One of Spain's foremost leading ladies of the 1990s, Penélope Cruz has managed to make her mark with international audiences as well. Born in Madrid on April 28, 1974, Cruz was one of three children of a merchant and a hairdresser. After years of intensive study in ballet and jazz, she broke into acting in 1992. That year, she had starring roles in Jamón Jamón and Belle Epoque, two very disparate films. The former cast her as the desperately poor daughter of a village prostitute, while the latter featured her as one of four lusty daughters of a wealthy man in pre-Franco Spain. Belle Epoque proved to be a huge success, winning nine Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of an Academy Award) and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Its success gave Cruz a dose of international recognition, and after starring in a number of Spanish films, she enhanced this recognition in 1997 with the Sundance entry Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). That same year, she had a brief but memorable role in Pedro Almodóvar's Carne Trémula (Live Flesh).
In 1998, Cruz had her first starring role in an English-language film, playing Billy Crudup's Mexican-American love interest in Stephen Frears' The Hi-Lo Country. She had another go at English later that year in the Spanish-British romantic comedy Twice Upon a Yesterday, which cast her as a Spanish barmaid living in London. In 1999, she returned to Spain to collaborate once again with Almodóvar on Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), a wildly acclaimed film that premiered at Cannes that year.