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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES: Penelope Cruz in Spotlight at AFI Fest Tribute

DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES: Penelope Cruz in Spotlight at AFI Fest Tribute

After nearly six months of critical attention and acclaim for her lead performance in Pedro Almodovar‘s “Volver,” actress Penelope Cruz stepped into Hollywood’s spotlight on Thursday night, accepting this year’s AFI Fest tribute on the second night of the festival. A veteran of some 40 films in just over 15 years, Cruz was joined by close friends and family at the AFI Fest event, thanking them for allowing her to pursue her acting dreams at the age of 17. Singling out her father in the audience, Cruz praised her parents who were, “so generous for letting me fly so young. I really appreciate, now that I am older, that it was hard for them — they gave me that freedom.”

Heading to Los Angeles for the very first time at a young age, Cruz found support from another Spanish speaking star, Salma Hayek and the two of become very close friends. During Thursday’s tribute discussion prior to a screening of “Volver,” Cruz looked to the front row of the Cinerama Dome theater and singled out Hayek, recalling the actress picking her up at the airport for her first trip to L.A. years ago. “I didn’t know anybody, didn’t speak English…I just knew my lines,” Cruz said, “She has always been there for me — I was lonely (at the time) and if it (not) for her, it would have been much tougher.”

A current resident of both Madrid and Los Angeles, Cruz said that she developed her passion for movies at a young age thanks to a Betamax VCR that her father brought home. That was how she discovered the work of Pedro Almodovar and became obsessed with him, yearning to work with the Spanish auteur someday. She felt an immediate connection with the filmmaker but admitted being too nervous and shy to approach him. All the while hoping that he’d notice her. “My biggest dream ever was his call,” Cruz admitted. After seeing the actress in her 1992 feature debut, “Jamon Jamon,” Almodovar made that call, eventually finding a role for her in “Live Flesh.”

Penelope Cruz as Raimunda in “Volver.” Photo provided by Sony Pictures Classics

The two have developed a strong bond over the years, also working together on “All About My Mother.” “For me, he is just such a unique person,” Cruz said of Almodovar, admitting that the director was staying up late in Spain Thursday night, awaiting her call after the event. “I adore him,” she enthused, “(And) I miss him a lot tonight.” And later she added, “I feel like I owe him a lot.”

That indebtedness is certainly part of their on-set relationship, Cruz explained, detailing her committment to pleasing the filmmaker while making a movie with him. “I feel a huge responsibility,” she said, “Because if he puts those characters in my hands, every day I have a mission. I want to see a smile on his face when i go home.” Continuing she added, “He is just genuis, he is a very complex person, he can intimidate you but his heart is huge. Even now I am scared of him a little bit on the set, and that is good.”

The two spent three months rehearsing and developing her character of Raimunda in “Volver” and Cruz has taken a break from acting this year travel around the world in support of the film. “I feel (Almodovar) has given me the most complex and difficult character that anyone has put in my hands,” Cruz said, “As actors we depend on that trust. He knows what you can do before you do it, we depend on that.”

Cruz’ performance in “Volver” has generated considerable buzz about a potential best actress Oscar nomination, while back in Cannes earlier this year the entire cast of women from the film (Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Yohana Cobo, and Blanca Portillo) were honored for their work. Asked on Thursday if she recognized this as the best performance of her career, Penelope Cruz said on Thursday, “I am very tough on myself, I never look at my work separate from the movie. This movie touches people’s hearts (and I am) one pieces of that puzzle.”

[indieWIRE’s dispatches from AFI Fest 2006 will continue through the end of the festival on November 12th. Get the latest in indieWIRE’s special section.]

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