On the big screen this month, Castilian cutie PENÉLOPE CRUZ braves the African desert in Sahara and falls for an Italian doctor in Don't Move, but her heart remains in her hometown of Madrid.

"I can eat at the same time we do the interview," says Penélope Cruz, ordering lunch at a fashionable hotel in L.A. and encouraging me to do the same. But I can hardly keep up, as in short order she plows through fried risotto balls and a titanic salad stacked with slices of fried goat cheese.

Cruz is deservedly hungry. It's been a morning packed with meetings, yet another day in a career involving movie after movie since the 31-year-old actress first arrived in Hollywood a scant seven years ago.

Clad in jeans and a pink Chanel-esque jacket, she's part Audrey Hepburn elegance and all Carmen Miranda energy. Early in our interview, it's clear Cruz knows where she's going - and that she's going there fast. This month alone she's got two new releases: Sahara (an action/adventure flick costarring current beau Matthew McConaughey) and Don't Move (an Italian-language drama now opening stateside).

But we're here today to talk about her hometown of Madrid, where she was born Penélope Cruz Sánchez, the daughter of a merchant and a hairdresser, and a performer practically from birth. She was in ballet class at four and a professional dancer in her teens. By the time she turned 16, she was hosting a TV show for kids and auditioning for movies. She became a star first in Spain and then across Europe before coming to America for 1998's The Hi-Lo Country. By her mid-20s, with dozens of films under her belt, she began appearing on the big screen with a string of leading men, including Matt Damon (All the Pretty Horses), Nicolas Cage (Captain Corelli's Mandolin), Johnny Depp (Blow), and ex-arm candy Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky). But today, in the hotel, she might as well be back in the city of her birth, which she still visits several times a year to spend time with family and check on her business, a clothing shop called Amarcord, named after one of her favorite movies. So sit back and get ready for a whirlwind tour through Madrid with Señorita Cruz.