Spanish Class

updated 01/29/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/29/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shooting the World War II romance Captain Corelli's Mandolin on the sun-baked Greek island of Cephalonia last summer, Penélope Cruz spent her off-hours swimming in deserted coves, dancing at a seaside disco, tooling around on the back of costar Nicolas Cage's motorcycle—and thoroughly charming the citizenry. "She would talk to kids, she would talk to old ladies," says associate producer Susie Tasios. "Someone would come with a bunch of flowers and she'd give them back one. She absolutely knew how to win their hearts."

And Hollywood's. Already a screen sensation in Europe, the sultry Spaniard, 26, is gearing up for U.S. stardom with a lineup of roles most starlets would give their eyelashes for. Now appearing as Matt Damon's Mexican love in All the Pretty Horses, Cruz returns in two movies due out in April: Blow, a drug drama starring Johnny Depp, and Mandolin, based on a popular 1994 novel. And Cruz meets Cruise—a fellow named Tom—in the now-shooting thriller Vanilla Sky, due in theaters next winter.

What has moviedom so smitten? The former ballet dancer's beauty—on fetching display in a Ralph Lauren ad campaign—is no small part. "You look at her and go, 'How can we ever turn the camera off?' " says Vanilla Sky director Cameron Crowe. But what won Crowe over during the pair's first meeting was Cruz's playful humor. When talk turned to Cruise, "Penélope did this great impression of him, making a gun with her fingers and holding it up to the side of her face à la Mission: Impossible," Crowe says. "Now Tom can't get her to do it enough." Gushes Mark Feuerstein, her costar in last fall's Woman on Top: "You'll never find someone as beautiful, smart and funny."

Cruz's penchant for forging fast friendships with her leading men has sparked talk of romances with Damon and, lately, Cage, 37, who is separated from his wife, Patricia Arquette, although spokespeople for Cruz and Cage decline comment. Cruz, whose past loves have included a Czech assistant director and a Spanish singer, has called Damon a close friend but denied a romance.

Cruz's relative anonymity in the U.S. has been useful, although it is unlikely to last. "I can go everywhere with a lot of freedom," she told PEOPLE last year in her accented English (she started lessons several years ago), "Back home it can be a little crazy." Reared in Madrid by her father, Eduardo, a hardware-store employee, and her mother, Encarna, a hairdresser, Cruz began studying classical ballet at age 4. "My mother was forced to send me to dance school because my energy was so strong," she told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I would come home exhausted and everyone would cheer." (Her sister Monica, 23, is a professional flamenco dancer; Cruz dotes on brother Eduardo Jr., 16, whom she recently took to a Marilyn Manson concert in Manhattan.)

Snapped up at 15 by a top Spanish agent after a talent search, Cruz won acclaim in the 1992 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Belle Epoque and became a favorite of director Pedro Almodóvar, appearing in 1997's Live Flesh and 1999's All About My Mother. She made her U.S. debut in 1998's The Hi-Lo Country, donating her salary to Mother Teresa's children's sanctuary in Calcutta, where she has worked as a volunteer. The Cruz buzz reached a roar when she nabbed the role in All the Pretty Horses.

Cruz, who has a home outside Madrid, plans to make a Spanish film after Vanilla Sky. "I want to keep working there and here," she says. If she gets homesick, she calls on countryman Antonio Banderas. Explains Cruz: "He and Melanie [Griffith] make Spanish paella if I need it."

Samantha Miller
Johnny Dodd and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Toula Vlahou in Athens and Jane Walker in Madrid

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