Actress of the year: Penelope Cruz

Her character has to cope with a troubled teenage daughter, a murdered husband she’s stashed in a freezer and the ghost, literally, of her own mother. Cruz does it all without seeming at all matronly in Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” (“Return”).

For the actress, it’s no secret that Hollywood efforts like “All the Pretty Horses,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Sahara” didn’t click the way her Spanish and Italian films have. Could Hollywood even imagine her as a teenager’s mother?

Cruz credits Almodovar, who had previously cast her as an HIV-positive nun in “All About My Mother” and wrote “Volver” expressly for her.

“There is only one Pedro. I separate him from everything else,” she says. “He writes for women who are 13, 30, 60 and 80. I’m sure my career wouldn’t be the same one without him. Even my life wouldn’t be the same without him!”

The two worked together for months before filming began on “Volver,” shaping her Sophia Loren-influenced look and each line, every movement. “He’s so particular and specific,” she says. “It has been a liberation for me. As an actress, as a woman, in every way. Because I want to do something difficult.”

When the film wrapped after a six-month shoot, Cruz found herself undone. “Of course I was crying, and everybody left and I stayed. Like, I didn’t want to go and take off my clothes for the last time –that’s the first time that happens in my life. So Pedro came and he took me by the hand and he had to push me in the trailer and wait for me outside. Then when I came out, I looked at the world in a very different way, and he told me, ‘Welcome to your new life.’ “

Still, Cruz remains content with her Hollywood career. “I don’t feel like I’m leaving America or hurting myself. I am adding a lot to my career by working in a Spanish movie like this one, which (has) one of the best characters, maybe the best one I will find in my life.”

Regarding Cruz’s latest honor, she reveals, “It’s my first award in Hollywood and it’s for ‘Vovler,’ so I can dedicate it to Pedro for everything in my life and career. I think I have to make it a party that night.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more