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Behind the Mask

Antonio Banderas opens up on marriage, politics and his best roles.
| By Betsy Model | From 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.

"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 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. Only America is so big that it can feed itself."

Banderas, the sports fan, pauses for a moment and then shakes his head smiling. "I find it very interesting, for example, when the Super Bowl comes or the end of the NBA. Whoever wins is considered the 'World Champion.' World Champion! It is just a domestic competition but it says something, no? I don't know who else, what other team outside of the U.S. that they would play that they wouldn't win against, it's true, but the very thought that someone else, another team could come and receive that [win] shouldn't allow you to call yourself 'World Champion,' you know? Perhaps there is a perception that America looks at itself continuously and only looks outside when there is a problem that affects Americans."

For more than an hour, Banderas talks about politics, religion, war and the environment. He offers up passages from books, quotes philosophers and mentions 10-volume sets of books that he's just finished reading. These are not the microscopic sound bites gained from watching 15 minutes of CNN prior to an interview, in the hopes of sounding intelligent. On the contrary, Banderas is thoughtful, concise and poses rhetorical questions worthy of—and perhaps missing from—political debates taking place all over the world.

Whether about Palestinian resettlement, Mexico/U.S. immigration, interpretations of the Koran, Venezuela's government under Chavez, the estimated Iraq war budget or terrorism in the Middle East, Banderas is refreshingly aware and informed, especially for an actor often sequestered away on studio sets and in backstage dressing rooms and sound studios.

Banderas gets flustered when asked how he stays so informed in spite of an insane schedule and actually blushes when he's referred to as "smart."

"No, no, no. Don't say that because I make mistakes, I may often be wrong. It's just that I'm interested in the world that I am living [in] and I like to be witness and participant in that world. I don't have all the answers, obviously, but I really like to make the questions for myself, continuously, and I try to see the different opinions of different cultures."

"I definitely don't know all the questions or have all the answers. If I did have all the answers then I wouldn't be an actor," Banderas concludes with a rueful smile. "I'd be a politician."

Seattle-based author Betsy Model is a former NPR/BBC correspondent who contributes to more than 30 domestic and international publications

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