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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

(continued from page 1)

"I don't like to say things that may hurt other people's feelings [and] that stay in print for many years to come...people work hard on projects that sometimes don't work out as planned. The 13th Warrior was a big production, and it was practically at the beginning of my staying in America," says Banderas. "It was something that, under the advice of my agent, was impossible to reject and it was with a director who's very interesting to me. It was a bet, it didn't totally work but it's a movie that's become kind of a cult for some. And, hey, it's the nature of my profession. Not even Marlon Brando had all hits!"

When teased a bit later about having taken two other critically -panned movies, the erotic thrillers Original Sin opposite Angelina Jolie in 2001 and Femme Fatale opposite Rebecca Romijn Stamos in 2002, Banderas takes the ribbing in stride before getting serious about trying to explain why his choices made sense to him at the time, even if not to anyone else.

"I have an agenda that is very personal. Sometimes I work in a movie because I want to see how that director directs. So on Femme Fatale, for example, I'd been a big fan of (director) Brian de Palma for many years though even as I admired his work I had no possibilities in my mind of working with him. I'm interested in directing, I want to see how he directs, so I go to school," Banderas says. "The movie is school. I shoot a movie where all day long I stand behind him and say 'why did you do that' or 'why are you shooting this or framing this this way?' It's all about learning for me."

In the course of talking about Original Sin, one of the film's more memorable—and sexy—lines comes up. In the movie, Banderas plays a prosperous Cubano coffee plantation owner who sends to the United States for a bride. In one scene, the newly married Banderas comes into a room, smells cigar smoke and suspiciously asks his partially clothed wife, Jolie, who else has been in the room smoking. She tells a mildly shocked Banderas (right before she seduces him) that she'd snuck one of his cigars and smoked it because she "...wanted the taste of you on my mouth."

Banderas chuckles as he remembers both the scene and the line and, briefly, the talk turns to the cigars he smoked onscreen in movies like Original Sin, Desperado and Femme Fatale.

Banderas doesn't hesitate when asked about a preference: "Montecristos. If I'm going to have a cigar, it must be a good cigar. Or Cohiba." He also admits that his agent, who's Cuban, often asks for boxes of Cohiba cigars as gifts since they're readily available in Banderas' native Spain.

Banderas stopped smoking cigars a few years ago, turned to cigarettes and is just now, once again, turning back to cigars. "Ridley Scott said to me 'I used to smoke five packs [of cigarettes] a day and now I've stopped...I only smoke cigars.' He explained that he could have a cigar in his mouth for long periods of time and be just as happy. Besides, a director looks good with a cigar!"

"For me, cigar smoking is more ritual; it's more about friends than for smoking alone," continues Banderas. "I have some good friends in Los Angeles, like [actor, singer] Meatloaf, who love cigars and he will come over to the house and we'll enjoy a Cohiba."

The latest character that Banderas played on the big screen—and which recently came out on video—didn't smoke cigars; it's already hell coughing up furballs. In Shrek 2 Banderas voiced the role of Puss In Boots, a new addition to the animal-and-ogre team of characters given voice by an all-star cast that included Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. The brand new persona of Puss became, quite literally, Banderas' own.

Originally written as a French, Three Musketeers-like sword fighter, Puss quickly became an amalgamation of Banderas' own nine lives, both on-screen and off. Puss became Spanish with a deliberately exaggerated accent, a hardened assassin who must periodically stop fighting to cough up a hairball and had moves and dialogue that strikingly evoked a black-caped character from Banderas' past.

If most actors deemed macho would scoff at a role that involved voicing an animated cat, Banderas simply shrugs and grins. Not only did the role gain him the kind of audience and critical reviews that suggested he'd stolen the scene—and laughs—from comedian Eddie Murphy, but he was immediately signed for both a sequel to the film and his own Puss In Boots movie scheduled for 2008. Besides, Banderas will gladly tell you, his casting in the role was a given. "Cats are very, very sexy creatures, you know."

Banderas' ability to laugh at himself and to admit insecurity in a role or a film choice is unusual in Hollywood. Even as he excitedly talks about the imminent release of The Legend of Zorro, he confessed his worry that Catherine Zeta-Jones' Oscar win, since their last film together, might have changed their relationship. ("Not one bit, not one little bit," enthuses Banderas. "Cathy was delightful and joked about how it felt like yesterday that we'd made the first Zorro together.") He also admits openly to missing Anthony Hopkins on the set of the sequel.

He tells a charming story about how Hopkins advised and mentored him seven years ago on The Mask of Zorro set when a nervous Banderas was peering into a mirror, costumed, and struggling to make the role of Zorro his own. "He couldn't be in the new movie, of course, because he died in the last [script]," says Banderas, "but in my heart, in my playing Zorro, he was there. An amazing man who helped me tremendously."

Banderas is keenly aware of the importance that the Zorro role has played in his career, whether it is the character influencing other roles or the simple visibility that the movie's success brought him. Reminiscing about the opening of The Mask of Zorro, he says, "I remember one review, it was the New York Times or someone saying 'Banderas, at last, a big box office hit...a number one opening' and blah, blah, blah. Believe me, before I left Spain I never ever looked at the chart of how much money my movies made, even my Almódovar movies. I was not really worried about it, you know? In America you learn about Tuesday mornings [laughs] and you go to Variety and you see, 'Hmmm, I am now number one' or 'I am now number three.'"

Actually, there's another number—a bigger number—that's become associated with Banderas' name and that's the number Nine. For six months in 2003, Banderas assumed the role of Guido Contini, an ego-driven, skirt-chasing Italian film director whose midlife crisis is revealed through his relationships with the women in his life. Based on a Fellini movie, the musical Nine played to packed houses and earned Banderas not only standing ovations on Broadway but a Tony nomination for Best Actor (Musical).

The experience, said Banderas, was magical and, in his opinion, the best work of his career. "Theater? That's my beginning. I was raised as a theater actor since I was 15 and didn't make my first movie until I was 20. Theater was my turf and I was very unfair, actually, with myself and with theater because for 16 years I didn't do it. I disappeared from the stage and I forgot that feeling [of] being in front of an audience every night, no cuts allowed, telling a story a, b, c, d, e. The happiest times that I have had [in my career] have been on stage and in America it was in Nine. No doubt about it."

Banderas goes on and on about the experience, naming (and telling little stories about) all the actresses who played opposite him, discussing his admiration for David Leveaux, the director, and detailing his sheer joy of dancing with Chita Rivera on stage. That Banderas thoroughly enjoyed the experience is unmistakable; he's animated, he waves his hands wildly during the storytelling and regularly lapses into Spanish as he tells stories about how his wife (Griffith was appearing in the Broadway performance of Chicago directly across the street from Banderas during a portion of his run) and "the girls" planned a surprise birthday party for him and how knocking on Chita Rivera's dressing room door each evening prior to curtain was his "good luck charm. If I didn't do it," he shrugs, "who knew what would happen on stage? Andalusians are superstitious."

He's also quick to point out that in real life he's nothing like the character of Guido Contini. "On stage, we are inseparable, we must be inseparable, Guido and I," says Banderas haltingly. "But here, this man who is talking to you now is a man who loves women in every aspect, every shape, every style but I am not a Don Juan. I am—how do you say?—a one-woman man. I don't play around. I probably did at the beginning when I was younger, when I was more confused, when I was [laughs] closer to the guy in Nine. You know, when you think you are going to die tomorrow, you feel like you have to take everything that comes to your door, but it's not like that at this particular moment in my life, ever since I met Melanie."

Banderas acknowledges that the press has had field days at times with stories about him and Griffith; rumored affairs, stories about his jealousy, her jealousy, issues with cast mates, trial separations, etc., but he seems quite anxious to put them to rest.

"Look, if you work in a bank every day, you know the same people every day. Maybe you hit on a girl once, she rejects you and [laughs] that's it. Now in our profession...I did three movies last year, in each I met fascinating people. When you do movies you meet unbelievable people. They've got a lot of life, they're fighters, they're interesting, and they're physically wonderful. Look at Angelina Jolie...she's wonderful. What? Am I going to say that she's not?! Look at Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Madonna...they're all wonderful. But there are lessons here and the lesson I have learned is that there is pleasure in fidelity. We adopt, we adapt, both of us personally and as a couple. You discover that you have the capacity of falling in love with your wife all over again.

"I've had tremendous, incredible opportunities," continues Banderas, "just to go to bed with a woman and maybe I thought 'my wife wouldn't know at all' but I'd know it, and I didn't do it. Didn't do it. And then do you know what I'd do? I'd call Melanie and tell her that and say '...this is my way of telling you that I love you,' you know? It's a feeling of 'I have control' and that's almost a victory. When you discover that this is possible, well, I don't need to go anywhere else. I love my wife."

When asked about Griffith's willingness to share such personal details as pole dancing lessons to the press, Banderas looks away for a moment and then offers the same Gallic shrug. "Sometimes we have discussed these things...but in the end it is her decision. What I don't want to eliminate through the couple is the individuality. She's still Melanie Griffith, by herself, an entity that is detached from me as I am an entity that is detached from her.

"There is also a bit of a myth about her wanting to be on [my] sets all the time," Banderas continues, "especially when there are beautiful women there who are working with me. I think this movie with Jennifer [Lopez] right now, she came on the set at the end only because we were going [straight] from there to Aspen. With Angelina [Jolie] they became unbelievable friends [on the set of Original Sin] and I think she spent more time with her than I did! So maybe it's a little myth about so much jealousy."

The movie with Jennifer Lopez that Banderas refers to is Bordertown, which is based on a true story about young Mexican women murdered in and around the maquiladora towns of Juarez and Nogales. Lopez plays a journalist who investigates the U.S.-owned factories where these women worked; Banderas plays a former colleague of hers who assists in the investigation.

When first approached about doing Bordertown, a relatively low-budget film scheduled for release in early 2006, Banderas almost said no. Not because of the budget and certainly not because of the cast; Banderas and director Gregory Nava had been trying to work together for years. It seems Banderas was desperately trying to get his own film off the ground in Spain by this fall, a movie based on Spanish author Anthony Soler's El Camino de Los Ingleses.

What changed his mind, Banderas says softly, was "...the book. They sent me a book that the women of Juarez—victims' mothers, sisters, cousins—had prepared for me and the book was overwhelming, you know? Here's a scrapbook filled with pieces of the dresses [from]the women who disappeared, a lot of religious motif [items]glued to the book, puzzles, stuff like that. The book was very thick and," Banderas pauses, "what can I say? I was convinced. I said yes. I went to meet with some of the women and said yes. It was like that for everyone else, too...Jennifer, Martin Sheen."

Bordertown isn't Banderas' only film due out in early 2006. He's just finished shooting Take the Lead, a movie based on the life of ballroom dancer Pierre Dalaine who teaches dance in New York's inner- city schools, and he's playing race-the-clock to finish El Camino de Los Ingleses in time to make the independent film festival circuit for spring. He's made commitments to at least three other films in the next three years and, oh, he's trying to buy the rights to Don Juan de Marco for a Broadway musical. Banderas would, of course, play Don Juan.

When it's pointed out that he's not only traipsing back and forth between two coasts with projects but, at this point, all over the world, Banderas just nods enthusiastically and says things will get easier now that he and Griffith have bought yet another home, this time in New York.

After an unexpected and rather public turn-down by Manhattan's prestigious the Dakota—and in spite of, says Banderas, written letters of recommendation from Dakota residents Lauren Bacall and Yoko Ono—Banderas and Griffith promptly bought another apartment overlooking Central Park for an estimated $4 million. He says it's where he and Griffith hope to eventually retire.

Banderas lived in New York briefly when he first came to the United States and says there's an energy there he's missed desperately, living even part-time in Los Angeles. "First of all, New York is closer to Spain," says Banderas, smiling. "But it's also, for me, the most European city in America. In Los Angeles, you're always in your car—if you don't have a car you don't exist in Los Angeles—and you can't believe anything, it's all exaggeration! In New York, things are more straightforward.

"You're tested constantly in New York," Banderas continues. "Things are always challenging [whereas] Los Angeles feels like one big...movie set. There's no center there, no plaza. You know, in Spain when the soccer team wins there are big celebrations in the squares, everybody gathers and screams and celebrates until they drop. I went to see the last game of the Los Angeles Lakers during the playoff, and after they won...there was no square, no plaza. Instead, there was public disorder...cop cars turned over. New York? New York has a square, Times Square. It's a city that received tremendous impact after September 11 but there is birth out of the ashes."

With news programs continuing to broadcast footage from Hurricane Katrina in the background, and as European news anchors and politicians openly question what America, politicians are doing to evacuate and assist a population that's rarely seen on American television, Banderas muses on the differences he experiences as a citizen of Spain but a part-time resident of America. A man, if you will, of two countries.

"When you see something like [Hurricane Katrina] that is so strong and part of nature, what happens is that we all become the same, all human. It doesn't matter how much money you have, how much education you have. We all look the same, have the same mud on our face, the same desperation in our eye. When you see this and you see what happened during the tsunami [in Southeast Asia], you realize the frailty of human beings in front of Gaia."

Asked to comment as a European about the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the post-September 11 period, Banderas weighs his words carefully before responding. He wonders sometimes, he says, whether American politicians genuinely understand that their actions, taken on behalf of one nation, affect all nations. He often gets asked questions, he says, by Europeans wanting to know if the current administration in the United States understands that "...they take actions that are going to be irreversible for all of us. Right there," Banderas says, pointing out across the beach, "is Morocco. Right there. See it? On a clear day, we look over at them and we must wonder 'what is going to happen to them, to us?

"I sometimes hear things," he continues, "like 'I don't like Americans and then I answer to them, 'Well, what is America? Is America George Bush? Is America McCarthy? Or is America Bob Dylan?' America is many things, many people. But the perception is that America is so big...so big. Only America is so big that it can feed itself."


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