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January 9, 2006

Penelope Cruz: Will She Say I Do, or I Don't

The woman who's snagged the "Sexiest Man Alive" lays down the truth about Tom, marriage and her plans to adopt -- and takes Marie Claire on a photographic journey to the place where she and Matthew go to give back

penelope cruz cover

Penelope Cruz

Photo Credit: Matthew Rolson

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Penelope Cruz is sitting in the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car, laughing at the memory of a plane flight she took with her good friend Salma Hayek in 2004. It was Halloween, and the two were en route to Mexico, where their upcoming film, Bandidas, was shot. Evidently, the two friends wanted to get a jump on the holiday. "There we were with these horrible clown wigs on ‑- and all of a sudden, we had to make an emergency landing," Cruz says, describing, among other things, an alarming drop in cabin pressure and the deployment of the oxygen masks. "I couldn't believe it, that this was the end. With Salma and me in Halloween costumes! I thought, This is such a weird way to die!" Cruz lets the memory wash over her, shaking her head with both glee and disbelief. "After we landed I had a huge, hysterical crying attack, and all Salma said was, 'Where's the bar?' Now we laugh about it, because we are so happy to be alive."

Cruz is many things: spirited, funny, smart, cunning and wry. She's also quite serious about the work she does on-screen, and on behalf of others. It's the latter passion that finds our car pulling up to the Pacific Lodge Boys' Home near Los Angeles, a place that houses and helps troubled teenage boys. Cruz plans to spend the day talking to the boys and taking their photographs. As the car comes to a stop, Cruz tucks her trusty Nikon camera under her arm and walks inside. No handlers, no entourage.

Anonymity is exactly what Cruz is after. The star has a string of big-budget movies to her credit (Sahara, Vanilla Sky), as well as an equally impressive list of beaus ‑- most notably Tom Cruise, whom she dated for three years before his engagement to Katie Holmes, and Matthew McConaughey, her Sahara costar and current main squeeze. But ever since she spent time in Nepal a few years ago photographing Tibetan children for an exhibition attended by the Dalai Lama, Cruz has been more than happy to step out of the spotlight. When the opportunity arose to photograph some of the residents at the Pacific Lodge Boys' Home, most of whom are former gang members and recovering substance abusers, Cruz jumped at the chance.

"I like being on the other side of the camera, seeing what can be expressed without words, just images," she says. After a few brief introductions, Cruz loads a roll of film and gets to work. After all, she knows Pacific Lodge well ‑- McConaughey introduced her to the place. "I came with him a few months ago," she says. "And I remembered the kids. I liked talking to them, asking them everything. I told them, 'I want to know your story. You don't have to answer, but I'd like to know. And you can ask me anything you want.'" Cruz crouches down in her jeans and Ugg boots to get her shots, and amazingly, the boys all but ignore the celebrity in their midst and keep on studying.

"When I was in Kathmandu photographing kids who had escaped from Tibet, some who had escaped by walking across the mountains, I photographed their feet," she says. "Some had lost toes because of the snow." Cruz stops to consider a different angle. "Like today, these kids break my heart," she adds. "I have to control myself not to cry. Not out of pity, but seeing how tricky life is and how hard it is to make the right choices."

What sets Cruz apart from other celebrities involved in charity work is her willingness to spend real time in the trenches. In addition to her work in Nepal, Cruz has volunteered in Uganda and India, where she spent a week working for Mother Teresa that included assisting in a leprosy clinic. That trip so inspired Cruz that she helped start a foundation to support homeless girls in India, where she personally sponsors two young women. She was also inspired to donate her entire salary from her first Hollywood movie, The Hi-Lo Country, to help fund the late nun's mission.

"To spend a week with Mother Teresa? I was more excited to do that than to get the greatest movie," Cruz says. "When you are there, you feel more useful than at any time in your life," she adds. "Like today, I feel lucky to meet these kids." The boys feel lucky to meet Cruz, too. "It's really, really nice of her to take time out to meet with us," says one 17-year-old dressed in a pair of brand-new jeans and a sweatshirt for the occasion. A 16-year-old resident emerges from a 20-minute private conversation with Cruz looking dazed with happiness. "I told her I didn't want to do drugs anymore, that I wanted to be somebody, and she told me that I should do it, that I could do it," he says.

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