Allen's impromptu approach works for Spaniard

In Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” actress Penelope Cruz found herself working in unfamiliar territory.

“Woody doesn’t like rehearsals,” Cruz explains by phone from London, where she’s working on Rob Marshall’s drama “Nine” alongside Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis. “We had a meeting for the movie in New York, and then I didn’t see him again until he said, ‘Action.'”

Yet the process was invigorating for Cruz, who says she was able to cut loose on a character that was probably better served with such a spontaneous approach.

“It doesn’t leave time for the kind of self-judgment you feel while acting,” she says. “I think that’s one of Woody’s strategies. It’s a little calculated, and I think it works. I love this system of working. And you know you are in the hands of someone you can trust 100%.”

In the film, Cruz plays Maria Elena, Javier Bardem’s firecracker artist ex-girlfriend who steps into the narrative halfway through and leaves an impression, to say the least. Though the opportunity was certainly there to chew the scenery and enjoy the ride, Cruz says she was concerned with finding a truth to Maria Elena’s erratic nature.

“I didn’t just want to play her crazy because that is a very general concept,” Cruz says. “She’s very unstable and extremely emotional, but she’s somebody that’s very trapped in her own head. She was told as a little girl that she was a genius, and I feel like she has believed since she was very young that she has to keep torturing herself to be special. That is her reality, and she defends that. In a way, she’s her own worst enemy.”

Moving between the drama of “Elegy” and the comedy of “Vicky” this year, Cruz, who is reteaming with fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar in the upcoming “Broken Embraces,” makes it clear that both styles of performing require equal commitment.

“I don’t think comedy is lighter, and I don’t think it is easier,” she says. “I think the timing of comedy is tricky, and you have to be so precise and you have to be aware of that timing. Woody Allen is great at that. He’s one of the masters of laughing at human confusion. When the characters are suffering, the characters can laugh.”

Favorite film this year “I don’t know how I could say anything because all the movies haven’t been released yet.”

Best advice “Not to read about yourself in the press.”

Inspiration “Right now, the great Italian actresses: Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, etc.”

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