Days after Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides breaks the international box office opening weekend record once held by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Penélope Cruz is at home in Spain. She has just returned from a twelve-day Pirates press tour, during which she traveled with an enormous luggage set containing pieces like “the black Marchesa that Georgina [Chapman] made for me for the first premiere” and “the red one that Mr. Armani made for Berlin that was beautiful.” Over the course of those two weeks, Cruz was ubiquitous, confidently embodying everything she was always meant to become.
Cruz’s story is that of a Spanish Oscar-winning Hollywood bombshell married to a Spanish Oscar-winning Hollywood heartthrob (Javier Bardem), and mother of a newborn baby boy graced with an astounding pedigree. Her triumph is a triumph of good taste—a fearless, serious actor favored by cinema’s great auteurs (Pedro Almodóvar, her champion; Woody Allen), and now even Disney, as she plays the daughter of a pirate in a multibillion dollar 3-D family film blockbuster. Her power seems unrivaled. Cruz exists in the Bono-sphere—that elite layer of worldly entertainers distinguished by earnest, often political, leanings. And when she is asked about the intricacies of celebrity, Cruz makes it clear that her interest is acting, not stardom. She doesn’t see herself in the two-story Pirates banner draped on the Carlton Hotel in Cannes (“For me it’s the character. It’s Angelica, no?”), and says that she is unaware of the strange and loud media speculation that her white Givenchy Haute Couture dress at the London Pirates premiere was influenced by Kate Middleton’s bridal fashion. “I refuse to call myself anything other than a working actress,” she says. “I know that kind of sounds like, ‘Yeah, but maybe your lifestyle has changed.’ But the reasons I do what I do remain the same. It’s hard, but if they change you lose track of everything. My motivation is the same, which has to do with acting and trying to choose my characters well and enjoy the process.”
Cruz has proven over and over again—from Volver to Blow (her first film with Pirates costar Depp) to the current Pirates—that she is a powerful actor of great dignity who is fascinated by human behavior and the mechanics of transformation. “Something happens that is really addictive about the investigation,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing. You can go into a different state when you are portraying somebody. I cannot say that that has happened to me in every movie, but it has happened a few times when you feel a lot of freedom and there is no self-criticism. A part of you becomes almost obsessed with that other being. That is the feeling that I look for.” Cruz says that she is always laughing at herself during red-carpet appearances. “I know you cannot see in the pictures, but if you don’t find the humor in those situations, when you start thinking that is normal, then you are in trouble.” Cruz allows little additional insight into her self-awareness, but one wonders if she and Bardem ever reflect on the absurdity of their uncommon talent, beauty, and acclaim—and then crack up cathartically.
It follows that she does not identify with herself as an icon. “I feel like an actress who is very fortunate to get work with continuity, to get opportunities to make a living from the job that I love so much,” she says. “Everything else is an extra that I couldn’t have dreamed about. When I was growing up it was just about, ‘Please, God, I don’t want to be locked in an office doing a job that is not creative in any way, that would make me feel like a prisoner.’”
When Cruz first came to Los Angeles, her close friend Salma Hayek picked her up from LAX so that she wouldn’t feel alone. But even today, despite the fact that she has as many friends in the United States as in Spain, Cruz does not feel a part of the Hollywood establishment. “I always feel like what I am,” she says. “A Spanish actress who also works in other countries.” She is excited by Spain’s recent political demonstrations, known as the 15-M Movement, which were organized using social media by protestors who feel unrepresented by the political class. “It is being done in a really beautiful way,” she says. “People have been very pacifist with demonstrations, asking for something that is really necessary, which is to be heard. I’m sure this movement is going to bring good things.”
The summer of 2011 was to be a win-win proposition for Cruz. Had she not done Pirates, she would have taken the role in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, for which Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. “I liked the script very much, and I thought about it but I had said yes to Pirates and the dates were not going to work,” she explains. “I was not going to be one-hundred percent in either one of them because of having to do the two movies back-to-back.” Cruz will not work for the remainder of the season, save for several weeks set aside to reunite with Woody Allen for the romantic comedy Bop Decameron.
Instead, she will spend time with her family, about which she is famously protective. Cruz is a champion of motherhood in a general way (“The biggest transformation is becoming a mother. It changes you forever,” she says), but declines even tangential details. (Her reticence is not unfounded; her performances have never suffered from a lack of supplemental civilian information.) She prefers not to discuss which Hollywood couples raising children she admires, or what Hayek—who is married to François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of luxury goods conglomerate PPR, parent of Gucci Group, among other properties—gave her as a baby gift. “Ooh…a beautiful thing,” Cruz says. “But I can’t tell you. Sorry!” She mentions Bardem only in connection with her work, while discussing whether she or Depp wears the smoky eye look better. “Johnny wears everything better than I do,” she says. “He even wore a dress in the movie he did with Javier, Before Night Falls. He wore that dress really well.” It’s suddenly hard to imagine anyone wearing anything—a dress, success, motherhood—more beautifully than Cruz.