Lead actress contender

Referring to the fierce, protective, vulnerable and beleaguered character Raimunda, the woman at the heart of Pedro Almodovar’s comedy-drama “Volver,” Penelope Cruz calls it “one of the best gifts I’ve received in my life. I cried because somebody I admire so much was putting in my hands a character that could do so much for my career, could represent a drastic change.”

That’s because after many years of mostly English-language movies for Hollywood that cemented her international star status, she had begun to miss roles that required artistic risk. So Cruz was grateful to be working again with Spain’s leading filmmaker, who first cast the dark-haired beauty as a prostitute 10 years ago in “Live Flesh” and memorably as a pregnant nun in “All About My Mother.”

All that experience working with Almodovar, however, still didn’t stop her from a nervous spell before the start of shooting on “Volver.”

“The day before I began this movie, even after three months of rehearsal, I was crying in my bed, and laughing at the same time,” Cruz says. “It was from happiness and terror. I was calling my family saying, ‘Look at what he’s given me. I can’t disappoint him.’ “

Cruz calls it “the good fear,” the kind that comes from getting what an actor wants: demanding, challenging roles. And Raimunda, a struggling wife and mother whose emotional arc includes domestic strife, dark secrets, starting a business, grieving and reconciling various family ghosts, was more than a handful. Sometimes a day’s work involved weepy drama in the morning and black comedy in the afternoon, and if she wasn’t careful, Cruz says, it could be too overwhelming.

“When you have so many emotional scenes, crying followed by crazy anger or a nervous breakdown or a laugh attack, it’s like being in a bubble,” she says. “So the only way for me to handle this character and enjoy it was to apply what Raimunda applies to her life, which is taking care of one action at a time, being in the moment. That way she can really express her feelings. Because if not, she would be dead, you know?”

As taxing as the part was, though, she never felt unsafe in her Oscar-winning director’s hands.

“He sees everything, so I knew I could just fly and risk everything, because he was going to be there for me. He’s such a huge inspiration. It’s a very special thing we have together.”

That would include seeking each other out on weekends, too.

Says Cruz ebulliently: “Every Saturday we’re like, ‘I haven’t seen you in 10 hours and I miss you. Let’s go watch a movie.’ But from Monday to Friday, we are director and actress, no gossiping by the monitor or talking about guys.”

Favorite film of the past five years: “There’s a lot. That’s tough. Can I get back to you on that one?”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “Johnny Depp (“Blow”). He can do anything he wants, and he is a great actor, but as anyone who meets him will tell you, he is a very special human being.”

Next project: “It’s a real story in Spain in the ’40s, a love story about the bullfighter Manolete and actress Lupe Sino.”

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