The actress is back in the finest performance of her career

Penelope Cruz and renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar collaborate for the third time in Volver. They have made a career of great films, but Volver is their best work yet. It is a story of reconciliation between a mother and daughter with a somewhat supernatural twist. Penelope is radiant on screen, while perhaps playing her most unglamorous role. Keep an eye out come Oscar time, Volver and Penelope will definitely be in the mix.

Has this been the character you've been waiting to play?

Penelope Cruz: I feel like I am making a transition in playing characters that I couldn't have played ten years ago. I was happy that I finally could play a mature woman, because I started working when I was a teenager and was always playing characters according to my age. I can play this mother of a teenage girl because my character gave birth when she was only fourteen. She's the most emotionally demanding character that I've ever played, but I was ready to play her.

This is your third film with Pedro Almodovar. Do you think he knew you were ready to play Raimunda?

Penelope Cruz: What I love about Pedro is that he gives you a character to play before you ever played such a character. He does it with all his actors. He's done it with me the three times that I've worked with him. He's done great things for my career by having the faith to place responsibility in my hands with those difficult characters. I love the fear that I felt on the set of this movie, the terror of knowing the responsibility I had and how it was going to be a challenge every minute of every day. Pedro said he needed somebody that could have a little bit of those opposites in her. He chose me because he knows I can be very strong for some things and very vulnerable for others. He knows I cry a lot, and that I also can be extremely strong if I need to be. He knows me very well and he knew that I was going to understand every side of Raimunda.

I think Volver is also a story about female empowerment, women coming together to overcome life's obstacles...

Penelope Cruz: It is an homage to women, to motherhood, to women's solidarity, and to a family of women. It's not just the four women in the family, but women neighbors and women throughout the village. It's so needed to have more movies like this about women. I'm very honored to play one of the women in this movie, and it was special acting with all those other talented actresses. Carmen Maura is a legend and it was a thrill to make a movie with her.

Pedro and Carmen are legends of Spanish cinema. What was it like to see them reunite after seventeen years?

Penelope Cruz: I felt like a spy. I kept looking at them, "Wow, this is such a legendary couple and they've done seven movies together, and now they haven't worked together in almost twenty years and I'm witnessing this moment." I felt like a member of the audience. It was very interesting to see how easy it was for them to work together again. After all that time apart, they were still speaking in the same language and communicating at the same level. I realized that when two people function well together at work, it doesn't matter if they hadn't seen each other for years. What they had before was still intact.

How did you prepare to play Raimunda?

Penelope Cruz: I took cooking lessons and lessons from flamenco singers, because Raimunda sings and I had to pretend it was me singing. Raimunda works as a cleaning lady, so I cleaned my house a lot, which made my family very worried. They thought I had a fever or something. Pedro wasn't telling me to do any of this, but I knew I better know how to clean the floors well when I got to the set or he was going to be so angry with me.

The camera adores you in this film. There are a lot of close-ups of your body and face. Did that kind of attention make you feel self-conscious?

Penelope Cruz: I couldn't pay attention to where the camera was pointing because I had so much to worry about in every scene. I had to do the most difficult things I've had to do in my entire career, so I concentrated on my work and had total trust in Pedro. He didn't do anything without a good reason. For instance, we found the look of the character after months of rehearsing. We started trying on straight skirts and cardigans. Pedro told me that I was too slim. He wanted my character to have big hips, so he instructed me to eat everything I wanted and not lose weight. I was so happy to eat all this Spanish paella and I asked my mother to prepare all these fattening dishes.

Without revealing spoilers, Raimunda isn't devastated by what happened in her youth. Why do you think this is so?

Penelope Cruz: Something bad happened, but she hasn't become a victim and she hasn't exterminated her sexuality, which can happen to a woman who has gone through what she did. But she didn't and she's not a victim. She is damaged, and she has reasons to be. There are so many things that she doesn't want to look at. When her mother comes back to life, she gets the opportunity to think things through and resolve issues.

But does it give her the strength to cover up that murder so easily?

Penelope Cruz: When Raimunda's daughter tells her she killed her father, she immediately accepts her story and disposes of the body with extreme practicality. All of her past comes back because of what happened between her husband and her daughter. I was scared because I didn't know how do you go from that scene to another scene. The genius of Pedro is that he can make you accept all of those transitions and that all these things could happen to one human being at the same time in her life. Raimunda finds a way to handle it all because she has no other choice. She has to be practical. She has to find a way to hide the body. She has to protect her daughter. She has to solve her problems. There is no other way to do it.

She's like a superwoman...

Penelope Cruz: She has four jobs, but she takes her fifteen minutes in the morning to put herself together. I know a lot of women like that in the outskirts of Madrid. I didn't grow up with a lot of money. My parents had to work very hard to raise us. The area where Raimunda lives is similar to where I grew up, so I've been very much in contact with that kind of reality and know those Spanish women. There is meaning behind Raimunda getting her fifteen minutes in the morning and putting herself together in the way she wants to be perceived, even if it is to go to the airport and clean the floor of the bathroom. I know a lot of women like that and I love them and I respect them because they respect themselves. So when people ask, "How come Raimunda is a housewife and a cleaning lady, yet has on eyeliner?" I get annoyed. I feel it's like an insult to that kind of woman and to that kind of job.

There is tremendous Oscar buzz for Volver. Are you at all hoping for a Best Actress nomination?

Penelope Cruz: I never know how to answer to that. I don't want to pretend to be cool and say, "Oh, I don't care about that," because that's not true. Of course, it would make me very happy if the film wins Oscars. I want Pedro to get everything he deserves. And in regard to me, it's exciting but at the same time we all know it's better not to think about it too much. You shouldn't expect anything because it's not something that's solid. I tell you that it's difficult not to think about it when people mention it to me twenty times a day. So twenty times a day, I think about it.

Volver is in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and is rated 'R' for some sexual content and language.