When Penélope Cruz was growing up in Madrid in the late 1970s, her parents lugged home a huge Betamax machine. After that, it was movies every night until, at the tender age of 13, she caught her first Almodóvar film and went out and found herself an agent. Her other acting school was the hairdressing salon where her mother worked, surely the perfect training ground for a future Almodóvar muse. “I was there hiding behind my books pretending to do homework,” says Cruz, munching on snacks poolside in her pleasant Hollywood Hills home a few days before the opening of her new film, Volver, and a gala AFI Fest tribute in her honor. “But I was studying acting, and every woman there was an actress.”

Neither of Cruz’s parents was an artist — her father worked in retail — but they must have been doing something right, for though Penélope, their eldest, is the family’s most visible star, her siblings are no slouches in that department either. Her brother, a musician and composer, has just released his first album with Warner. Her sister — a dead ringer for Penélope, to judge by a photo prominently displayed on her coffee table of the two entwined on a beach chair — is an actress and flamenco dancer. (Cruz herself has danced ballet and flamenco since she was four years old.) “We were kind of hippies,” she says fondly of her family. “On Sundays, everyone cleaned the house together, wearing no clothes, with great music from Prokofiev to Prince to flamenco.”

If nothing else, that would be enough to give Cruz a sufficiently elastic view of the arts to bridge the parallel but very different careers she has been running since she came to live in the United States five years ago. In Spain, where she has a house she calls her “main home” and has been a star ever since hitting the big time as a luscious ingenue in Fernando Trueba’s Belle Epoque, Cruz is widely accepted as a serious actress. In Hollywood, despite having made the scene working for heavyweight directors like Stephen Frears (The Hi-Lo Country) and Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky) — both of whom she’d kill to work with again — Cruz is largely pegged as a beauty, ready-made for love interest. Watching her sit through half an hour of hair and makeup for a photo shoot, I wonder why anyone would want to add anything to those huge black eyes and ripe mouth. Like her close friend Salma Hayek and unlike all the other twiggy starlets running around Robertson Boulevard, Cruz wears her sultry beauty with pride and assurance. Her English is articulate, if heavily accented, and it’s galling that her intelligent, expressive face has earned her an American résumé loaded with forgettable films (Sahara was the nadir, one hopes), a series of high-profile, unreliable boyfriends (Defamer cheekily dubbed her recent ode to the cuteness of the TomKat baby as a “great moment in Former Beard history”) and the kind of media interest only the likes of Paris Hilton would enjoy.

Cruz is quick to point out that she has far more trouble with paparazzi in Europe than she does here, where she “only” gets chased two or three times a week, more if there’s a tabloid whiff of private trouble in her life. But though she staunchly defends her Hollywood career — her CAA handlers would kill her if she didn’t — and hints happily at an upcoming project that will make better use of her gifts, it’s hard not to conclude that Cruz’s move to Hollywood has confined her in a velvet prison. (Oddly enough, she’s barely made a dent on the independent film scene.)

Cruz herself admits that it’s difficult not to compare everything she’s done in the States to the experience of working with Almodóvar. She’s made three movies with the famously woman-friendly director, whom she refers to with shining eyes as her best friend, though “on the set we never get too comfortable.” As a pregnant prostitute in Live Flesh and a pregnant nun with AIDS in All About My Mother, Cruz was an adorable presence, if still coasting on her ingenue thing. Almodóvar’s latest, Volver, is an enjoyable, if workmanlike, affair that also coasts, on his mother thing. For Cruz, though, the movie represents both a terrific coming of age and a chance to strut her stuff as a melodramatic diva and an earthy comedian. At 32 years of age, the actress makes a vibrant Raimunda, single mother to a teenage daughter, surviving on her own (with help from a bevy of fellow female hysterics and a ghostly mother) while stuffing a corpse into a freezer and hoarding the kinds of family secrets no Almodóvar movie can be without.

At the director’s behest, Cruz steeped herself in the ’50s neo-realist melodramas that made the careers of Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, all of whom she cites as career models, along with the usual Hollywood suspects — Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and, out of the blue, Debra Winger, which shows a promising taste for the wild side. Got up in cardigans, with her black hair piled atop her head like a wayward bird’s nest amid copious aerial shots of her deep cleavage and close-ups of her much-publicized padded ass in tight, tweedy skirts, Cruz is ravishingly hot-eyed and pouty. Not every Hollywood starlet would willingly be captured sitting on a toilet, sniffing through her perfectly flared nostrils and declaring, “It smells of farts.” Cruz identifies very strongly with Raimunda. “She survived a lot of horrible things that have made her stronger, and she still has hope,” she says. “What I love about her is that she refused to become a victim.” Like her character, Cruz describes herself as “extremely strong for some things, extremely sensitive for others,” and, looking at that face, at once tentative, headstrong and vulnerable, one doesn’t doubt her.

Five years ago, when Almodóvar was hatching Volver, he had thought of Cruz for the role of the teenage daughter. Even now, padding barefoot around her house in ripped jeans and one of those new red Gap T-shirts, with two adoring mutts in tow, the actress still looks no more than 16. “I began working when I was 15,” she says, “so for many years I did in my career what was appropriate. I don’t think I could have done this character five years ago.” Now, carrying with ease a movie filled with more seasoned Almodóvar veterans like Carmen Maura and Chus Lampreave, she’s able to plumb almost any emotional depth —­ and breadth — for Almodóvar, who in turn has publicly announced plans to build more movies around her. I hope he will, for though Cruz remains optimistic that Hollywood will recognize her talent, it’s hard to imagine anything coming her way this side of the Atlantic to match the satisfaction of rounding out the Almodóvar harem.

AFI Fest’s Tribute to Penélope Cruz takes place Thursday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. at the ArcLight, and is followed by a screening of Volver. For tickets, go to www.afifest.com.

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