The Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored actress Penélope Cruz last night, awarding her its annual Montecito Award. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress this year for her performance in director Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, Cruz attended the annual event with her husband, Javier Bardem, who himself was the recipient of the same award in 2008. Bardem is also nominated for Oscar this year, for Best Actor in Being the Ricardos, so there was an air of celebration in the air, as Cruz sat down for an in-depth discussion of her career so far with Festival Director Roger Durling.
As Durling started the conversation with Cruz noting that she seems to him to be an actress who truly loves what she does, she agreed, but also admitted that “I torture myself a lot when I act.” She confessed that one of the things about acting that she connects with is the fact that, in real life, she’s a control freak, but, with acting, you have to let go of that control. “This profession is not about control, it’s about observing.” Cruz started out as a dancer, having studied ballet until she was 18. She said she had a lot of energy and her mother put her into dancing as a way to hopefully work it out. A young Penélope craved performing, asking if she could play Carmen when she was 6.
It was when she first saw Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989) that her life changed. She said that was the moment she knew she wanted to become an actress. Her parents were thankfully supportive, although they did make her have a plan B, which was to dance. Cruz admits she became a little obsessed with Almodovar, hanging out at restaurants and bars that she knew he frequented. When asked if she was his stalker, she balked, saying she was too nervous to say anything to him, she just was obsessed with him—in a good way. She even snuck onto the set of his 1991 film High Heels, but never had the courage to approach him.
Cruz got into acting and made a few films in Spain before finally getting a chance to audition for Almodovar, and, when the two of them finally met, she says they were both surprised at their connection. He cast her in 1997’s Live Flesh, the first of seven films together. The actress has often been called the director’s muse, with comparisons to other famous actor/director tandems commonplace. Cruz credits their deep connection as the key to their success, as she says it’s as if they can read each other’s minds. “I can’t lie to him.”
She also claims she’s a terrible liar in real life, but loved that acting gives her permission to be a liar on screen and she loves it.
Cruz acknowledged that her life changed when she made Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008, not only as it was the film for which she was nominated and won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but it was during the making of that film that she started dating Javier Bardem, her co-star, and the two married in 2010 and have two children together. But it wasn’t the first time she and Bardem had been in a film together, as a clip was played for the audience of a scene with them together in Jamon, Jamon, her breakthrough film, from 1992.
When she was asked what it was like for she and Bardem when the Oscar nominations were announced, and both of their names were called, Cruz said it was surreal, “I still don’t believe it.” She related the story of how they decided to watch the nominations live and when they heard Alberto Iglesias’s name called, nominated for Best Original Score for Parallel Mothers, Cruz said it was all she needed, she was so thrilled her longtime collaborator was finally being recognized. But then, when they read the nominees for Best Actor and Bardem’s name was called, she screamed, she was so happy. But she looked over at Bardem and he wasn’t moving. She was confused, she was still screaming with joy and said to him, “Do something!” and he responded, “Not yet.” She said he was waiting to hear the list of the names for Best Actress, as he had a feeling they would have more joy that morning, and he was right. So when they announced Cruz’s name in the list of Best Actress nominees, they both screamed. She was so moved and touched that he wasn’t able to enjoy his news until he found about hers. Even though she had just been nominated for an Oscar, all of her attention was focused on the fact that her husband was so selfless in that moment. She was so moved by his reaction and by their double nomination, she said “I threw myself on the floor and I was laughing and crying for an hour and a half!” She summed it up by saying, “We are very grateful.”
Although she has already made seven films with Almodovar, Cruz fully expects and hopes to do more. But there is something she really hopes to do, and that’s a comedy with him. “I feel I haven’t done my ‘Women on the Verge’ comedy with him yet, and I hope I get to,” referring to Almodovar’s classic 1988 comedy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
But before she does another film with Almodovar, she may have to place a call to Ryan Murphy, as Cruz confessed that her performance as Donatella Versace in Murphy’s 2017 critically-acclaimed miniseries The Assassination of Gianna Versace, for which she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, hasn’t left her yet. She was so affected by playing the fashion icon that she feels there is so much more to explore. “A part of me is still stuck as Donatella. I’m not done, and I don’t know what to do about that. I have to play her again.”
But the key artistic relationship in Cruz’s life is clearly the one she has established with Almodovar, as she says, “working with him is my passion.” When asked, besides a comedy, what she wants to do with him, she said she’s been trying to convince him to do a musical for years.
After the conversation with Cruz, Durling introduced special guest Carlo Ponti, Jr. to present Cruz with the Montecito Award. Ponti surprised the crowd and Cruz with a special message from his mother, Sophia Loren, who gave a heartfelt message via video to Cruz, praising her talents and artistic excellence in a presentation that left Cruz in tears. The entire audience, including Bardem, who was in the front row, was clearly moved as well.
A visibly moved Cruz thanked the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for the recognition and she dedicated the award to Almodovar and to Loren. But she also felt compelled to point out that, especially on International Women’s Day, it was not lost on her to terrible plight of women around the world, as she expressed her concern, saying “My heart is with these women, and men and families in Ukraine.”
While the festival is always a star-studded affair and a top stop as we head into awards season, its most important aspect is its year-round contribution to the Santa Barbara community, as well as its support for the film industry at large. The funds raised through the festival and affiliated events are vital to the community, providing direct support for SBIFF’s plethora of free programs that serve over 14,000 people annually and reach some of the most vulnerable members of society – including at-risk and underserved youth, low-income families and their children, cancer patients, and transit-dependent senior citizens. SBIFF screens Academy fare in the Arthouse theater throughout the year, even throughout the pandemic, to encourage people to come back to the theater in a safe way.
The festival joined with Direct Relief to deliver aid to Ukraine, which has already surpassed $86K just a few days into the festival. See the link to the fundraiser below.
Photos: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF