Winning the plaudits of critics around the world left Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno rather bemused. The funny thing, she explains, is that when she gave her breakthrough performance in 2004 flick Maria Full Of Grace, she wasn't really acting.
In the independent movie she plays a naive country girl who, in a desperate bid to solve her money problems, agrees to become a drug mule. And the actress insists that the amazement revealed on her character's face when she arrives in New York was 100 per cent genuine. "I was Maria," she says. "The first time I went to Queens was with a camera. I was staring at the people, the houses. It was real."
The performer was just as taken aback by the enthusiasm with which her movie was greeted at every festival where it featured. It was voted best dramatic film at Sundance, while at the Berlin Film Festival Catalina shared a best actress trophy with Tinseltown heavyweight Charlize Theron.
Being acclaimed in such company is a long way from her childhood in the sprawling city of Bogota. Born in 1981, she grew up in a middle class family - her father is a vet, her mother a pathologist - supportive of her silver screen aspirations. Success, when it came, arrived via American director Joshua Marston. The Californian film-maker spent over three months looking for a suitable actress before happening upon the then-unknown Catalina.
Having scoured the country towns surrounding the Colombian capital, he was becoming despondent when a casting agent presented him with a video of yet another round of auditions. The director was, by his own admission, about to postpone the production when he saw Catalina's screen test. "It was recognising this character that I'd seen in my head all this time," he recalls. "Sort of like when someone says they knew when they saw their wife."
The next day he arranged to meet the actress, who at the time was studying advertising in college, to discuss her interest in the part. What Catalina didn't know, of course, was that he'd already decided to offer her the job.
She no doubt found support during filming the tough scenes in the arms of her long-term love, lighting technician David Elwell who happened to also be working on the movie. The pair, who had lived together since 2002, married on April 15, 2006, in a small ceremony in Cartagena de Indias on the northern coast of Colombia.
Cartagena not only provided the background for her nuptials, but the film set for 2007's Love In The Time Of Cholera
. The romantic drama, in which she acted alongside established stars including Benjamin Bratt and Liev Schreiber, helped establish her arrival in Hollywood. Her previous project, Ethan Hawke
-directed flick The Hottest State
likewise featured some of Tinseltown's biggest names, including Laura Linney
and Michelle Williams. Not a bad start to what many believe will be a glittering career.