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Behind the Mask

Antonio Banderas opens up on marriage, politics and his best roles.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

It's a noticeably somber morning at the Banderas household. Actually, it's just one of actor Antonio Banderas' five households—the one in Marbella, Spain—and, with an international news program tuned to the horror of Hurricane Katrina playing in the background, Banderas has just seen his nine-year-old daughter, Stella, back off to the States for the start of another school year. Even with Banderas' wife (and Stella's mother), actress Melanie Griffith, already in Los Angeles and waiting to pick up the nine-year-old, Banderas is visibly upset at his daughter's leaving. "I won't sleep or rest easy, you know, until I get a telephone call saying that she's arrived safely and that everyone's okay," Banderas admits. "It's very hard to be separated from family, from the people you love. They are," he says simply, "my life." This life that Banderas refers to is an interesting phenomenon, a complicated animal that he has managed to straddle competently, if not completely tame. Influenced equally by Europe and America, it is a complex blend of personas, myths and realities—not to mention languages, cultures and time zones—that would have a weaker man mumbling about multiple personality disorder. Of course, this may also be part of Banderas' global allure; how can an audience get bored with an artist whose work—and choices—can't be predicted? He's an avowed family man who, routinely labeled a "Latin Lover," has made movies opposite some of Hollywood's most beautiful women that barely escape the term "soft porn." He's headlined G-rated children's films and voiced animated characters aimed at children Stella's age but perhaps is best known for action-adventure flicks where he wields swords, kicks butts and rarely bothers to take a name. In Spanish or English.

Banderas is a very male male—muy masculino in his native Spanish—but with a feminine side strong enough to routinely assume effeminate or gay roles convincing enough to earn him GLAAD awards and lust-object status among a number of gay websites.

His marriage to Griffith—his second, her fourth—has seen its share of tabloid press for everything from her time in rehab for prescription drug abuse (true) to his-and-hers affairs (both claim false) and trial separations (true). Still, they've been married nearly 10 years, are routinely touted in the press as the next Hollywood couple to go the distance and, in case anyone wants to know how Griffith keeps her rather press-shy man, she's glad to offer tips to the media and her fans via news bites and a website. Latest news bulletin? Pole dancing.

He is a citizen of Spain who knows more about American history and American politics than most of the people voting in November elections. He is an accomplished musician and singer who refuses to record an entire album and an actor who professes to be extraordinarily shy about filming love scenes but doesn't use a body double when it comes to nudity.

He admits to jealousy as a character trait even as he rails against it in a relationship. He has won 19 acting awards and been nominated for another 17 from prestigious organizations all over the world, but he refused the Spanish Academy's gold medal award the first time it was proffered because he felt he was too young in the industry to accept it.

It wasn't until 2004, and only following his Tony award nomination for Best Actor (Musical) for his stage performance in Nine that he accepted Spain's equivalent of an Oscar awarded "to recognize the actor's work in spreading Spanish culture throughout his prolific international career."

That Banderas' international career has been prolific can't be denied. For a man who turned 45 on August 10 ("Melanie says I'm not forty-five," he jokes, "I'm thirty-fifteen"), he has more than 70 acting projects on his resume. All in all, pretty impressive for a young man from Malaga, Spain, who, until age 14, dreamed only of a potential career playing his beloved soccer.

"I think I was too young to ever really think about playing professionally for the Federation...I played because I loved it. But it's also true that I wasn't all that bad," Banderas grins, "and I probably could have become a professional soccer player but I [was] injured while playing and I broke my left foot in several parts. Now? Now I am a spectator. I love soccer and I follow the matches and several teams that I like—the national team and Team Malaga, my hometown team that I am always behind—but I think that it would be impossible to find someone who doesn't like soccer."

That professional soccer just isn't as big in the U.S. as it is in Europe is a mystery to Banderas but then, as a boy, so was the lure of acting until he saw a performance of Hair in the year following the broken foot. Suddenly, the young Banderas had a new goal that didn't involve a ball; it involved a stage.

Born Jose Antonio Dominguez Bandera, the eldest son of a school- teacher and a police comisario, Banderas' interest in acting and the desire to attend Malaga's School of Dramatic Art came as a bit of a shock to the traditional Bandera household. He did the requisite classical training which resulted in tours throughout Spain in small productions until 1980, when, at age 19 and with almost no money in his pocket, he moved to Madrid with the intention of getting serious about his career. He joined the National Drama Center in Madrid, worked as a waiter and model to support himself, and anticipated being "the guy in the fifth row holding a sword" for many years to come.

While he did his stints in the fifth row, it wasn't for long; his first big break was to come in the form of an equally ambitious young director, 10 years Banderas' senior, by the name of Pedro Almódovar. Almódovar cast the young actor in Laberinto de Pasiones (Labyrinth of Passions) in 1982, and it was also Almódovar who allegedly convinced a young Antonio to add an "s" on to the last name of Bandera by suggesting "add the s, señor."

Banderas continued to work in small movies, stage productions and television but a future had been cemented with Almódovar; they went on to make a range of quirky, out-of-the-box films such as the 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and, two years later, the controversial Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was an odd, chance-taking role for the young, unknown actor. The plot revolves around Ricky, a mental patient on release who tracks down a porn star he once slept with and tries to convince her to marry him. When she hesitates, Ricky (Banderas) tries to tie up the deal by tying her up in order to, well, you get the picture.

Apparently, so did European and American filmgoers. Banderas suddenly had people—filmmakers, casting agents and even pop star Madonna during the filming of her sexy Truth or DareM in 1990—wanting him in bed with them, both literally and figuratively.

The fact that he couldn't speak English didn't seem to deter those who felt that his on-screen presence made up for a certain deliberate delivery. Banderas learned the lines phonetically for The Mambo Kings, his 1992 break-through American movie opposite Armand Assante, with Banderas' still-heavy accent working in his favor. What also worked in his favor was that the guy can sing; his version of "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" helped earn the movie Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Song and scored Banderas a nomination from the Spanish Actors Union for Lead Performance.

Films with slightly bigger budgets began coming his way, including some with modest roles but opposite box office names that guaranteed a certain volume of ticket sales; The House of the Spirits with Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons and a 21-year-old Winona Ryder; Philadelphia opposite Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and Interview with the Vampire opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to name a few.

By 1995, Banderas had teamed up with yet another producer and director he was, it seems, destined to work with time and time again. Perhaps slightly less temperamental than Almódovar but no less out-of-the-box, Texan filmmaker Robert Rodriguez chose Banderas to reprise the role of El Mariachi, the tormented musician-cum-gunslinger who roams aimlessly, alternately shooting and strumming, until meeting and falling in love with Salma Hayek's shopkeeper.

The film, Desperado, was the second in Rodriguez' trilogy of films featuring El Mariachi and became a sort of cult classic with supporting actors Cheech Marin and Steve Buscemi spouting the kinds of snarky lines that had both teenagers and film critics quoting them. Eight years later, Rodriguez and Banderas—with the addition of Johnny Depp—would team up again for the even darker and more testosterone-driven Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Banderas would go on to make yet three more movies with Robert Rodriguez, the box office and video-successful Spy Kids franchise. Banderas says that although he initially took some professional flack for doing "kids' movies," he's very proud of the films for both their content and their box office success.

The movies did "...well, very well," said Banderas. "I had a lot of fun making the movies, the kinds of movies that my daughter can see and enjoy, and I like Robert's creativity."

"Of course," Banderas shrugs, "if Robert Rodriguez asked me to go to hell with him, I'd go. There is a relationship there, a friendship, between him and me that makes any job that he'd call me to do something I'd do."

But Banderas was taking big risks at a time in his career when most wouldn't have. As a result, there were interesting choices with interesting results between his success with Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

In between the two Rodriguez films, Banderas—now a hot item in both Hollywood and European-produced films—felt he could afford to play with some experimental (and often forgettable) scripts such as 1995's Four Rooms (his second appearance in a film with both Madonna and Salma Hayek), Never Talk to Strangers (1995), a weakly erotic thriller and Assassins (1995), a violent shoot-'em-up opposite Sly Stallone and Julianne Moore.

And then there's 1995's Two Much, an uninspired movie about a man who falls in love with two sisters at the same time and pulls a con —he assumes the identity of twin brothers—to keep the love of both. As a plot it was lamentable, but it brought him face-to-face with actress Melanie Griffith, the woman who was later to become his wife.

Griffith was married at the time to actor Don Johnson (their second time around, actually) while Banderas was married to Spanish actress Ana Leza. Both parties divorced and, a year later, Banderas and Griffith married with their daughter, Stella, born not too long after. Banderas still had a home in Madrid, but he, Griffith, their daughter and Griffith's children by her former marriages—daughter Dakota Johnson from her marriage with Don Johnson and Alexander Bauer from her marriage to actor Steven Bauer—settled into a bi-continent family unit centered primarily in Los Angeles.

According to Banderas, it has been a mostly-blessed decade with his family of five. He is always careful to refer to himself as Dakota and Alexander's "parent," as opposed to father out of deference to their natural fathers but says that he loves and is proud of both his step-children.

He describes Dakota, now 16, as "...a handful who is at that point where you're never clear whether you should bring her home a toy, a doll, or whether she's going to come home bringing a boy! She's just discovered her power over boys and," Banderas sighs, "has discovered that she can snap her fingers and have guys in a millisecond."

Alexander, now 21, he describes differently, saying that they've evolved almost into friends who go to movies and ski together. "When I first met Melanie there was distance, surely," Banderas acknowledges. "I mean he was nine then, there was a distance in the beginning, a 'who is this guy who is going to bed with my momma?' thing, so I made sure that we went slowly at first. Now, now it's great. We go motorbiking together at the little house in Aspen."

The "little house" in Aspen is, in fact, a major villa that the family bought a few years ago primarily for winter skiing. The whole family skis, including Stella who, according to a beaming Banderas, "...skis better than I do sometimes, takes the same runs, the same black diamond runs."

Although Banderas says they used the Aspen house this summer for a couple of weeks, they really spend the majority of their time split between the home in Los Angeles and the home he's relaxing in right now, the oceanfront villa in Marbella. If the home's location is the worst-kept secret in all of Andalusia, gaining access to the house means running a gauntlet of paparazzi permanently camped out in front of the gates followed by an intimidating once-over by both security and household personnel.

And then there's Boots. One of five dogs and three cats that call the various Banderas homes home, Boots is a 75-lb. golden Labrador who bounds out of nowhere to confront the newcomer. After a thorough inspection of hands, pockets and briefcase, the Lab decides to show approval by standing on his hind legs and licking the guest's face to the point where there's a running joke about the lingering scent of "eau de Boots" for the remainder of the afternoon.

Although the scent of "dog lick" is one that has Banderas rolling his eyes and proffering apologies, he makes no apologies for the success of his men's fragrance line. Spirit Antonio Banderas, a fragrance for men created by Barcelona-based PUIG Beauty & Fashion Group, was introduced to the North American market last year and promptly won industry awards for both the packaging and the fragrance itself. The Banderas brand was earning in excess of $50 million in Europe and Latin America, and its move into the North American market—plus this fall's addition of a women's fragrance—is expected to double the product line's revenues.

Is Banderas reveling in the sweet smell of success that his popularity and name recognition has brought to a global business endeavor? Perhaps. But Banderas also has had to weather his share of jokes about taking on big screen stinkers alongside his more successful choices during the last decade.

In the year following his marriage to Griffith, Banderas was to have yet one more film encounter with The Material Girl. In 1996, Banderas filmed Evita opposite Madonna. Cast as Che Guevara, Banderas shined. Whether her performance was helped by her familiarity with Banderas at this point or simply the material itself, most critics believe this was Madonna's best acting role to date.

The part of the cigar-smoking, Spanish-speaking Guevara was a natural for Banderas, and earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Once again critics began paying positive attention to Banderas' acting skill. That continued through his next two projects, 1998's The Mask of Zorro,which had him playing opposite Anthony Hopkins and the then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, and 1999's Crazy in Alabama, a drama that served as Banderas' directorial debut and also starred Griffith in the lead female role.

Both Banderas and Griffith scored well critically with Crazy in Alabama but the praise ended with Banderas' next choice, the Viking epic The 13th Warrior. Banderas pretty much carried the movie; he certainly carries the honor of holding the longest known character name in film history with his role as Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Ibn Al Abbas Ibn Rashid Ibn Hamad and, for many years, he has taken most of the ribbing for the film's reputation as a...Boots, the Labrador. The movie was widely panned by critics and fellow actors alike—film great Omar Sharif, who had a tiny role in the beginning of the film, once said that the film was so bad that it threw him off making movies for years—but Banderas is very careful when asked to comment on some of his bigger hits and misses.

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