Penélope Cruz casually enters the room, thumb-scrolling on her BlackBerry. Next, she pulls out a Marlboro and asks "
¿Alguien tiene fuego?" which is a sexy way of saying "Anyone got a light?"

"It’s my first of the day," says the chastened nicotine addict. "I only smoke three a day." The good news? It seems that the "Spanish enchantress" is a regular human being, vices and all.

Now for the bad news: Penny doesn’t dish – even if the question posed is purely hypothetical. Like whether she could ever imagine having a love affair with a man more than 40 years her senior. It seems like a fair question because it lies at the heart of her new movie

Based on the Philip Roth novel
The Dying Animal and brilliantly adapted and directed by Isabel Coixet, the film stars Ben Kingsley as a Manhattan sophisticate who falls madly in love with one of his students. Cruz plays Consuela, a mature student who becomes first the object of his desire and then the eye of his hurricane.

Cruz’s brow furrows when she’s asked to speculate on the question. "I don’t like talking about things that have to do with me personally when I’m discussing a film," she replies curtly. "I’d rather talk about how I felt about the Philip Roth book when I read it or how I became obsessed with it."

So, how
did she feel when she read the book? "I think Philip Roth is a genius," she says. "He makes you understand all the characters – even the ones you don’t like and the ones that make the biggest mistakes. You understand them – you understand their fears. He’s a very honest writer – I believed the story, and I connected with it."

Cruz also fell in love with the Tofino, B.C., setting where some of the film was shot. "It’s such a beautiful part of the world," she recalls. "Very mysterious."

Image courtesy of Dominique Charriau/

Click here to read more about Penélope Cruz.

The movie, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, is attracting mixed reviews, but the critics are unanimously impressed with Cruz’s performance. At 34, she has finally achieved in English what she has been doing in Spanish since starring in
Jamón, Jamón when she was 16 through to her Academy Award-nominated turn in

Despite her lush Madrileño accent, her spoken English is perfectly clear – with some charming exceptions. "I learned English late," she says somewhat apologetically, as though speaking fluent Italian and French are mere Girl Guide merit badges. "When I did my first movie in English [the long-forgotten U.K. title
The Man With Rain in His Shoes], I only knew my lines. I was always crying in the bathroom because I couldn’t understand what was going on in the conversations during rehearsals. I don’t like missing anything." The positive reviews for her performance in
Elegy mean a great deal to her "after all those years of feeling a little lost with the language," she says.

Having mastered the ability to move seamlessly from Spanish to English, Cruz admits that she can’t complain about the parts she is being offered, including a plum role in Woody Allen’s next film,
Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film, which was shot in Spain, co-stars Cruz’s rumoured boyfriend, Javier Bardem, and Scarlett Johansson.

During breaks on the set, she travelled to Madrid to film Pedro Almodóvar’s
Broken Embraces. "It’s a great adventure to work with two people who are so different," explains Cruz. "Pedro likes to rehearse; Woody doesn’t. He lets you improvise all you want – and sometimes he does only one take or two. I’ll scream ‘Woody, please let me do one more!’"

With her crossover appeal, Cruz is often compared to Sophia Loren. Like the sexy Italian actress, she has succeeded in Hollywood with a decidedly foreign style. Cruz also carries herself with the chic élan of another foreigner who took Hollywood by storm: the Netherlands-raised Audrey Hepburn. Like Hepburn, Cruz is a trained dancer. All that hoofing will come in handy for her next project, an all-singing, all-dancing sequel-of-sorts to Federico Fellini’s
8 ½, which will be directed by
Chicago‘s Rob Marshall. "I did four auditions for the film," she admits, "so when I got the call, I was screaming in my house!" Although the film doesn’t begin shooting until fall, she says that the regimen will be rigorous. "It will be a military camp. I’ve already started working out." And, presumably, cutting down on the smoking.

Image courtesy of Dominique Charriau/