Why Penélope Cruz is happiest out of the limelight

Penélope Cruz is dressed for the Arctic, albeit a curious part of it. She's wearing a khaki duvet coat so huge it could double as an actual duvet, a studded denim boiler suit and preposterously toasty sheepskin boots from Mou. ("They're so warm, I love them," she says, her Spanish accent turning the word into "loff".)

It's a look that's far from how we're used to seeing her. On the red carpet, the 44-year-old is the embodiment of classic Hollywood glamour, in satin and lace Ralph & Russo couture, for instance, at January's Golden Globes, where she was nominated for her portrayal of Donatella Versace in the series The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Or in the adverts for her two new campaigns for Lancôme, for whom she's been an ambassador since 2010.

“I don’t like taking my characters home. That’s not healthy. And it doesn’t make your performance better. The older I get, the more I value that acting is a game of imagination.”Credit:Courtesy of Lancôme

Or at the Fashion Awards in London last December, where she wore a crystal-encrusted Chanel gown, plus the same manicure she's wearing today – although one ruby nail has snapped to a more realistic length for the mother of two young children.

That nail aside, she's as immaculately made up as you'd hope for the daughter of a woman who ran a beauty salon not far from where we're sitting in Alcobendas, the working-class suburb of Madrid where she grew up.

The location has been picked for convenience rather than nostalgia – it's on the road to the out-of-town home she shares with her husband, actor Javier Bardem, 50, and their children, Leonardo, 8, and Luna, 5.

Bardem was her co-star in her very first film, 1992's Jamón, Jamón, they got together as a couple after making Woody Allen's 2008 comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and they share the big screen again in the thriller Everybody Knows, in which they play former lovers reunited in a desperate search to find her kidnapped daughter.

Penélope spent much of her childhood in her mother's salon where, along with plenty of skills ("I learnt hair colour, rollers, cuts …"), she came to understand the real power of beauty.

"Seeing these women coming in and leaving feeling a bit better about themselves wasn't just because of the physical transformation, it was because they took that little time for themselves," she recalls. "It was a sacred space. It wasn't just about beauty, it was about what it meant for women who were busy with children or work, like my mum was."

Those hard-working, down-to-earth values run deep. She arrives early for our interview, politely sends her agent away when she appears before our allotted time is up, and is genuinely perplexed as to why I'd fly all the way from London to Spain to meet her.

At this point in her career, she could hardly be busier, with four films due out after Everybody Knows, and a photo shoot for Lancôme the day after we meet, so making space for herself doesn't happen a lot.

"I grew up watching a mother who worked hard, and now she's the one who tells me, 'You have to take time for yourself,' " she laughs. "She didn't take time for herself, so you grow up feeling like you have to live up to what you saw, no? I come from a family of very hard-working women."

No wonder she was so attracted to the role of Donatella, although even she admits that it was surprising casting. "What did Ryan [Murphy, the director] see me in where he thought I could do that?" she remembers thinking. "But then I thought, it actually makes sense, because I feel I could do that."

The Versace family were not involved in the making of the series, and have since issued statements condemning it as "reprehensible" and "full of gossip and speculation". But Penélope knew Donatella, having worn Versace in the past, so when the offer came, she called her.

"I talked to Donatella on the phone. In a way I needed her blessing to do it, because I respect her a lot. She said if someone was going to do it, she was happy it was me. I wanted to show the side of her I knew, the vulnerability and kindness, and the sense of humour she has about herself."

“I’m lucky: I get to work with amazing designers. They know what they’re doing, and I know what I like.” Credit:Courtesy of Lancôme

The show – and Penélope's performance – won resoundingly positive reviews, and despite everything, Donatella reportedly sent her flowers to congratulate her on the Golden Globe nomination.

Penélope and Bardem were once again on the red carpet for the Goyas, Spain's equivalent of the Oscars, in February, each having been nominated for Everybody Knows (neither won). But you don't have to read deep between the lines to see that she's not that into the spectacle of these events.

"I love fashion," she says, "but I minimise the fittings – I'm very practical in that way. I'll have seen things before in pictures or in sketches. I'm lucky: I get to work with amazing designers. They know what they're doing, and I know what I like."

That said, Penélope has always loved clothes, and she and her sister, Mónica, also an actor, have collaborated on ranges for brands such as Mango.  For the most part, she and Bardem take turns working, but when they're starring in the same film, she insists that "it's actually easier. We didn't work weekends, and not every day."

They don't have strict rules, but everything has to have a balance.

"I don't like taking my characters home, for example. That's not healthy. And it doesn't make your performance better. The older I get, the more I value that acting is a game of imagination. "

They may form the most alpha of power couples, but at home they live a much quieter life. Their children, for example, are never seen on their Instagram accounts. ("I want my kids to grow up in a way that is as anonymous as possible," she has said.)

But then, Penélope doesn't go out much, either. "I like being at home," she insists. And that's not just since she and Bardem had their children. "I've never been a party person, so I don't care. I've never really gone out, even when I was 17."

Penélope was a pretty unusual 17-year-old. Passionate about acting, she was fiercely motivated but had no connections (her father worked in a homewares store). At 13, she entered an annual talent search run by Madrid-based agent Katrina Bayonas.

By then, she was already funding acting classes by modelling while achieving top grades at school and studying classical ballet at Spain's National Conservatory.

That first audition, however, was a disaster: the script was Casablanca, and even the most precocious teenager would find it a stretch to follow Ingrid Bergman. But to Bayonas, it was clear that she had something, so she asked Penélope to choose a different script and return the following week. She did, only to fail a second audition. She was signed on the third attempt, and has stuck with Bayonas since, always loyal to the woman who discovered her.

But Penélope admits the intense workload of those early years exacted a price. "I crashed afterwards," she says. "I was so tired and I saw that I had to choose: to forget the idea of becoming a dancer or studying a different career. I had to take a risk, and I chose acting."

The risk paid off. She was nominated for a Goya for her debut film role in Jamón, Jamón, in which she plays a factory worker pregnant to the boss's son, whose mother tries to break up the relationship by paying the thuggish Bardem to pursue her.

Post #MeToo, it is uncomfortable to watch: Penélope's character is exploited sexually, her lack of consent ignored. In its first scene, for instance, her boyfriend pulls down her top and kisses her as she repeatedly says no.

“I wanted to be a mother since I was a little girl. But even if you think you know what it’s going to be, it’s so amazing what happens when you see your kid for the first time. You then see the world differently for the rest of your life because you’re always thinking about somebody else first.”Credit:Courtesy of Lancôme

"There are a lot of things in that movie that now would be done differently," she agrees. "But Bigas [Luna, the film's late director] was a very special person, very loving. I don't think any of those things were done from a bad place." She adds: "There is a revolution happening now. And hopefully it will change a lot of things for women, not just in our industry."

It's an issue that's close to home for Penélope: her close friend Salma Hayek made claims about her career being stymied by Harvey Weinstein when she refused his advances; and having made two films with Woody Allen before his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow reasserted her accusations of childhood sexual abuse, Penélope believes the allegations should be looked into again. (Bardem, meanwhile, condemned Allen's "public lynching".)

Even early in her career, Penélope had a strong self-protective instinct. "My friends and family were always there for me, even when I was travelling by myself. That gave me confidence, because I always knew that they would be proud of me if I respected the values they taught me."

Within a few years, Hollywood had taken notice. For her first English-language film, 1998's The Hi-Lo Country, she had to learn her lines phonetically, but the work came thick and fast. In 2001 alone, she starred opposite Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Johnny Depp in Blow and Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky.

Compared to what she was doing in Spain, though, these were relatively decorative, undemanding roles. Back home, she had begun a career-long collaboration with director Pedro Almodóvar, resulting in films such as 1999's All About My Mother and his 2006 film, Volver, for which she was nominated for her first Oscar.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two years later, is the film that changed her life. As well it leading to her winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, she was also reunited with Bardem.

Over the years, they'd done smaller projects together, and the Spanish film world being small, they would often bump into one another. "We were friends," she explains, "just not friends who see each other a lot."

They got together after the movie wrapped, and in July 2010, with Penélope pregnant with their first child, married in the Bahamas with just family present. Leonardo was born the following January

"I wanted to be a mother since I was a little girl," she says now. "But even if you think you know what it's going to be, it's so amazing what happens when you see your kid for the first time. You then see the world differently for the rest of your life because you're always thinking about somebody else first."

Spain was the obvious place for them to make their home. "Here is where the family is, it makes sense. I love New York but it's too hectic for children, and too hot, too cold, too busy.

I loved LA when I was single, but it's too focused on the industry; it's not the ideal place to raise children. I like London a lot.

I wouldn't have a problem living there." She cracks a smile. "The only thing that is difficult is the weather. I know I'm not saying anything new, but for Spanish people, it's hard."

She and Bardem do get recognised in Madrid, but "it's not a constant thing. Places like this, or London, it's easy to do the normal things you need to, and I don't want to give that up."

Having children has also made her thankful she came of age before the arrival of camera phones and social media. "It's very different today," she nods. "Teenagers are less protected than they were and probably less than they will be 10 years from now. There's something very unnatural about a 10- or 12-year-old with a phone and access to social media.

"Mine are little," she continues. "We have no television at home, and there's a very limited amount of screen time, with content chosen by us that's appropriate for their ages. But no access to the internet? That's a crazy idea. There have to be regulations to protect young people."

Our time up, I fold up my questions, and Penélope sinks back into her chair, visibly relaxing – even her voice sounds less tense. Ever polite, she chats a little while longer, laughing more in those few minutes than the rest of our time combined.

Suddenly I get a glimpse of the woman who, in the early years of her career in LA, would cheer herself up in the goofiest way imaginable: singing karaoke alone in her apartment, not a care in the world.

Penélope Cruz is ambassador for Lancôme. L'Absolu Rouge Drama Matte and Teint Idole Ultra Wear Nude are available now.

Everybody Knows is in cinemas now.

Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 17.

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