Actress honored by A-listers

IN HOLLYWOOD Harvey Weinstein and Salma Hayek honored their friend, the Oscar-nominated Penelope Cruz (for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) at an all-movie star party in Salma’s white wood, jewel of a little house in Bel Air. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who she once played in a film where she should have won the Oscar, hang Salma’s walls with paintings. Her windows overlook L.A. The decor is stunning, contemporary and tastefully bright. The hostess received in a black cocktail dress wearing five-inch heels and carrying her baby, Valentina, in her arms. Some guests? Colin Farrell, Brett Ratner, Josh Groban, Prince, Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Reynolds, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Quincy Jones, Drew Barrymore, Penny Marshall, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones who say they’re moving back East.

I SPOKE to Cruz over the weekend. She was calling from somewhere in the hills of Los Angeles, on a cell-phone. At first, the signal died, and I thought, oh well, modern technology! But Penelope didn’t give up. She got to a landline. Cruz has the sort of vital personality that leaps right off the screen, and right through phone wires too. She pulls you in. (When I met her in the flesh a few years back, I was blown away by her good looks, her lively intelligence and her energy.) It’s hard to believe this vibrant star was thought to be something of a “flop” in American films, with the early disappointments of “All The Pretty Horses” and “Vanilla Sky.” Also hard to believe she was ever involved with Tom Cruise. That friendship, which blossomed in the wake of his divorce from Nicole Kidman, was tabloid fodder only nine years ago, but it seems like 20, somehow. She says she is thrilled to have been nominated again. (Her first bid for Oscar was 2006′s “Volver,” directed by her old friend and mentor, Pedro Almodovar.) “Although, I have to call my family everyday, in Spain, to calm them down, so they don’t get too hopeful.” When I remark that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t a “typical” Woody Allen movie, and that he seems quite the revitalized auteur over the past couple of years, Penelope protests. “Really? I think he’s always re-inventing himself, over and over. He can do anything. Compare, ‘Scoop’ to ‘Purple Rose of Cairo’ or to ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ or ‘Bullets Over Broadway’”… Penelope gives such a compelling dissertation on the work of Woody Allen, I finally concede, lamely, “Well, I guess it’s that he’s changed locale. Most of his movies used to be set in New York. Now he’s gone European.” Penelope allows that yes, I’m right on that one.

The actress speaks English perfectly, though with a strong, charming, accent. She recalls with horror her first adventures in American moviemaking (she was already a great star in Spain.) “I’d studied French for years. But I had no English, nothing, zero. It was terrible not to be able to really understand your director or your co-stars. I took a crash course, and luckily I picked it up quickly.” Cruz took ballet for nine years at Spain’s National Academy. With that training, has she ever played a dancer? “No, I haven’t. But I did get to dance and sing and a lot else in ‘Nine.’ I do the number ‘A Phone Call to the Vatican’ which has me performing with ropes. I hadn’t danced at all in 14 years. I practiced that number every day, five hours a day from August to November. When we finally shot it, I was so sad when it was all over. It had become part of my life. Now I’m thinking of hanging some ropes around my house, just to remind me of the joy I had with that.” Penelope laughs heartily when I say ropes hanging from her ceiling might alarm first-time visitors!

Of the filming itself she says, “It was an incredible experience, because I am in a blinding spotlight, and I couldn’t see beyond it. It was all darkness, and I’m performing on a mirrored platform. All I could think was, I’m never going to do this again, which made me unhappy, I’m terrified and the fear is kind of beautiful, and I so don’t want to disappoint Rob Marshall, the director.”

The movie “Nine,” an adaptation of Tommy Tune’s Broadway hit ( based on Fellini’s famous film “8½”) also stars Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Stacy Ferguson and Kate Hudson. It is one of 2009′s most eagerly awaited events. And it is another Weinstein Company effort. Ah, yes, the world is breathing easier!

I SAID to Penelope that I’d always thought a dance background — no matter what you eventually end up doing — improves discipline in general. “You are right! A dancer’s life is hard. And so is an actor’s, though most people don’t see it that way. They only see the glamour. But that discipline helps when I have to work 17 hours a day, or it’s cold, or hot or horribly uncomfortable in some way. Or just boring, which fimmaking often is. I feel I am more prepared to face an on set adversity.”

UP NEXT for Penelope is “Broken Embraces,” once again paired with Pedro Almodovar. She raves over her friend, “He is a genius. He writes the most incredible roles for women. In this one, ‘Broken Embraces,’ I am an actress playing two roles, one comedy, one drama, one real-life, one the movie she is making. A movie-within-a-movie. It’s complex, mind-blowing. I am so lucky to have him in my life.

“He is ITAL already ITAL writing another screenplay. He never stops. And he never compromises. He is totally honest. I think he would give his life for his movies; he is that passionate. He loves all movies, and sees everything. We are ITAL both ITAL obsessed with movies, actually.”

I ask if, in her passion for movies she can still lose herself in them? Forget that she herself is an actress?

“Oh, yes I can. I don’t think I will ever lose that. Especially if the movie is good. Then I never think about the technique or the camera or lighting or I wonder how many takes ITAL that ITAL took, or why wasn’t this a close-up or long-shot. I become an ordinary audience.”

But, what if the movie isn’t good? Penelope laughs, “Oh, God. Then I totally exhaust myself picking it apart. I leave the theater feeling I’d just come off that set, on a bad day. It’s much easier for me when the movie is good!”

I congratulate Penelope again on her nomination. I ask, because it’s the tiresome but necessary question, if it ITAL really ITAL matters to her if she wins? “Hmmm…what can I say? It’s not a lie that it is an honor to be nominated, and if I don’t win, I won’t be any less honored, but…look, ask anyone who is nominated. No matter what you think you feel about awards, when you’re there, sitting in that seat, with those people, all dressed up–ITAL of course ITAl you want to win!”

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