Eleven years ago, I spent a couple of days in Madrid with Penélope Cruz. As part of the story I was writing, I accompanied her and her near-identical sister, Mónica, as they tried on designer swimsuits—an anecdote that led to more jealousy among my heterosexual male friends than any other I’ve told. Then we went to their childhood home in the working-class suburb Alcobendas, where they stood in the living room taking in the apartment’s proportions (much smaller than they’d remembered) and recalling the entire family doing housework in their underwear on Sundays with the stereo turned up loud. When I arranged to meet Cruz this time, the main reason I remembered that weekend was that back then, she had just returned from London, where she’d been to Rolling Stones and Prince concerts back-to-back, and the person she’d been there with was Javier Bardem. The actors had recently wrapped Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and there were rumors that—15 years after they shot their first steamy sex scenes together in 1992’s Jamón Jamón—they’d become a couple. Cruz insisted they were just friends, but there was a coy joy about her that was unmistakable.
Since then, of course, Cruz and Bardem have gotten married and had two children (Leo, eight, and Luna, five). They have each won an Academy Award, the only Spanish-born actors to have done so. They have made some of their best work in the intervening years, and on February 8, they release what may be their most rivetingly realistic performances, in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. Despite their relaxed, family-oriented life in Madrid and well-cultivated discretion, they are more like Spanish royalty than the actual royal family of Spain. It seems undeniable now that that summer was a turning point.
“In my life, for sure,” Cruz says when I remind her of it. She smiles a little shyly. “You know it’s the beginning of something, but you don’t know what it’s the beginning of,” she reflects. “My life is...a very different life. But it’s the life that I always wanted since I was a little girl. When I was four or five, I was already performing, and the characters in my games were always mothers. I really wanted to be a mother, for as long as I can remember. But I did it when I felt the time was right—the right time, the right person.”
We have met in the refined lounge of an old-world hotel in Madrid. Cruz has just come from seeing Pedro Almodóvar, such a long-term collaborator that, as she puts it, he’s practically family. She is wearing wide-legged jeans, pewter-colored sneakers, and a faded red hoodie so huge, it looks like it may belong to Bardem. She walks like a dancer (she studied ballet for 17 years)—with grace and precision, feet curving outward from a steady core—but sits with the slouchy elegance of a basketball player. Her hair, which contains tiny hints of gold, is up in a high tousled ponytail. As far as I can tell, she is wearing no makeup, but her hands, which move constantly, end in rich red acrylic nails.
When I ask what motherhood has been like for her, Cruz hesitates. “The thing is, I never speak about the children in interviews,” she says gently, switching to Spanish and staying there for most of the interview. “I don’t care if people think I’m strange; that’s sacred for me. So let me think how I can address that without talking about them...
“It’s the thing that has made me happiest,” she goes on to say. “But there are a lot of things that have surprised me about it. It’s like a revolution inside you—a very animal-like one. The whole world looks different. You’ll never think of yourself first again, and I think that’s a very good thing. It happens in a second.”
The extremity of this, Cruz thinks, is widely misunderstood. “There are so many taboos related to women,” she explains. “You realize when you go through the whole process that society tricks women a lot—and men too. This image society gives you—that you have to be a super-woman, that you need to be out of hospital in 24 hours, wearing high heels. No, you already are a superwoman! We’re all superwomen—those of us who have children and those of us who don’t.”
Before she had children, Cruz was already trying to scale back on work. She’d been acting since she was 16, and with a four-movies-a-year habit, she found she wasn’t leaving enough time for the kind of work she most enjoyed. She loved researching her roles and trying things out for a few months with an acting coach, but that wasn’t possible with such a fast cycle. And she was exhausted. There was a point about 14 years ago at which “I’d feed all those characters but I was feeling ‘What is my own character? Where is that water for that plant?’” She went on to play an abused Albanian woman in Don’t Move (2004) and the mother complicit in a murder in Volver (2006)—performances of such breathtaking intensity that they altered the arc of her career.
One thing all of those early opportunities did give her, though, was more time now. These days, Cruz tends to limit herself to one film per year. She never works weekends and tries to schedule shoots for the summer. The longest she’s ever been away from her children is four days, and that’s happened only twice. “I’m not saying that to claim I’m making some great sacrifice—not at all,” she says. “My family is my priority.”
For a person so successful in the film industry, that level of presence is quite striking. Especially since her husband is in the same boat. “The truth is, his experience of all this is very similar to mine. We like the family to be together.”
Sometimes, of course, they are together because they’re working. Since their reunion on 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which earned her an Oscar), Cruz and Bardem have made The Counselor (2013), a six-minute commercial for lingerie brand Agent Provocateur directed by Cruz, and Loving Pablo (2017). “Obviously we can’t choose parts just for logistical reasons, like, ‘Oh, let’s work together more often because it’s easier.’ No. In fact, it’s not something we want to do that often,” she says,“partly out of a desire to protect what we have. On the one hand, it’s easier because you know that person, he knows you, and the way you work is very similar.” (Cruz works with acting coach Juan Carlos Corazza, who has also worked with Bardem.) “On the other hand, the idea of it happening every year is kind of scary. You never know if that might mix things up too much. My instinct is that it would. I think it’s better for it to just be once in a while, even though they’ve been very good experiences.” She pauses. “Or if we do work together,” she adds, “we wouldn’t want to always play a couple. For instance, in Everybody Knows, they have a past, but they’re not together. In Loving Pablo they are, but then they’re also a very different couple, which helps.”
Except that the connection between Cruz and Bardem forms the core of Farhadi’s thriller. In it, Cruz plays a woman returning to her small hometown in Spain for a family wedding, accompanied by her teenage daughter and young son. Bardem plays her childhood sweet-heart. During the wedding, Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped, and an impossible ransom is demanded. Suddenly, everyone is implicated.
The Oscar-winning Iranian director tells me that he had long admired Cruz’s work. “I felt she was the kind of actor that a spectator did not need long to identify with,” he says. This particular character was one he wrote specifically for her, “and it was not possible for me to replace her image with any other.”
Cruz says he demanded a huge amount of his actors. “He’d say, ‘You were lying in that take. Forget the idea that it’s cinema. Treat it like a documentary,’” she recalls. “He said that to all of us at some point. We’d joke about it: Let’s see whose turn it is to get that phrase today.” The four-month shoot was the most grueling of Cruz’s career. “For the last month, I had an unexplained fever every night,” she says. “I think it was because of the stress of playing that part. Because for a mother to go through that is a true nightmare. On the last day, I felt like I was being let out of jail. I swear I took off the character’s clothes and said, ‘I never want to see these again.’"
In March 2018, Cruz received an honorary César, the French film industry’s equivalent of an Oscar, for lifetime achievement. In an introductory speech, her friend Marion Cotillard described her as “an icon of the people,” a huge international star who has “remained the daughter of craftsmen, rooted in real life.” Almodóvar told me something similar years ago, describing Cruz as “a member of the proletariat.” This is something of a European romance—the idea of a working-class heroine harking back to the days of Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren. It’s also true: Cruz has said that no one she knew growing up did anything artistic (in contrast to Bardem, who comes from a long line of thespians and often went hungry while his actress mother scraped together a living). She has also said that the conversations she had with the women in her mother’s hair salon were a nearly training ground for acting. (Her late father was a mechanic.) All of this makes her both approachable and earthy, but she dismisses the perceived contrast between the Hollywood world and that of her childhood in a way that makes it seem snobbish to make the distinction. “My job is normal for me,” she says. “I’ve had to work very hard, and that’s what I see in my family. I don’t feel that my life is different from that.”
Early in 2018, Cruz became involved with Time’s Up, and it’s no accident that the impetus for the movement was a letter from female farm-workers in the U.S. Cruz is quick to say that issues of abuse and sexual discrimination are not restricted to Hollywood and not restricted to women. “A teacher or a doctor, they’re not going to get a microphone and somebody asking them: ‘What’s your situation? Are you suffering these things?’ So it’s important to me to make clear that I’m not just talking about our industry. It affects women in all industries and every single country, and I speak for them, the ones that are never going to be asked that question.” Then she adds: “It’s good to remember that men can be victims of this too. This can’t be about more division. If we don’t do this together, it’s useless.”
There’s a part of me that resists focusing on Cruz’s appearance. She is much more beautiful now at 44 than she was 11 years ago. If you watch Belle Epoque (1992), made when she was 18, Cruz was coltish, even-featured, with a lot of expressive hair. As she’s aged, she’s become infinitely more interesting on screen—more guts, more spark, more poise, more range. Almodóvar said as much recently. He knew he wanted to work with her as soon as he saw her in Jamón Jamón, and they’ve now made six movies together. Although she has a smallish role in their next film (working title Dolor y Gloria), due out next year, it’s based on Almodóvar’s mother, which Cruz finds touching in itself.
In person, Cruz inhabits herself somehow, at an age where many women worry about signs of disintegration. Though I am older than she is, talking to her makes me believe that the place we’re all heading toward is richer than the one we’re conditioned to worry about leaving. She scrambles the perceived direction of travel. Part of this is health related: Cruz reads a lot of books about nutrition and follows something approaching a paleo diet because she had gestational diabetes during both her pregnancies, which places her at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. She boxes for exercise, and there’s a certain amount of self-examination: “I’ve always done something—meditation and yoga and therapy,” she says. “I feel like I constantly need to be emptying the glass, you know? I’m not scared of looking back. It’s a fascinating part of life.”
But she’s also at a point where she feels she has different things to say. Her friend Salma Hayek Pinault is quick to point out that this is an “expansion” rather than a new phase. “She’s never lost her curiosity. And that’s why whatever she does, there’s an eternal element of youth to this woman.” Cruz remembers being a teenager in a Madrid bar with Almodóvar and telling him she wanted to direct. Last year, she directed a documentary about childhood leukemia, proceeds from which go to the Uno Entre Cien Mil Foundation (One in 100,000).
We’ve been talking for an hour and a half when Cruz’s phone rings. She switches it off, but not before I hear a blast of the ringtone: Drake’s “Too Good.” She smiles. Next, she’s preparing for the Cuban spy film Wasp Network, with director Olivier Assayas, and 355, an all-female spy thriller. Written by Theresa Rebeck, it costars Jessica Chastain (the film’s producer), Cotillard, Lupita Nyong’o, and Fan Bingbing. They haven’t set a date for principal photography yet: “A few of us are moms,” Cruz explains, “so we’re trying to make sure it happens in the summer.”
It’s striking how Cruz emphasizes the solidarity in this. Perhaps what lies behind all of what she’s evoked in conversation—her desire to inhabit new characters, her inclination to listen, her commitment to family, her steadiness in life—is something Farhadi echoes. “Penélope is in the truest sense someone who loves people,” he tells me, “and who respects people, regardless of their social class, their job, their country, or their culture...She has a great capacity for affection for people all over the world.”
This article originally appears in the February issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands January 15.
Lead photo: Chanel jacket and jumpsuit; Atelier Swarovski by Penélope Cruz ring