PENELOPE CRUZ
Actress

Cruz’s occasional appearance as eye candy on the red carpet, which never fails to draw gushy reviews from the fashion police, conceals the rigors of arguably the hardest-working actress in film. She started at age 15, her earlier years spent studying ballet in her native Madrid. Recently turned 30, she has made more than 40 films in four languages. 1992’s award-winning “Belle epoque” and a year later “Jamon, jamon” introduced her not only as a dazzling beauty but one who possessed the voluble, passionate clarity characteristic of the Iberian temperament, with the raw voice of a flamenco singer.
Some of her films, like “Love Can Severely Damage Your Health” (1996) and “No News From God” (2001) don’t exactly crowd video shelf space, and American audiences haven’t seen her used to her best in “Vanilla Sky,” “Blow,” “Gothika” and “Sahara,” among others. But she’s an A-list player who’s come brilliantly alive under the Pygmalionlike touch of Pedro Almodovar, first in 1997’s “Live Flesh,” then in “All About My Mother” and now in their most recent collaboration, “Volver,” for which she won a lead actress award at the recent Cannes Film Festival, where critics compared her to such Italian earth mothers as Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren.
About her partnership with Almodovar, she says: “Sometimes you love someone before you meet them. From day one there was a connection. I discovered a new way of seeing the world.”

Career mantra: “Life for art’s sake.”
Role models: Anna Pavlova, Meryl Streep, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando
What’s next: She’s just finisihed “Manolete” with Adrien Brody.

– Lawrence Christon

JENNIFER HUDSON, BEYONCE KNOWLES, ANIKA NONI ROSE
Stars of “Dreamgirls”

Women on the Verge of Enormous Stardom” might be the subtitle to “Dreamgirls,” the hotly anticipated Bill Condon film adaptation of the Motown-inspired 1981 legit musical.
First, there’s Knowles, whose recording career already has her poised atop the entertainment pyramid and whose film appearances — from “Austin Powers in Goldmember” through “The Pink Panther” — revealed an infectious presence waiting for the right movie to launch her into the acting stratosphere.
Second, there’s Hudson, whose elimination from “American Idol” raised cries of racism and whose star is decidedly on the ascendant.
Third, there’s Rose — already a Tony winner for her breakout performance as Emmie Thibodeaux in “Caroline, or Change,” who sees “Dreamgirls” as a route to establishing herself as a serious dramatic actress.
The trio traveled to Cannes this year for the screening of Condon’s 20-minute trailer, which had the fest audience ecstatic.
“At first I was praying, ‘Please let them like it,’ ” says Hudson. “At the end, people were shouting, ‘Show the rest of the movie!’ “
None of the “Dreamgirls” has what one could call a lengthy track record on film, so the reality will partly mirror the movie — about the rise of a Supremes-style girl group for whom love and career become obstacles to stardom and happiness.
“Bill Condon has made … a beautiful 20 minutes!” says Rose, laughing. Like her co-stars, she has yet to see a finished film. “But if the rest of the movie is as beautiful, we’re all in good shape.”

Hudson
Career mantra: “Accept any challenge.”
Role model: “Beyonce. But every experience I’ve had has presented someone for me to learn from and admire.”
What’s next: “There’s a lot of talk; I’ll know it when I see it.”

Rose
Mantra: “Trust my instincts.”
Role model: Chandra Wilson of “Grey’s Anatomy”: “You don’t get any higher than her talents or work ethic.”
What’s next: “One Part Sugar” directed by Hart Bochner.

Knowles
Role model: “My mom.”

– John Anderson

RACHEL MCADAMS
Actress

It takes a special quality for an actress to be believable as the queen bee who rules the school, as the girl worth waiting for, and as the woman who can inspire a boy to grow into a man, but McAdams has excelled in satire (“Mean Girls”), tearjerker drama (“The Notebook”), broad comedy (“Wedding Crashers”) and even a thriller (“Red Eye”).
Despite her classic beauty, she’s not afraid to play against it: When it came time to cast “The Family Stone,” McAdams let Claire Danes play the luminous ingenue, instead sinking her teeth into the character of a bitchy college student dressed in baggy T-shirts. And, in an era of overexposure, she did the unimaginable and pulled out of a Tom Ford Vanity Fair cover shoot because she was uncomfortable with the nudity.
An oversimplification is to credit her Canadian heritage with her self-deprecating ability to turn her looks into either a comic or dramatic asset.
“Toronto is home and it suits me,” McAdams told People magazine. “It’s good to step away from the business when I’m not working and ride my bike and garden.”
She credits training as a competitive figure skater with her approach toward shooting and physical comedy. “Doing a sport totally helps you,” she told People. “It’s great for your work ethic, and I love doing physical work as an actor because I’ve really become in tune with my body.”

Role model: Her mother
Career mantra: “Honestly, I’m still working it out.”
What’s next: “Marriage,” from director Ira Sachs and starring Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper, due in 2007.

— Steffie Nelson

MARY-LOUISE PARKER
Actress

It’s telling that Parker, star of Showtime’s “Weeds,” was overlooked by Emmy voters earlier this month. But then Parker — long a critical darling on the stage and screen and more recently on the tube — has always practiced the art of invisibility.
Which isn’t to say the TV Academy isn’t aware of Parker’s considerable gifts: She won a supporting Emmy for the mini “Angels in America” in ’04 and was nominated two years earlier for supporting actress in “The West Wing.”
On the boards, it’s a different tale. She was Tony-nominated for lead actress in a play as far back as 1990, for Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” and as recently as last year, for Lucas’ “Reckless.” She won the prize in 2002 for David Auburn’s “Proof.”
For Parker, it’s about guts, not glory. “I’ve gotten a good bit of attention, and I’m happy with that,” she says. “I’m a theater actor, really. It’s a different discipline. It’s more about a process, constructing a world, connecting with other people onstage. It’s more blue-collar. Movies feel more solipsistic.”
Not that Parker doesn’t bring “theatrical” standards to her film and television work. As Nancy Botwin on “Weeds,” she’s as conflicted as any character on TV. “My goal is to seem like a human being, not like an actress,” she says. “I’d like people to think they’re watching a person. That’s the goal, to risk being tedious and unattractive and unheroic.”

Career mantra: “I try not look at the big picture.”
Role model: “Beethoven, because he did his best work at 55, when he was deaf.”
What’s next: The second season of “Weeds” begins Aug. 14 on Showtime. Also the films “Romance and Cigarettes,” directed by John Turturro, and the Brad Pitt starrer “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

— David Mermelstein

AUDREY TAUTOU
Actress

European actresses as a rule experience a tough go in America, unless they’re sexpots like Monica Bellucci or Emmanuelle Beart. The soul-deep savoir faire of a Jeanne Moreau, Simone Signoret or even a Lena Olin tends to be problematic for the American male ego, which prefers people and things in their locker-room place. That Ron Howard, the most all-American of U.S. film directors, should choose Tautou to scurry through the Louvre with Tom Hanks, the most all-American of actors, in “The Da Vinci Code,” has to be a tribute to her crossover appeal.
“You get so much information out of Audrey’s face and eyes,” “Code” producer Brian Grazer has told Daily Variety, “that it’s hardly surprising she’s become one of the more esteemed actresses in France.”
Here in the U.S. we like our surfaces bright. Tautou’s oft-cited “gamine” appeal (like that of her namesake, Audrey Hepburn) made 2001’s award-winning “Amelie” an international arthouse favorite, and her personification of the unwavering tenacity of love also made 2004’s “A Very Long Engagement” a hit among cineastes.
In “The Da Vinci Code,” she caught the eye without suggesting the muddle of female foreign intrigue. “She’s very attractive in an understated way,” observes critic Peter Rainer. “She has a bright presence that’s nonthreatening, like the girl next door. Film noir best reflects the iconography of French beauty, but she has a different kind of appeal. Her wholesomeness has radiance.”
And an absence of malice, which is itself refreshing these days.

Career mantra: “Everything is hiding in the script.”
What’s next: R&R from the making of “The Da Vinci Code” and its punishing reception at Cannes.

– Lawrence Christon

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