Antonio Banderas: Banderas on the Run

Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, star of many a film by Pedro Almodovar, has broken camp and taken up English with showy parts in Philadelphia, The House of the Spirits and the upcoming Interview with the Vampire.

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Outside of action flicks, when's the last time someone with a seven-syllable name who pronounces "kiss" with a long "e" became a Hollywood movie star? There isn't exactly a permanent Valentino niche that Tinseltown feels obliged to fill. But when someone like Spanish actor Antonio Banderas comes along, well...

Fans of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar know Banderas as the star of five of that director's sex comedies, including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! But Banderas, already a European movie star, is about to be seen on American screens in American movies that will, with some luck, turn him into the star that last year's The Mambo Kings, in which he played Armand Assante's soulful, trumpet-blowing brother, did not. In Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, that much-speculated-about comic heartbreaker, Banderas plays the lover of a lawyer (Tom Hanks), who is being defended by a homophobic attorney (Denzel Washington) in an AIDS discrimination case. Also this winter, Banderas romances Winona Ryder under the envious gaze of Meryl Streep and her sister-in-law Glenn Close, in Bille August's movie of Isabel Allende's acclaimed bestseller The House of the Spirits. And he will soon enough be seen with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as one of a gorgeous trio of vampires in Neil Jordan's version of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. In short, Banderas is on a roll.

It's axiomatic that movie stars should exude sex. Banderas emits appeal that borders on the pandemic. Sizzle is rarer in people who can actually act, and as anyone who's seen Banderas in his Almodovar mode knows, this guy can act. But just now, smoldery and liquid-eyed, gregarious and bursting with life, Banderas is discussing the size of his penis. This phallic subject reared its head when I brought up Madonna, who, in her Truth or Dare documentary, revealed her fixation on Banderas, then speculated that, aside from already being married (to actress Ana Leza), Banderas must harbor some other imperfection. For instance, she suggested, a teeny-weeny?

"Madonna never saw my penis, so she doesn't know," asserts the 33-year-old Banderas, laughing with a Castilian lilt that only occasionally shades into Fernando Lamas-ese. "Madonna was the loser, I was the winner of that story." With a grin he adds: "I mean, my wife is the real winner of that story."

So how did he turn up in Truth or Dare anyway? Banderas leans in close, as if about to reveal a confidence: "The real thing that happened was, I went to a Madonna concert in Madrid. I couldn't speak English that well. Anyway, I was at a table at a party Pedro [Almodovar] gave and I saw cameras, but I thought it was the TV news, you know? I never felt that she was going to do a movie. I mean, she never put a paper in front of me to sign, saying, 'Do you want to be in this documentary?' And, during that dinner, she was telling me--oh, I don't know what--while all the time I am nodding and saying, 'Yes, yes, yes,' not understanding a word.

When someone called and said, 'Antonio, you are in Madonna's movie,' I said, 'Impossible.' Then she called me saying, 'Antonio, don't be worried, you are treated like a king in my movie. I'm gonna send you the cassette and if you don't like it, I promise to take it out.' So, when my wife and I saw the movie, heard what she said about me, we just laughed and laughed."

Joys of mutual exploitation aside, Banderas laments not having gotten to play revolutionary Che Guevara opposite Madonna's Evita Peron in the apparently doomed Disney movie version of that all-singing spectacle Evita. "I love musicals," he declares, cracking up when he notices my arched brow. Offering to croon me any show tune I choose (an offer I decline), he insists, "Oh, yes, for real I love them. It's like an American going to Spain and getting interested in bullfights. Before I saw Hair onstage in Spain in 1973, I had only seen classical theater with my parents and thought, Wow! This is extraterrestrial! It actually made me start taking classes in theater and doing shows.

Singin' In the Rain? I know all the songs-- The Phantom of the Opera and also Guys and Dolls, too. Evita was very sad because Madonna had called me and said, 'Antonio, you have to have a meeting with [director] Glenn Gordon Caron.' I spent one whole afternoon at Disney meeting people and recording songs. A week later, [producer] Robert Stigwood called me from Bermuda and said, 'Antonio, you've got the part and we're going to do it.' I thought, Wow, a big musical production for the cinema with Madonna, who was perfect for that character! Finally, the budget was--" he slices the air with an imaginary knife, "and I don't think it's gonna be done. Ever."

I would have said, "So, you were the winner in that Madonna story, too," except that Banderas's disappointment is palpable.

Banderas's small but important role in Philadelphia, December '93's most buzzed-about entry, may do more for him than a turn as Che would have. Banderas calls director Jonathan Demme, who brought us Hannibal Lecter in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, "the funniest man on earth." All flashing eyes and roaming hands, Banderas enthuses about how one can "feel that [Demme] is coming from underground movies. He loves Almodovar's Law of Desire, for example. We shot a Halloween party scene and he came dressed and shot the scenes in a flowery shirt, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses, and a big camera and Hawaiian flowers around his neck. There was never a tension there at all. I loved the way he used the camera, like the way they usually show a bad guy in a terror movie walking through a hallway, looking for someone to kill."

Like handheld or Steadicam? "Si, si," Banderas says, then laughs at his lapse. "Exactly. Rough, even though it was a big budget movie: informal, strange, busy, energetic." Energetic, sure, but, even for a resilient, kinetic guy, a bit unsettling. "Jonathan shoots things lots of ways, so I don't know how he's going to edit the movie," he admits.

"Like, one scene when I come to visit Tom Hanks in the hospital, we shot in a normal way. You know: my take, Tom's take. Then, he had me looking and talking directly to the audience, as if they were Tom in the hospital bed, which is very good. I even had to put my hand 'on' the camera, saying, 'You got a fever, baby? Oh, boy, honey, you have to be careful...' So, right now, the movie is like a mystery because I don't know how it is going to be put together. Maybe my character won't be so big as I think or maybe it is. I'm proud to be in this movie. It's funny, very human--Tom's sarcasm in his character makes him so great and it is about many things that are important."

Important, sure. Let's just hope Philadelphia is not all noble and stereotypical, like other such Hollywood attempts to tackle aspects of gay life. For instance, is this a movie where Banderas and Hanks deep kiss and romp in bed the way off-screen lovers do? "We have one kiss," Banderas explains, "and it's so natural. I come in to see him and we kiss like brothers. You will see, people will be easy with it within 10 seconds. We have another scene in bed that I don't know if it's going to be edited. Tom's in bed and I come in and tell him a story in a funny way about how a guy in the gym said to me, 'How do you feel knowing your boyfriend's gonna die?' And I tell him I said, 'How do you know you're not gonna die first, bitch?' When I look back, he's sleeping and I put my head on his shoulder. It's done in a very natural way. Some people are not going to realize what is happening."

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