International Star Power: Famous Foreign Actresses

Happy birthday, Penélope Cruz! To celebrate the Spanish star's big day, we're going globetrotting for a look at some fellow foreign actresses who shine bright on the big screen.
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Penélope Cruz celebrates her 41st birthday today.

Penélope Cruz celebrates her 41st birthday today.

Feliz cumpleaños, Penélope Cruz! You’ve packed a lot into your 41 (can it be?) years, more than enough to earn a place in the pantheon of foreign actresses who have made themselves at home with Hollywood audiences. It wasn’t easy—after a U.S. debut in the 1998 western The Hi-Lo Country proved more low than high, you racked up three Razzie nominations for subsequent English-language credits. That recognition from the anti-Oscars has since been righted with three Academy Award nominations, and a supporting actress win for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). You played Javier Bardem’s unstable wife, which didn’t stop him from marrying you in 2010. (Then again he was there from the start, in your 1992 debut in the erotically charged Jamón, Jamón.) 

Let’s celebrate the day with a look at some other actresses from overseas whose skill, allure, and all-around talent have been successfully imported.

Sophia Loren  

Sophia Loren

Italian screen legend Sophia Loren was the first actress to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance, in 1961’s Two Women.

Cruz was the first Spanish actress to be nominated for, and win, an Oscar; Sophia Loren was the first actress to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance, in 1961’s Two Women. By then the so-called “Italian Marilyn Monroe” had already established herself with English-speaking audiences, first in 1957’s Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, then in hits like Houseboat (1958) with Cary Grant (who had been her romantic partner offscreen) and The Millionairess (1960) with Peter Sellers. Nicknamed “Toothpick” and “The Stick” in her youth, she grew to become one of the world’s great beauties, and at 5’9” often towered over her male co-stars. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s performance of Jean Cocteau’s monologue The Human Voice debuted on Turner Classic Movies earlier this month. She and Cruz appeared together in the musical Nine (2009). 

Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Denueve Photo

Catherine Denueve in Luis Buñuel's 1967 French drama Belle de Jour. 

The embodiment of French mystique, she first turned heads in the classic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). A year later, for director Roman Polanski, she decayed into madness in a London flat in the chilling Repulsion. Movies like the costume drama Mayerling (1968), with Omar Sharif, the romantic comedy The April Fools (1969), opposite Jack Lemmon, and Hustle (1975), where she played the hooker girlfriend of cop Burt Reynolds, were more fizzle than sizzle, though her vampiric seduction of Susan Sarandon in The Hunger (1983) was a highlight. She received an Oscar nomination for the French-language Indochine (1992). Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Deneuve’s associations with Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Louis Vuitton have kept her in the public eye.

Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann Photo

Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966).

The Norwegian actress came ashore in the acclaimed films of Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, including Persona (1966) and The Passion of Anna (1969). An unlikely pairing with tough guy Charles Bronson in the thriller Cold Sweat (1970) got an international career off to a rocky start, and like Deneuve she never quite found her footing in early 70s flops like the romance 40 Carats, the Gene Hackman western Zandy’s Bride, or Lost Horizon, which gave rise to Bette Midler’s memorable quip, “I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical.” Discerning viewers, however, never missed her in Bergman films, and their long association, onscreen and also off for several years, continued through his last credit, 2003’s Saraband, a sequel to 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage. Ullmann, who received Oscar nominations for the two-part epic The Emigrants (1971) and Bergman’s Face to Face (1976), is herself a director, of theater (a production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett toured the world in 2009) and film (last year’s Miss Julie, with Jessica Chastain). 

Monica Bellucci

Monica Bellucci 600X487

At 50, Italian star Monica Bellucci will redefine "Bond girl" in the upcoming film Spectre. (Photo: Andrea Raffin/

Looking for a little action? Look no farther than this Italian export, who has been a vampire (in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, her U.S. debut), a vengeful computer program (in 2003’s Matrix sequels), a witch queen (2005’s The Brothers Grimm, starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger), and a sorceress, enchanting Nicolas Cage, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010). Bellucci displayed a more soulful side as Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ (2004). At age 50, she’ll stretch the definition of a “Bond girl” when she appears in Spectre this November, but we’ve no doubt that Bellucci, who models for Dolce & Gabbana, will leave us shaken and stirred.

Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong'o Photo

Lupita Nyong’o is the first Mexican and Kenyan actress to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images)

She chalked up two firsts at the 2014 Academy Awards, being the first Mexican and the first Kenyan to win, for her searing supporting performance as Patsey, a slave, in 2013’s Best Picture 12 Years a Slave. (She’s the 15th actress to win for a debut role.) Born in Mexico City and raised in Kenya, Nyong’o was educated at Hampshire College and the Yale School of Drama, and got her start as a production assistant on movies like The Constant Gardener (2005) and directing documentaries and music videos before turning to acting. The “new face” of Lancôme is sure to blast off with her role, as yet unspecified, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens this December. 

Juliette Binoche

Juliette Binoche Photo

French actress Juliette Binoche moves easily between Hollywood and international cinema,

Like Deneuve, she’s worked with French masters, including Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her in one of her first films, the controversial Hail Mary (1985). Careerwise she’s had greater fortune abroad, drawing notice for her bold and uninhibited performance opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), trysting with Jeremy Irons in Damage (1992), and winning an Oscar for The English Patient (1996). Binoche (who received a second Oscar nomination in 2001 for the romantic comedy Chocolat, with Johnny Depp) continues to move easily from American to international cinema, appearing last year in Godzilla and Clouds of Sils Maria, as a troubled actress attended to by an assistant played by Kristen Stewart

Freida Pinto

Freida Pinto Photo

Indian actress Freida Pinto made her stunning debut in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Like Nyong’o, the Indian actress debuted in a best picture winner, 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. The exposure immediately put her on “Most Beautiful Women in the World” lists, a common occurrence for Cruz and her peers, and won her a contract with L'Oréal. Woody Allen called (as he often does rising stars) for a role in his 2010 drama You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin, and she went ape with James Franco and Caesar in the hit reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Pinto let her hair down in Bruno Mars’ video “Gorilla” (2013), which raised eyebrows in her native India, then swept it back up again for the currently playing Desert Dancer, as a member of a clandestine dance troupe in Iran.

Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi Photo

Japanese star Rinko Kikuchi received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Babel (2006).

She and Mexico’s Adriana Barraza received Oscar nominations for the globe-trotting drama Babel (2006); hers was the first for a Japanese actress since Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara (1957). She played a tormented deaf mute, and spoke her first English words (just three in all) in the comedy The Brothers Bloom (2009), with Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody. In 2013, Kikuchi had more to say to Keanu Reeves as a witch in 47 Ronin, and bonded with Charlie Hunnam to fight monsters in Guillermo del Toro’s action-packed hit Pacific Rim. Together she and Binoche explore Greenland, circa 1908, in the adventure Nobody Wants the Night

Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek Photo

Mexico-born Salma Hayek is an Oscar-nominated actress, a successful TV producer and besties with Penelope Cruz. 

“We are like sisters,” says Cruz of her bestie, with whom she co-starred in the 2006 caper comedy Bandidas. Their career paths have also been similar. Like Cruz, the Mexico-born Hayek was mostly window dressing in early roles, opposite Antonio Banderas in Desperado (1995) and, more memorably, as “Santánico Pandemónium,” a vampiress (the third on this list), in From Dusk till Dawn (1996). Co-producing and starring in 2002’s Frida, a biopic about the artist Frida Kahlo, boosted her image and earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. Hayek, the executive producer of the hit TV show Ugly Betty, has in recent years kept busy in family comedies like Grown Ups (2010) and Puss in Boots (2011) but returns to adult fare with the twisted fairytale The Tale of Tales, which will be in competition at the Cannes Film Festival next month.