Penelope Cruz is Poised for Breakout with Two New Films

The only one who might question the kudos is Cruz herself. Coixet says Cruz would demand retake after retake, thinking she could always improve on something. "There were times I was like, 'You're exhausted.' She's a perfectionist."

Allen goes one step further. "She doesn't appreciate how terrific she is. She's slightly insecure and thinks she's not going to be able to do something well or that she needs extra takes to do it, which isn't true at all."

After 17 years of work, she gives credit for her current success to Almodóvar's 2006 comedy Volver, in which she played a janitor with mother issues and earned a best-actress Oscar nomination.

"It was what happened with that movie. It was seen around the world and by the American industry that brought me other opportunities, like Woody's movie. Movies that are in English and are very demanding emotionally."

Though her clout has grown considerably, Cruz doesn't put down any of her previous films, including duds such as 2005's Sahara and 2001's "Vanilla Sky".

"The first movies I did in English, I was struggling more with English," she says. "I'd studied French before, so in the beginning, I was learning my dialogue almost phonetically. But all of them come from me. I would never make less of these experiences. All of them mean a lot and taught me."

Like so many actors, Cruz had dreamed of working with Allen, whose lore in Hollywood lives on. One day, she got a call to meet him, and the encounter lasted less than a minute. He'd seen her in Volver, was writing a script that might include a part for her and would let her know either way in a few weeks.

"He was very nice, but there is no (baloney) with Woody," she says. "He's very direct and honest and sometimes you cannot believe your ears. There's no social veneer. It's a very New York thing, but he has that more than anybody I know, and I really respect and appreciate that. He doesn't waste energy."

Allen says he always had Cruz in mind for Maria Elena. "She's the Rolls-Royce of Spanish actresses. She's very sexy and beautiful, she's got the look, she's got everything you want for that character. You believe her completely having those irrational mood swings. You believe she could stick a knife in Javier."

But Cruz didn't want to play the woman, an emotionally unstable painter, as a caricature.

"She thinks she will not be as creative if she's not torturing herself, and she can't get out of that pattern. That felt to me like somebody in a lot of pain, and I did not want to laugh at that pain. When I saw the movie in Cannes, they were laughing. And now, every time I see the movie, I laugh and relax and see the movie from the point of view of the audience."

A fan of Philip Roth

There's little to laugh about in "Elegy", an often tense but tender drama.

"I'm happy that I did both movies back to back with characters that are so different," Cruz says. "With Consuela, I was attached to the project for five years, since I read the book. I love Philip Roth, and it was one of the best books I've ever read. You read something, and almost every day of your life, you remember it. It means something to you."

Like Consuela, "Penelope really admires people who know everything about culture and architecture and art. She's a very passionate person, and her passion is in Consuela, too," Coixet says. "When Penelope likes something, she really likes something. If it's a song or a book or an author, she's like, wow, totally flipping out."

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