Romance Working for Cruz, McConaughey

A workplace romance was "Gigli" bad for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. It was "Far and Away" a mistake for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz intend to stay in "The Loop."

Hollywood's hot new lovebirds still deny they were dating early last year while filming "Sahara," despite reams of gossip. But even before the box office verdict on their new film, which opens today, they've decided to play lovers again in anther movie. So much for taking it slow.

The two stars have signed on for the big-screen adaptation of Joe Coomer's offbeat novel, "The Loop." McConaughey will play a Texas highway worker who searches for the parents he never knew with the help of Cruz, a quirky librarian.

Dating a co-star is always good for quick publicity, but it often backfires. Affleck and Lopez had agreed to star in their second film, "Gigli," even before their first film, "Jersey Girl," was released.

The public had overdosed on nonstop Bennifer updates by the time "Gigli" hit theaters. "Jersey Girl" -- which had its release pushed back -- was all but resigned to public slaughter when it finally saw the light of day. Lopez didn't even bother to attend promotional events, leaving a good-natured Affleck to explain how awkward it was for him to see scenes where he's making out with his former fiancée.

The fate of more than one future film might be riding on McConaughey and Cruz's personal and professional future together. If successful, "Sahara" is the sort of movie that would be turned into a franchise of sequels. The film certainly seems eager to appeal to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" fans.

"That's the reason I got into this," McConaughey says. "We want a franchise, we want a sequel, we want more than a sequel, we want two, three, four, five, six of them, please."

McConaughey has been absolutely giddy about the prospects of starring in an action movie series. But, of course, in April 2003, when he signed on for the project, he had no idea he'd be trying to launch a film franchise and start a relationship at the same time.

The 35-year-old star, who played opposite Kate Hudson in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," says he and Cruz didn't become an item on the set.

"We're dating now in real life, but we weren't then," he says. "We got to know each other as professionals."

Shot largely in the deserts of Morocco, the film follows the adventures of treasure hunter Dirk Pitt, who believes that a Confederate battleship escaped to West Africa in the final stages of the Civil War.

This latter-day Indiana Jones and his wisecracking buddy, played by Steve Zahn, hunt for historical booty and crack jokes as local thugs riddle their high-tech speedboat with bullets.

Cruz is a doctor working with the World Heath Organization who is mysteriously attacked after she starts investigating the outbreak of what she fears might be an epidemic.

Thanks to Dirk's derring-do, the beautiful doctor is saved, and soon their stories are intertwined as they battle treacherous warlords and a greedy industrialist out to cover his toxic tracks.

"It was a lot of training, it was scary at the beginning," says Cruz. "But we had great people working with us … We didn't want anybody to get hurt. I had nightmares at the beginning about all the action scenes, but we did it."

Cruz has been the most emphatic about denying rumors of on-set romance. The stories began emerging last winter, just as Cruz and former beau Tom Cruise announced they were splitting, putting the Spanish actress in a delicate situation.

The denials continued even in May, after McConaughey flew to Madrid to be by her side for her 30th birthday. "I'm not dating anybody right now," Cruz told "Access Hollywood" at the time.

"I have a work relationship. Every time I'm not in a relationship or after a relationship, like the one I had for almost three years, it's like, 'Who is it going to be next time?' I don't like that part of it."

Jumping from co-star to co-star is risky for the reputation, and in the past, both Cruz and McConaughey have been romantically linked to co-stars. Cruz appeared in "Vanilla Sky" with Cruise and "All the Pretty Horses" with Matt Damon.

McConaughey became involved with Ashley Judd when they were filming "A Time to Kill" and later dated Sandra Bullock, the film's lead actress.

Now that more than a year has passed since the breakup of Cruz and Cruise, there might be less of a need to keep denying an on-set romance, if that were the case. Nevertheless, "Sahara" co-star Zahn insists that everybody was just good friends.

"They didn't hook up until afterward, I read about it in People, truly," Zahn says. "We were all buddies on this. This was unlike any movie I had ever done. … It was a blast."

One must wonder what might have happened if Hugh Jackman -- who was close to signing for the role of Dirk Pitt -- had taken the part. Pre-production on the film was delayed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Jackson became busy with "X2," and eventually pulled out of the film so that he could appear in "The Boy From Oz" on Broadway.

If "Sahara" is a hit, Cruz and McConaughey bring with them to their next movie all the momentum that team Bennifer couldn't deliver. And if the relationship doesn't last, we'll have to see who gets cast as the female lead in the "Sahara" sequel.