Beautiful dreamer

AFI Fest 2006 salutes enigmatic screen siren Penelope Cruz.

Penelope Cruz is an anomaly. As talented as she is gorgeous, the 32-year-old thesp has defied categorization. At a time when actresses complain about a lack of juicy roles for women, Cruz balances a career that includes Hollywood blockbusters and foreign films in which she speaks fluent Italian, French and her native Spanish. She's a red-carpet favorite, and during her off-time, she's not above punking her good friend Salma Hayek.

"I was laughing so hard inside when we did that episode (of MTV's 'Punk'd')," Cruz says from a New York studio where she is doing photo shoots to promote her latest film, Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver," set for limited release Nov. 3. "Now, every time something strange happens, I think it's Salma trying to get even with me."

Asked how she kept from cracking up during the prank, she replies, "I'm an actress. That's what we're trained to do."

As an actress, she succeeds brilliantly in the Spanish-language "Volver," her latest project with her longtime artistic collaborator, director Pedro Almodovar. In the film, Cruz plays Raimunda, a strong-willed working-class woman juggling a job as an airport janitor with a chaotic home life, which includes an extended family and an inattentive husband whose eventual death changes her life.

It's a compelling performance by an actress known for immersing herself in the characters she plays, making her that much more deserving of the AFI Fest's annual tribute, set to take place Nov. 2 at Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas. The tribute will feature clips from Cruz's 16-year career and conclude with a screening of "Volver."

"I'm honored about this tribute," Cruz says. "It's a beautiful thing that I wasn't expecting. I hope I can come up with some fun memories to share with everyone so that it's not boring for the attendees."

Boring is the last word that comes to Christian Gaines' mind when Cruz's name is mentioned. The AFI Fest director says that Cruz was chosen for the honor because of the originality she brings to her roles.

"We always like to honor someone that people crave to learn more about," Gaines says. "Penelope Cruz is one such person. As an actress, she is brilliant. We're an international film festival, and she really is a great symbol of international filmmaking. We're just crazy about her."

Gaines isn't the only one. At the tender age of 16, Cruz made a striking debut in Bigas Luna's 1994 feature "Jamon, Jamon," which required her to do several nude scenes. That same year, she delivered another effortless turn in Fernando Trueba's "Belle Epoque," in which she stood out as one of four sisters vying for the attentions of a wayward soldier.

After cementing her reputation as a serious actress in Almodovar's critically acclaimed 1999 feature "All About My Mother," Cruz would begin to make an impression on American audiences in 2001's "Blow," opposite Johnny Depp, and in that same year's Tom Cruise starrer "Vanilla Sky," based on Alejandro Amenabar's award-winning 1997 fantasy romance "Abre los Ojos" (Open Your Eyes), which featured Cruz in the same role. Last year, she starred in her first American big-budget action-adventure movie, "Sahara," proving that she is that rare actress who can move easily between the multiplex and the art house.

But it's her work in "Volver" that has experts buzzing about a potential Oscar nomination. "She adds so much to 'Volver,'" Gaines says. "Penelope is known for her beauty, but in the film we don't see Penelope. We see Raimunda, a woman who has led a very hard, tiring life."

Ironically, though Raimunda isn't a typically glamorous character -- Cruz wears padding to fill out her figure in the film -- critics have raved that the actress has never been lovelier, saying she exudes the lush appeal of a young Sophia Loren, a compliment Cruz doesn't take lightly.

"I think Raimunda is a relatable character, and maybe that's where her beauty lies," Cruz says. "I credit Pedro with how it all turned out. He was very specific about how he wanted this person to look and be played. He knew exactly who she was inside and out. What I love about the film and the way Pedro filmed it is that it shows you don't need the typical love story or speeding cars and explosions to make a film work. You just need great characters."