Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on global star Penélope Cruz, who’s delivering lauded performances on multiple platforms, in English and her native Spanish.
Bottom Line: Cruz is a Goya and Oscar-winner (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) who chases challenging material around the globe. This year she and husband Javier Bardem not only opened Cannes with Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish mystery drama “Everybody Knows” (Focus Features) — which went on to rack up over $6.5 million in France — but Cruz transformed herself into blonde Italian fashion icon Donatella Versace for her first-ever foray into television. Ryan Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX) scored 18 Emmy nominations last week including Supporting Actress in a Limited series for Cruz. Next, she’ll play her sixth role with mentor Pedro Almodovar, playing his mother in autobiographical drama “Dolor y gloria” along with Antonio Banderas.
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Career Peaks: The brunette actress has been an international star since her first movie with Almodovar, 1997’s “Live Flesh.” That was followed by “All About My Mother,” and Almodovar’s small-town semi-autobiographical “Volver,” for which she shared the Cannes Best Actress award with the female ensemble, and became the first Spanish actress to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination. She won the BAFTA and Best Actress Oscar for her warm and witty role opposite Bardem in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” She also scored an Oscar nod for her supporting performance opposite Daniel Day Lewis in musical “Nine” (2010).
At Cannes 2018, “Everybody Knows” debuted on opening night, instantly sold to Focus Features, and became a big hit in France. Spain’s power couple Bardem and Cruz (who have been working together since “Jamón Jamón” in 1992), helped Iranian Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation” and “The Salesman”) develop the mystery family drama over five years as he sent them treatments for their feedback. “Every day is an adventure,” said Cruz, who accepted equal pay with Bardem for the movie. “Asghar got in my dreams; he didn’t let me rest even when I was sleeping. He’s a poet. He could work anywhere. He is very humble. He asked a lot of questions. Like all his movies, the universal theme is about exploring the complexity of human relationships and behavior. We always have more to learn.”
Assets: The ballet-trained actress can do anything in three languages: her native Spanish, English, and Italian: comedies (“To Rome with Love,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Waking Up in Reno”), thrillers (“Gothika,” “Elegy”), westerns (“All the Pretty Horses”), melodramas (“Everybody Knows,” “Twice Born”), tragedies (“Ma Ma”), musicals (“Nine”), big-budget studio pieces (“Spectre, “The Counsellor,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Murder on the Orient Express”), and costume dramas (“The Queen of Spain”).
Latest Awards Play: With “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” showrunner Ryan Murphy wanted to show Donatella Versace “in a serious light,” he told TV Guide last January. “What we did with Penelope was show her with heart. In many ways it’s a tribute to Donatella.” Over twenty years of working with the Versace fashion house, Cruz had met Donatella several times at parties, she told me on the phone. “She has always been kind to me; they have dressed me over the years for the Oscars. I felt a lot of responsibility to play her, I like and respect her and am a huge fan of her work with her brother.”
After Murphy called, she said she felt she needed to call Donatella and ask her, “or I couldn’t move forward. She was not involved the development in any way. She said, ‘if somebody is going to play me I’m happy it’s you.'” Cruz told Murphy: “I’m going to do it, as long as we treat her with respect.”
Murphy based the series on Maureen Orth’s 1999 non-fiction book “Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which Cruz did not read. “I didn’t want to read the book,” she said. “I went by the script, and doing my own research in terms of Donatella and the relationship with her brother.”
The accent was a challenge for a Spanish actress playing playing an Italian character speaking in English. It took three to four months of prep. Already knowing Italian made it easier. “For me the key was trying to find the way she speaks,” Cruz said, “so different, a pitch lower, with an Italian accent. She does a rock and roll thing in the way she speaks. I tried to have something of her in there, hopefully some essence of that person.”
Cruz’s Donatella is determined to save her brother’s empire after his death, the only woman surrounded by men, sticking to her guns. “She’s emotionally in such a sad difficult place,” said Cruz, “and has to start making difficult decisions. She’s going to do this in the name of her brother, keep her brother alive through Versace. She got a lot of strength from that love, to keep the empire going in such a difficult time.”
If Cruz got hung up on some dialogue or wanted to add some research she had found, she felt free to discuss it with Murphy. Shooting television was “so different from film,” she said. “They’d make some new dialogue changes the day or two before. You have to be ready for it, you have to have the character in you to be able to improvise. It’s a great exercise for actors, there’s no other way to follow the rhythm of TV.”
She worked with her costume and hair and makeup teams from “Volver” and “Broken Embraces” and went for Donatella’s cigarettes. “We didn’t want to do caricature,” she said. “It’s the wig and very little makeup, my eyebrows were like no eyebrows because they’re so blonde, which changes the expression. We made my lips a tiny bit fuller on top with makeup. The costume was a corset for her tiny waist; she has an amazing body, she exercises a lot, even today her body is incredible.”
Cruz doubts that Donatella has seen the film, but she did send Cruz flowers the day of the premiere, “with a beautiful note to wish me luck,” she said.
Latest Misfires: Despite good reviews for her performance, Cruz couldn’t save 2016 cancer drama “Ma Ma,” which topped out at $1 million worldwide, nor poorly reviewed period epic “The Queen of Spain,” or little-seen “The Brothers Grimsby” and “Zoolander 2.”
Current Gossip: While she put in three years in the starlet spotlight (2001-2004) as the girlfriend of Tom Cruise after his breakup with Nicole Kidman (Cruise and Cruz co-starred in ill-fated “Vanilla Sky”), she left him, hooked up briefly with her “Sahara” costar Matthew McConaughey, and then in 2010, married Bardem; they have raised two children together. Bardem and Cruz have learned not to take their roles home with them. “We both started very young in our twenties,” said Cruz. “Then, I felt that to torture myself and stay in character for months, the better the result would be. I have discovered that’s not true. To jump from reality to fiction many times in one day, I love that beautiful dance back and forth between both dimensions. This is work that we do, it would not make your life better if you use things from your private life. The fact that we know and trust each other so much really helps.”
Next Step: Cruz is currently filming her supporting role in Almodovar’s “Dolor y Gloria.” Banderas plays Almodovar. “Life is funny,” she said. “I’m Antonio’s mother in the part when he’s a little kid. It’s very beautiful. A lot of things are obviously about Pedro, others are more fiction. I think he’d agree this is an homage to his mother.” Coming up is the Simon Kinberg spy thriller “355,” which she helped producer and costar Jessica Chastain to sell to Universal at Cannes, along with Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard and Bingbing Fan. Also in the works is the Todd Solondz fable “Love Child,” co-starring her “Versace” costar Edgar Ramirez.
Career Advice: Hollywood often sees Cruz as a luscious attachment to a male star, but as Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar have proved, she is capable of so much more. More often than not, Hollywood fare offers less than meets the eye, with limited range. She’s probably best off chasing world-class auteurs, whether or not the films are in English. As she ages, more character roles will come her way. And she should keep grabbing rich roles on television. “I want to do more,” she said. “I can get security with experience and some validation, but at the same time, I feel as insecure as the first day of a new film. I don’t want to lose that. Every character is new, you have a new challenge, that is what is so addictive about acting. I imagine when I’m 80 I will feel the same way. Insecurity has to be there to keep an actor growing and enjoying and hungry for knowing.”