SO SOLID CRUZ; Film Star Penelope Cruz's Work Ethic Is Admirable, as Is Her Commitment to Charities. She's Hot on Politics and Social Issues. Yet When She Talks about Who Really Has First Place in Her Heart She Melts Engagingly- Interview Jane Gordon Photographs Gilles-Marie Zimmermann

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Byline: JANE GORDON

IF Penelope Cruz is suffering from a broken heart on the day we meet, she doesn't show it. The ravishing actress - who is probably marginally better known for the Hollywood men she has partnered than the Hollywood films she has starred in - is a week away from officially announcing that her two-year relationship with Matthew McConaughey is over. But today, apart from a slight prickliness when 'personal matters' are mentioned (more of which later) and the nervous way in which she picks at one of her nails (which are Coleen-style extensions), there is no initial indication of any underlying tension.

Charming, engaging and hugely impressive in the way she manages to switch instantly from Spanish through French (we meet in Cannes) to English, she is the consummate professional - anxious only to promote her new film, Volver.

Which is not, perhaps, surprising, because her performance as Raimunda in Pedro Almodvar's darkly comic movie will remind audiences why it was that Penelope, now 32, found her way to Hollywood in the first place.

She is mesmeric in her role as the hardworking mother of an adolescent girl, who has to cope with the demands of her sleazy, unemployed husband and the spectre of her own mother's return from the dead.

'This is the most complex character that anybody has given me and the biggest challenge of my career, because she changes her mood every 15 seconds. It was also the most enjoyable role I have played - even the very emotional scenes, when I was terrified the night before, crying in my bed thinking, "Oh my God, how am I going to do that tomorrow?"

Crying from fear,' she says, fixing me with her big, brown, limpid eyes in a way that is at once both endearing and unnerving.

In more ways than one, Volver, which loosely translates from Spanish as 'coming back', represents a welcome return for Penelope. It is four years since she last made a film in Spain and seven years since her role in another Almodovar film, All About My Mother, brought her to the attention of LA casting agents. But although she won roles in big productions such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Vanilla Sky and Gothika, it was her lustrous good looks, not her acting, that propelled her to stardom. As the girlfriend of Tom Cruise (they were an item for three years after his break-up with Nicole Kidman in 2001) and muse of Ralph Lauren, she became the first European actress since Sophia Loren properly to infiltrate A-list America.

The eldest of three children born to Eduardo, a shopkeeper, and his hairdresser wife Encarna, Penelope Cruz S*nchez grew up in a suburb of Madrid in a family that - she indicates by clenching her hands together - was 'very, very close'. Energetic to the point of being almost hyperactive (even now it is clearly difficult for her to sit still), she studied classical ballet for nine years before breaking into television as a children's presenter. Roles in well-received Spanish films such as Jamon, Jamon and Belle Epoque led her to Almodovar and ultimately to LA. Despite the resulting international success, she still regards Madrid as home and her family remain central in her life.

'My brother and sister have been very smart, they have a lot of integrity and have protected themselves from using anything that could gratuitously be connected to my success.

My brother Eduardo is only 21 but he is a very talented singer-songwriter who has just signed a contract with Warner, and my sister Monica is a successful actress in Spain - much more beautiful than me and very talented.'

In addition to beauty and talent, the Cruz S*nchez children also possess the work ethic instilled in them by their parents. Penelope is, she admits, a 'perfectionist' for whom work remains a driving force (it was busy work schedules that were cited as the reason for her split with McConaughey). As well as creating her own production company and being co-owner of Madrid fashion store Amarcord, she is an accomplished photographer with plans, later this year, to publish a book of her pictures. …