At the Manhattan press junket for Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe's new romantic thriller (opening Dec. 14), Pen&#233lope Cruz was chatting up a room full of reporters when Tom Cruise appeared in the doorway calling, 'Hola, Hola!' Cruz then gasped, jumped from her seat and bolted from the room to follow her beau down the hall. She sheepishly returned moments later to apologize for exiting without a good-bye.

Apparently, such is the whimsical real life/reel life romance of the handsome Vanilla stars. But contrary to widely-circulated rumors, Cruise insists they didn't become intimately involved during the film's production. Says he: "I wasn't falling in love with her in real life when we were making the picture. We got together after it was finished. Obviously, when she's your co-star, you look at her and she's a beautiful woman. Who wouldn't be attracted to her?

"But when you're working 18 hours a day on a film," he adds, "that's kind of the last thing you're thinking about. That happened afterwards, and it's a very nice thing in my life."

Cruise — who separated from ex-wife Nicole Kidman during Vanilla's shooting — reveals they're both trying to leave the painful past behind. "When you're going through something like that, you can't even possibly anticipate the things that occurred," he shrugs. "But I'm very pleased with where we are now as two people. I have a lot of respect for Nic and love for her, and I always will. Now, we're in just a great place."

Cruise's take on all the fanciful media speculations on why they split? Marvels the actor: "I was surprised, at times, at the level to which people would go in terms of writing things about Nic and me... The things that were said! I've always been protective of my family — Nic included in that. Even after everything that's happened, we're still a family and we have kids. We want them to be happy."

Waxing philosophical about his flurry of press coverage, Cruise muses: "With fame, I think there's always lessons about life that you learn about yourself. I try to live my life the best I can. I care about other people very much. I think about other people, and how they're feeling, and I think about the [consequences] that I create. But that doesn't mean I'm perfect. I just am not a complainer. I know that I live a blessed life."