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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 4)

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).

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