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Penélope Cruz has always had a motherly instinct.
"Ever since I was a little girl, I was always sure that I wanted to have children," says Cruz, who shares two kids with her husband, actor Javier Bardem: Leo, 11, and Luna, 8. "Everywhere we went – if we were on a plane or traveling – I would go and pick up every baby of every stranger without even asking them."
So it's perhaps no coincidence that in six of the seven films she's made with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, she's played characters who are either pregnant or have kids. The latest is "Parallel Mothers" (in theaters nationwide Friday), a stirring melodrama about a pair of newborns accidentally switched at birth. Cruz plays one of the titular moms, a photographer named Janis, who gradually realizes the hospital's mistake. She forges a friendship with the other mother, Ana (Milena Smit), who is unaware of the mix-up.
To say much more would give away the movie's many twists, some of which are farcical and thrilling, while others are far more tragic, as Janis simultaneously investigates her painful family history.
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When Cruz first started doing interviews for the film, she wouldn't even say the babies get swapped, for fear of revealing too much.
"But I've given up on that," she says now. "I feel that if I read that two women had their babies (unknowingly) exchanged, I would want to see that movie."
Cruz, 47, considers Janis the "most challenging" role she's ever had to play, primarily because of the character's restraint. As Janis gets closer to Ana, she wrestles with whether to tell her the truth about the infants' identities and risk losing the baby girl that she's been raising.
"Janis has to become an incredible liar," Cruz says. "If I was in a situation like that, I would be crying every moment of every day."
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Cruz says she could've played Janis even before she had kids. (As actors, "we don't need to go through every experience that our characters go through – I would be dead or crazy by now.") But she still would be overwhelmed on occasion by the emotional burden Janis carries.
Rehearsing the script with Almodóvar and her co-stars, "sometimes I just needed to go to a hallway or my dressing room and cry for 15 minutes, and then come back," Cruz recalls. "That (anguished) energy could not be part of the scene – it had to be a ticking bomb that is about to explode but doesn't go there."
The three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (for 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") is back in contention for "Parallel Mothers," which The Associated Press called a "gorgeous showcase for Cruz" in its review. Her performance has picked up best actress prizes from the National Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association, although she's been passed over by top industry awards.
"Cruz has an uphill battle for an Oscar nomination right now, having missed Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA," where she didn't make it through the first round of voting, says Erik Anderson, founder of prediction site AwardsWatch. "But there is precedent for it to happen": Marion Cotillard was similarly ignored by major awards shows, yet still managed a best actress Oscar nod for 2014's French-language "Two Days, One Night."
Cruz, for her part, has been dutifully working the awards circuit from her home in Madrid, where she and Bardem have been taking turns on Zoom calls as he promotes his Oscar hopeful "Being the Ricardos," in which he plays Desi Arnaz opposite Nicole Kidman's Lucille Ball.
The actress is still catching up on this year's crop of films, although "Javier would be one of my favorite performances," she says. "He's incredible in the movie. And when you are with somebody that shares the same profession, it's great to be able to sometimes read a script together or exchange ideas. But it doesn't mean it's an excessive thing of, 'Oh, that's the only thing we talk about all the time.' I think we have a good balance in those things."
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When it comes to raising her kids, Cruz credits her mother for helping instill values of "hard work and family" from a young age. A self-described workaholic in her 20s and 30s, Cruz has juggled action blockbusters ("Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), movie musicals ("Nine") and sci-fi thrillers ("Vanilla Sky"), on top of modestly budgeted Spanish-language dramas such as "Volver" and "All About My Mother," both with Almodóvar.
But lately, she hasn't felt the need or desire to be working constantly.
"I'm not making four movies a year like I used to. Now, maybe I make one, so I really try to choose carefully," Cruz says. "My priorities are my kids and I want to do a great job at that. I love it."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Parallel Mothers': Penélope Cruz on her 'most challenging' role yet