief had proved to be the key to their working relationship.

“Penélope has a blind faith in me,” Almodóvar wrote in a lengthy email. “She is convinced that I am a better director and writer than I really am. This blind faith fills me with the confidence to request anything of her, while the trust that she deposits in me allows her to do things during filming that she might not dare try with other directors because she knows I am watching her as if through a thousand eyes.”

“But yes,” he added, “she can be a little bit of a witch.”

Nowadays, when it comes to Cruz’s intuition, people know better than to argue with her, and “Parallel Mothers” offers an instructive example. When Almodóvar first mentioned the project to Cruz, it was 1999, and they had just filmed two movies together, “Live Flesh” and “All About My Mother,” in which she played pregnant women. “Parallel Mothers” would have made it three in a row: As Almodóvar teased out the storyline, he told Cruz that she should play young Ana, one of two single mothers whose newborns are switched at birth.

But even then, Cruz’s intuition kicked in, and she found herself drawn to the older mother, Janis, a self-possessed photographer dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and a dark chapter in Spain’s history. The project would take two decades to come to fruition, but in 2020, when Almodóvar told Cruz that he had resurrected “Parallel Mothers” and now had her in mind to play Janis … well, isn’t it nice when something clicks so satisfyingly into place?

It’s hard to imagine someone other than Cruz in the role because, in many ways, she has spent her whole life growing toward it. Like Janis, Cruz loves photography, which has been a hobby for the actress since she was a teenager. (It’s a kick to see her wielding a camera in the first scene of “Parallel Mothers,” instructing a man how to pose for her, since Cruz came of age as an ingénue muse for such men.) She is chic and cosmopolitan like Janis, mixing jeans and designer clothes in a way that is stylish but never overproduced. And she is now a mother herself, raising two children with her husband, actor Javier Bardem.

But not long into “Parallel Mothers” comes a perpendicular plot twist, when Janis learns the truth about the child she presumed was hers. As she continues to keeps that secret from Ana, Janis splits in two: She must act like a happy, untroubled mother even as her guilt accrues and an anguished outcome seems all but certain. That sense of duality proved to be the most challenging thing for Cruz to connect with, her director said.

“To be able to express one feeling and its opposite feeling at once is incredibly difficult,” said Almodóvar, “and Penélope prevails, even though it’s not in her nature.” Cruz asked for an unusually long rehearsal process of a few months, trying to reach the core of a character who’s in constant conflict with her own feelings.

Janis must bottle herself up, but Cruz does not. During a video call from Madrid, she was warm and effusive, and even when confined to a Zoom window, she managed to use the whole frame, gesturing expressively as if she were playing a game of Charades. “How can I talk about this movie without sounding like, oh, poor me, you suffer so much with a character like that?” she wondered. “But I also don’t want to lie and say to you, yeah, it was real easy.”

Almodóvar shoots his films in sequence, so though Janis can’t know what tragedies are around the corner, Cruz was all too aware and began counting the days until her toughest scenes. “I knew it would be hardcore adrenaline, probably the most intense shoot ever — and it was,” she said. Still, she kept all those feelings contained, as Janis has to, until a climactic moment proved so harrowing to film that Almodóvar had to help a devastated Cruz get up from the floor afterward.

“I would like for you to be able to do it without suffering this much,” Almodóvar told her then. But that wasn’t how Cruz saw things.

“When I look back, I don’t remember it as suffering,” she said, “because it was for her, it was for Janis, or for all the women that could be in a similar situation of losing what they love the most. For me, she was alive. She’s a real creature that he created.

So when Cruz says “Parallel Mothers” is the hardest thing she’s ever done, she means that in a good way: Though Janis and Cruz initially seem so similar, playing this woman brought Cruz further from herself than she ever could have anticipated. “I have a smile on my face because it gave me so much and made me feel so alive creatively,” she insisted. “I was emotionally exhausted but, at the same time, enjoying every second.”

ASK THE PEOPLE who know her best to describe Penélope Cruz, and one adjective always comes up. “All my life, I’ve been hearing how stubborn I am,” Cruz told me, then paused. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Taurus.”

Whatever the case, that stubbornness has served her well. When Cruz was 14 and wanted to break into acting, she applied for a new-faces program in Madrid run by agent Katrina Bayonas. Applicants had to be at least 16 to enter, so Cruz lied. Bayonas, suspecting the lie, gave Cruz a worldly scene from “Casablanca” to read, knowing the young girl would be in over her head.

Cruz tried to deliver the material and was dismissed both times she came in, but the third time, she did an improvisation that let her release all the rage and frustration she had for not being taken seriously. Bayonas was impressed by her talent and her indefatigable nature, and later called to say that of the 300 new faces who had applied, she had selected Cruz for representation. (Decades later, she is still Cruz’s Spanish agent.)

I asked Cruz what had made her so determined then, so certain of herself. Maybe it was that she was a Taurus, or maybe something else had been drilled into her during childhood, when she spent years studying classical ballet, sometimes practicing for four hours a day. “The feeling of your toes bleeding but you keep going with a smile, that really shapes you,” she said.

It was much the same when her career began to heat up and American movies came calling: Even though Hollywood sometimes kept her on her toes, she continued with a smile. English-language directors didn’t always know what to do with her, and she was often cast as the limpid love interest in films like “The Hi-Lo Country” and “All the Pretty Horses.” Some of her movies popped, like the 2001 doubleheader of “Blow” and “Vanilla Sky,” but it wasn’t until she reteamed with Almodóvar for “Volver” in 2006 that she earned her first Oscar nomination and truly showed Hollywood what kind of full-bodied lead performance she was capable of.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” came two years later, followed by another nominated performance in the musical “Nine.” Since then, Cruz has toggled back and forth between big Hollywood movies, like this month’s action flick “The 355,” and more human-sized films set in Spain. And every few years, she reunites with Almodóvar, who is always eager to push her to the next level.

“In her Spanish roles, it’s easier to witness her growth and her extraordinary versatility,” Almodóvar wrote. “Even though I knew that Hollywood would take an interest in her, she has not developed to her full capacity in her English-speaking roles.” Though he felt Cruz had done her best American work so far in the 2018 limited series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” in which she played a steely Donatella Versace, Almodóvar said, “the best of Penélope in the American market has yet to come.”

Cruz doesn’t have any regrets. “I never saw it as a separate thing, my career in Hollywood and my career in Europe,” she said. “I feel very lucky about the offers that I’ve gotten since the beginning. Some have been better than others, but I cannot look back and judge them only by their result, or the awards or reviews. Every step counts.”

She does acknowledge that for some time, as she flew back and forth between Madrid and Los Angeles while making as many as four movies a year, she took on a level of career-related stress she knew was unsustainable. “That was a crazy rhythm, and I started to pay for it,” she said. “I was giving all that time to those characters, but not to my own story — not even to my family at that point.”

And family is important to Cruz, since for as long as she could remember, she had wanted to be a mother. She knew she didn’t want children in her 20s, when she was still single-mindedly focused on her career. But in her late 30s, after she married her frequent co-star Bardem and was able to grow more selective about her projects, she slowed down and gave birth to her son, Leo, and then her daughter, Luna.

“Nature gives you a few months to prepare, but from the second you see your son or your daughter, it changes everything,” Cruz said. “It even changes your ego. It immediately puts it in a more healthy place.”

Well, unless you’re Janis from “Parallel Mothers,” who has a whole host of new problems to contend with. But motherhood helped Cruz understand why Janis is driven to such secretive extremes to protect her child. “I wouldn’t have done something very different from her,” Cruz said. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Well, I know she has this big moral dilemma, but what she does is not very ethical.’ And I ask them, ‘Are you a father? Are you a mother? Because maybe if you are, imagine that situation.’”

IN MID-DECEMBER, when Cruz was honored for her career by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Almodóvar sent in a videotaped tribute. “You told me that when I get old, you will take care of me,” he said at the end of the video. “I’m not that old yet, but I hope you keep your word. When I am an old man, I hope you come and become, in this case, my mother.”

Asked about that moment, Cruz is still incredulous. “Can you imagine to see that video right before I had to speak?” she said. “What is funny about Pedro is that he wouldn’t tell me that alone, in person. He prefers to tell me that in a video that maybe thousands of people are going to see.”

But she remembers the conversation he’s referring to. Eighteen years ago, she told him how much she loved him and that they could count on each other forever. She even remembers the way his face changed when she said it. “By saying that back to me, he’s not just asking for something for him,” Cruz said. “He’s putting me in a place of such value in his life, of so much trust. It’s a way to say, ‘I want us to be connected for the rest of our life.’”

It may seem unusual for an older man to ask a younger friend to become his mother, but the way Almodóvar sees motherhood has always felt bracingly untraditional: Cruz played a pregnant nun for him in “All About My Mother,” after all. The women in “Parallel Mothers” weren’t expecting to have children, and they sometimes struggle with what society expects from them because of it. But motherhood is only limiting if you allow it be. The movie culminates with a tableau of maternal bonds — some biological, some not — that’s almost unbearably moving.

To Cruz and to Almodóvar, motherhood isn’t a mere caretaking position: If you’re lucky enough to mother someone who matters to you, it can be the ultimate expression of empathy and devotion. In that context, all those visions Cruz had of Almodóvar don’t seem so uncanny. Maybe, in her stubborn, overwhelming certainty of deep love that would last a lifetime, it was just a mother’s intuition all along.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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