“We can’t find her. Where is she? Where is Penélope?” murmurs a flustered PR, eyes scanning the dimly lit room. Inside the Grand Palais in Paris, you can practically trip over an A-list celebrity while standing still. We’re all gathered after witnessing the Chanel Métiers d’Art collection by Virginie Viard. Within the ephemeral set, co-designed by Sofia Coppola, air-kissing guests of the show and waving about the space made to appear like the personal apartments of Gabrielle Chanel on rue Cambon. Nestled on a deep, beige-colored couch (comme chez Chanel), Kristen Stewart can be overheard exclaiming of the show, “It’s just so aspirational!” French actor Isabelle Adjani is typically incognito in large, black sunglasses as she dips behind a bronze deer. Lily-Rose Depp is bent over her phone texting rapidly. Meanwhile, by a bookshelf, Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard silently scans the scene and its players. All are friends and ambassadors of the maison Chanel, and the air is electric with energy and praise for the Viard’s first métiers d’art show. Chanel’s most recent ambassador, Penélope Cruz, however, is seemingly missing. And then, of course, she is found.
Sitting discreetly in an adjoining room, fashioned with coromandel screens, Cruz is dressed in all black. The last time she was at a Chanel show, for FW19, she appeared on the runway like a snow fairy, clutching a single flower and dressed all in white, eyes brimming with tears for the passing of Karl Lagerfeld. Tonight, the only flash of color is the red paint of her moon-shaped nails and toes peeking out from platform sandals. Her long hair, styled iron straight, is tucked behind a bejeweled ear, showcasing a heart-shaped face that appears untouched by cosmetic surgery, fillers, or Botox. Cruz’s surface beauty engages instantly, for through it, the 45-year-old actor exudes warmth and innocence with a side of magnetic carnality. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes appear at once hopeful and forlorn, like she is fixed on a cliff ’s edge, poised for flight or fall. Her Audrey Hepburn-esque fragility rouses you to reach out and catch her – not that she needs any net. Cruz is undoubtedly strong of spirit, as her 30-year film career with some 70 credits to her name will attest; along with 17 years of ballet study that she tributes for her almost military discipline.
Cruz was born in the small town of Alcobendas, outside Madrid, to a hairdresser mother and a car mechanic father. She started modeling and acting at 15, appearing in a music video for a Spanish pop group. At 16, she landed the lead role in her first feature film, the comedy-drama Jamón Jamón, opposite Javier Bardem. The actor would become her husband, father of her two children, and sometimes co-star. The very private powerhouse couple most recently acted in Everybody Knows in 2018; having also starred together in the Escobar biopic Loving Pablo in 2017 and Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008, for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar. Cruz was the first-ever Spanish actress to win an Academy Award, with Bardem – who is paid parity when co-starring with Cruz – the first actor for his supporting role in the 2007 movie No Country For Old Men. She was also Emmy-nominated for her role as Donatella Versace in the 2018 series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Cruz’s latest role is in Wasp Network, due for imminent release in the Middle East. She plays the wife of a Cuban defector who infiltrates anti-Fidel Castro groups in Miami in the early Nineties. It was important for her to capture the essence behind a certain psychology of decision-making, she shares. She performs in English with a Cuban accent, perfected over months of classes to bring it to a level where she could also improvise. The process brings Cruz great satisfaction. She practically grew up in the cinema and remembers playing alone at age four and five, interpreting different characters. The study of human behavior fascinates her to this day; understanding what motivates and what moves people; what incites empathy and compassion. “In my characters, I look to find something real. To represent a real woman, in any situation,” she comments. “The more diversity I can find within my characters, and the farther away they are from who I am, the better. I don’t want to repeat myself, or play myself or similar characters. I’m not in any way afraid of those risks. I love studying human behaviors. It’s such a big mystery. It’s the eternal school, and I’m an eternal student. That’s why I love acting.”
Looking to the future, however, Cruz sees herself behind the camera, in the director’s chair. She’s also stepped behind the lens for Vogue Spain. As reactions to the recent Academy Award director nominations would suggest – with all five slots filled by men – a woman of Cruz’s stature leading a picture will be welcomed beyond measure. In 2015, she made her documentary directorial debut with Ja Sam Jedan Od Sto Tisuća, a story of children battling leukemia. Her aim was to encourage others to help find a cure for childhood cancer. While this might offer an idea of the subject matter Cruz wishes to explore, she is biding her time ahead of diving into a director career, her own children being her main concern. “They are still young, and you need a long time to do it [directing] right,” she comments. When probed if this desire stems from her wish to pronounce a certain point of view, she shakes her head in earnest. “I cannot explain why. I have been saying this since I was 16. I’ve been saying to Pedro, ‘Pedro, I would like to direct someday,’ and he’s always telling me, ‘You should do it. You have to be brave and do it.’”
“Pedro,” of course, is Pedro Almodóvar, the monumental director. Cruz credits him as her mentor, with him regularly casting her as a strong, female character in films like Volver (2006) and Todo sobre mi madre (1999). She has said that at the end of her life, he will be among those she has loved most. Almodóvar, who most recently cast her in the Oscar-nominated Pain and Glory (2019), has said of him and Cruz that they enjoy all the pleasures of a couple, save the physical.
Along with cinema, the worlds of fashion and beauty have long courted the Spanish actor. She has shone as a face of L’Oréal since 2006; modeled for Mango and Ralph Lauren; and spritzed Lancôme’s Trésor perfume for the camera from the balcony of the Hôtel de Crillon. She has also unveiled a conscious luxury jewelry line with Swarovski and doesn’t shy from sharing her concern for the climate crisis, whether on a film junket or red carpet.
Cruz’s relationship with Chanel appears especially close to her heart – perhaps now more than ever that a woman is once again leading the maison. There appears to be a certain kinship between her and Viard and Cruz is quick to shower her with praise, underscoring that for the new artistic director, “Everything is about the work.” Cruz posits that Chanel is like family to Viard. Certainly, her directors and co-stars are family to her, and, as many a Spaniard will tell you, family is quite simply, life.
Originally published in the February 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia