Once more, with feeling

Penelope Cruz vividly recalls the moment she bonded with Woody Allen on the set of their 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. ''I was shy because he's shy when he doesn't know you. So, one day I decided to break the ice and talk to him about hypochondria, because I don't trust doctors and I do a lot of research every time I have to go to one,'' the Spanish actress says with a chuckle.

''We became very good friends after that and didn't talk about anything else!''

Four years later, the 38-year-old actress, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for that film, is working with Allen again on the comedy To Rome with Love, and she smiles as she muses about his ongoing obsession with doctors and his health.

''In the first film everybody asked me about the scene when Scarlett Johansson and I had to kiss but all I remember was that Woody left and went to the dermatologist that day,'' she says.

''The sun is strong in Barcelona and he woke up that day and saw he had a new freckle and could not shoot. He said, 'I have to go now,' and I said, 'Why don't you go at 6pm, when we wrap?' And he said, 'It might be too late.' So, every time I look at him I'm thinking about that day.''

To Rome with Love brings together many eclectic characters in four charming vignettes about fame and love: an American architect (Alec Baldwin) reliving his youth; a young student (Jesse Eisenberg) cheating on his girlfriend with her best friend (Ellen Page); a boring married father and businessman (Roberto Benigni) who finds himself suddenly famous; and a newly engaged couple who get separated before a local prostitute (Cruz) is mistaken as the fiancee when relatives arrive.

Allen also appears in the film as a retired opera director who flies to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter's Italian fiance, discovering that his father sings in the shower like a world-class tenor. The 76-year-old Brooklyn native has won four Oscars and been nominated 23 times; 15 as screenwriter, seven as director and once as an actor, for New York classics such as Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Bullets over Broadway (1994). It's only in the past decade that he has embraced making films outside that city, including his next untitled film, which is shooting in San Francisco with Cate Blanchett.

''For me it's a happy accident that the people who fund my movies are European or foreign now, and it started that way with Match Point in London and it's turned out to be a great chance to shoot movies in other cities like Barcelona, Paris and Rome,'' Allen says, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel.

Allen speaks warmly of Cruz, comparing her to Italian icons Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren. ''After I got to use her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I realised she was like a force of nature. And such an exotic miracle that, when I found out she spoke Italian fluently, I thought, 'What could be more perfect?' And I knew I had to find another role for her in this film.''

Allen is famously neurotic and so are his characters, something he confesses is not a coincidence.

''I never thought of myself as an actor and I could never play Chekhov or Shakespeare but I know there are a few things I can do well,'' he shrugs.

''I can play a low-life or an intellectual or writer or psychoanalyst, but I have no method whatsoever. So, if there is a need for something more complex, you get Dustin Hoffman.''

Allen acknowledges that he's not happy being in Los Angeles doing press for the film - he hates to travel.

''I'm always sitting in my seat braced for the crashing of the plane but there is no way I can avoid doing it any more for two reasons,'' he says. ''One is that I have to go to these places otherwise I can't work; and the other is I'm married to a woman [his former stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn] who doesn't have any of these phobias and likes to travel to all these places. So, to accommodate her and my children, I fly, even if it's with clenched fists.''

Page plays the temptress

Ellen Page is only 25 but she's already an Oscar-nominated actor for her 2007 film Juno.

A Woody Allen fan, she jumped at the chance to work with the filmmaker - until she heard she would be playing a superficial, cliched actor in To Rome with Love. "I was intimidated going to do this because of Woody, of course," Page says. "But also because I'd just never played a character like this and I was baffled how I was going to approach someone with this quality of shallowness and such a disingenuous air of intelligence."

In person, Page couldn't be more different from her alter ego Monica, who name-drops and cheats on her best friend (Greta Gerwig) with her boyfriend (Jesse Eisenberg). Raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Page appeared in a string of Canadian TV shows by age 10. She got her breakthrough in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and played a sardonic pregnant teen in Juno, followed by major roles in Whip It and Inception.

"When I thought about Monica, I tried to understand it all comes from a place of profound insecurity and emptiness and, as an actor, I go to that place as her because it feels real to me, rather than just judging this person,'' she says. ''I've been fortunate I've consistently worked with really lovely people, but I can see how a woman would become like my character."

Woody Allen's five best films

Annie Hall (1977) Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. Oscars: five nominations, four wins. A neurotic comedian falls in love with a ditsy woman.

Manhattan (1979) Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. Oscars: two nominations. A divorced New Yorker currently dating a high-schooler brings himself to look for love in the mistress of his best friend instead.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Stars: Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine. Oscars: seven nominations, three wins. A husband falls in love with his wife's sister while her former husband rekindles his relationship with another sister.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Stars: Martin Landau, Woody Allen. Oscars: three nominations. The story of an ophthalmologist, his mistress and a married documentary filmmaker infatuated by another woman.

Midnight in Paris (2011) Stars: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams. Oscars: four nominations, one win. A young writer travels to Paris with his fiancee and is exposed to a different life than he expected.

TO ROME WITH LOVE

GENRE Comedy.

BUZZ Hard to beat Midnight in Paris, but generally good reviews and great cast and location should drive modest box office takings.

STARS Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis.

DIRECTOR Woody Allen.

RATED M.

RELEASE Thursday.

The story Once more, with feeling first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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