Virtually unknown in Hollywood two years ago - Penelope Cruz has become an overnight sensation - renown more for dating her high-profile co-stars than for her actual performances. Starring opposite Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise in her last four films, she is alleged to have dated all but Johnny Depp, earning the 26-year-old Spanish beauty the title of Hollywood's latest heart-breaker.
An impressive feat if you consider Tom Cruise was married to Nicole Kidman; Nicolas Cage wed to Patricia Arquette, and Matt Damon engaged to Winona Ryder before each man was coupled on screen with the fiery temptress.
You'd think Hollywood's scorned wives would have enlisted a hit man by now. So why haven't they? "Maybe because I am not dating anyone," she suggests, her dark eyes widening in defiance. "I have stepped off the relationship scene to come to terms with myself. I have spent most of my adult life being 'someone's girlfriend', and now I am happy being single," announces Penelope who is reputed to have launched affairs with Matt Damon on the set of All The Pretty Horses (2000); with Nicolas Cage on Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), and with Tom Cruise on Vanilla Sky (2001).
"I think it will be better when I get involved with someone again, because I made this time for me. I haven't really been single for a while, and I think it's been good for me, to lose the fear to be like this," says the actress who turns 27 in April.
Just as passionate off-screen as she is on, she admits to suffering two nervous breakdowns - one 10 years earlier - and the other just five months ago. And since then, she insists she has given up her love life completely. "I had a very big crisis when I was 17 because I was over-exhausted," reveals Penelope, who has been working since the age of 15, having since made 26 films - one for every year of her life. "I was so young and I thought I could do everything, but it was all too much for my body and my mind.
"I was stressed and made a sickness out of it," she says, searching for the right words to describe her teenage breakdown. "I had a horrible, horrible breakdown. It was just huge, like the worst period of my life, and it lasted for a couple of months. "I have only had two crises like that - when something inside stings, like you are eliminating something. Both times it was because I was over-stressed," she says.
"I did not stop working for the whole summer, and then I went to Calcutta where I was making a documentary for a Spanish foundation to raise money for kids. I couldn't delay the trip even though I was so tired, so when I returned to America afterwards, I broke down - out of exhaustion and also because of everything I saw in India.
"There is more pain there than you can imagine. I couldn't even cry from what I was seeing because I had to work. So you become like a stone. And then once I left, everything came out," says Penelope who made some major life changes while she recovered.
"I decided I had two choices. I could go down, or up. So I quit smoking and started a much-healthier diet, and started meditating again. "I exercise more, and that has helped me. I don't even drink coffee because it makes me nervous.
"My ambition is to be happy, and I don't base my happiness only on my work. When I went through my first crisis at 17, I said no to many things that were big temptations. They didn't feel right in my heart at that moment," says the actress who insists giving up sex is all part of her health-improvement plan."
With her passionate brown eyes, silky black hair, olive complexion and sensual accent, Penelope will clearly find plenty of temptation along her self-imposed path to betterment, although even if she errs from her course, it won't be her who spills the pillow talk. "I am amazed about how everyone wants to know about my love life. They whisper to me, 'Tell me the truth? Is it true?' Who cares? Because we have this job, we are to say to everybody what we do, or with whom we sleep? It's a bit absurd, but that's why everybody lies so much," concludes the actress, whose relationship with Matt Damon resulted in not only the end of his engagement to Winona Ryder, but also her own live-in relationship with a Czech assistant director who once shared her Madrid home.
"I had instant chemistry with Matt. He's so humble and full of truth. He's amazing. We are very good friends. Matt's a very special man, he's funny and he's one of the most generous people I've met in my life. He has no defects," is all she will say, bristling with visible anger at such intrusion of her privacy.
For today she is anxious to earn her place in Tinseltown on her own merits without using her high-profile suitors as stepping stones to Hollywood establishment. "The most difficult thing in the world is to start a career known only for your looks, and then to try to become a serious actress. No one will take you seriously once you are known as the pretty woman," she says, big brown eyes beseeching. "I had a strong rejection of anything sexual or sensual for a while. I didn't do any love scenes, not even kisses, for many years. "I don't want always to play the pretty woman because there is always going to be someone more beautiful. I like to change.
"I like roles that people don't recognize me in," pleads the actress who nevertheless recently accepted a lucrative offer to become the face of top fashion house, Ralph Lauren, fronting its current advertising campaign.
"People are always telling me I'm sexy, but I don't think those things about myself. I know I've been coquettish since I was three years old. I like clothes and I like seduction in general, but I am like that with everybody; children, dogs, men and women. I admit I want people to like me - who doesn't ? But not for just the outside."
"The most important lesson I've learned in this business is how to say no. I have said no to a lot of temptations, and I am glad I did."
Born and raised in Madrid, she dreamed of becoming a ballerina, practicing four hours a day until she turned 15 years old and was signed up by a prominent Spanish talent agency. Exceptionally close to her siblings and parents, who still live in Spain, she considers her mother and sister to be her closest friends.
"The good thing is that I have always had wonderful people around me. It's dangerous when you start earning a lot of money and you become famous when you are too young. I still need them because you are never out of danger," says Penelope, who will next be seen starring opposite Johnny Depp in big-budget drug drama, Blow (2001); with Nicolas Cage in romantic movie, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), and with Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky (2001).
Her mother, Encarna, was a hairdresser who now runs Penelope's business affairs, while her father, Eduardo, is a car mechanic. Her sister Monica, 24, is a professional flamenco dancer, and her 15-year-old brother, Eduardo Jr., dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.
Dressed in a classic black suit, the 5'5" actress is all business - she has been doing this for many years already -she's animated and quick to let you in. She's superstitious. She won't step on pavement cracks, and she forces herself to visualize things eight times so that they happen.
She once coughed throughout an entire movie because a little voice told her to. "I'm an actor. I have no idea who I really am," she says.
"But now I'm working very much, to create a rhythm. I don't feel I want to be doing something else. I live in hotels most of the year. I don't have a kitchen with me sometimes. It depends if you are in an apartment or in a hotel. "And you get spoiled," she admits. "I throw everything to the floor -- I have room service -- and when I get home to Madrid, my family look at me like, 'Why are you throwing things to the floor?' Because I think somebody else is going to pick it up. And my mother gets very unhappy, and it's not a very good thing to do. But you create a rhythm, you're working so many hours, and you get used to it."
Yet Penelope knew well before that - at the age of four or five, when she re-enacted television commercials for her captive family on a daily basis - that she was destined to be a performer. "I think in a way you are born with it, like you need it. That's why it's so sad when things don't happen for some people because you cannot do it at home by yourself. You can, but it's very hard."You can't - I don't know why I say you can.
You depend on others all the time. So I appreciate that my luck or whatever it is - I don't know if it's luck or karma - but every morning when I wake up or when I go to bed, I think how fortunate I am that I can spend my life doing something that I want to do. Because I couldn't wake up to do something I didn't like or I didn't believe in just to maintain something, knowing that one day I am going to die. I prefer to do something I really like or maybe change my life completely and go and live under a tree."
Despite her growing fame, she remains a deeply spiritual person with a level-headedness rare among those who have grown up in the spotlight. After spending one week as a volunteer in Mother Teresa's childrens sanctuary in Calcutta, she donated her entire salary from the movie Hi-Lo Country to the organization, and during filming of Pretty Horses, in which animals figure prominently, she decided to become a vegetarian.
"I never grew up a rich girl. We had everything we needed, but we were not rich, but I am grateful for that because I think it's much more dangerous to be born already with everything. With the way things keep changing, it really helps you to value everything you have. Because I will never forget when I was small I had two pairs of shoes for the whole winter, so I had to really take care of them and put them in their right place and it was like a ritual."
"A lot of things are funny. That's why I don't underestimate anything. It's good to go through as much stuff as possible," she says, confiding that her biggest goal in life is to find 'magic'. "I think you recognize it because you have felt it sometimes, if not permanently, because I think magic is very related to happiness. So it is not there all the time, but there are beautiful moments of magic in everyone's life," says Penelope whose neck is adorned by a delicate silver necklace which reads in French, 'Beauty, virtue, and glory. I found those things in her'. Whether or not this is a gift from a lover, she will not reveal, although the sentiments pretty well sum up Penelope Cruz.