Antonio Banderas: The Real Don Juan

Antonio Banderas stands poised on the edge of the international stardom no Spanish actor before him has ever achieved. If the El Mariachi sequel, Desperado, doesn't do it, the Sylvester Stallone pic Assassins is coming up. On top of that, his affair with Melanie Griffith has made him the topic of Tinseltown's steamiest gossip.

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The last time Antonio Banderas and I connected, the Spanish heartthrob radiated infectious joy, charm, niceness and an unfussy ease with his almost florid who-could-deny-that-I'm-a-movie-star? good looks. That was two years ago. At the time, the pulse-quickening veteran of Pedro Almodóvar sex farces was making his first moves on global stardom. He had already debuted as a melancholy horn player in the Mambo Kings. He had The House of the Spirits in the can. And he was about to hit screens playing the don't-go-for-your-popcorn-or-you'll-miss-him lover of AIDS-stricken Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If any other Latin but Banderas had taken it his head to seek international leading-man status, particularly with Americans, one would have been seen the mission as quixotic. After all, no Spanish actor has ever achieved leading-man status in America. But with his looks, his moves, his focus, his acting chops, and that sweetness of spirit one seldom encounters outside of beautiful puppies, Banderas wasn't exactly guilty of overconfidence.

In fact, two years later, I'm even more inclined to think international stardom is his due. Next to Hollywood's homegrown, self-enchanted pretty boys and grunge poseurs, Banderas's unabashed, Mel Gibson-level star sheen comes on like a breeze out of Málaga. Merengue-inflected line readings or no, Banderas appears poised to pull off his quest. He has acted in five back-to-back American movies in the fast two years. He stole all his scenes not only in Miami Rhapsody, but, more important, in Interview With the Vampire, Now he is due on-screen exploding into action in Desperado (a.k.a. El Mariachi II), which he'll follow with a hip cameo in Four Rooms, before going on to alternately menace and grind on Rebecca De Mornay in Never Talk to Strangers, to fire up Assassins as Sylvester Stallone's gun-crazy nemesis, and to romance Daryl Hannah and Melanie Griffith in Two Much. All this and a double home-wrecker of an affair with Two Much co-star Melanie Griffith, too.

Today, Banderas greets me like a long lost amigo, beckoning me into his Four Seasons suite. He plops into a Morris chair and fires up the first of many Camels. "It's ridiculous to think you're not going to write about everything that is going on," he says, referring to the furor of gossip about him and Melanie. "I don't know how much you trust me, how much you believe me, but I do not like to lie and I'd rather not do an interview than lie to you." I suggest something radical, especially considering that he is an actor: How about we do the interview and you tell the truth?

Sighing deeply, Banderas says, "The truth is that I am in love. I am in the process of getting separated from my wife, Ana Leza. Things are really painful now, really tough. But I know what I feel and what I feel is really deep and truthful. Out of respect for my ex-wife, out of respect for Melanie Griffith, out of respect for Melanie's ex-partner, I am trying to handle the situation with dignity and integrity. I do not want to destroy my life. It's taken me 43 films and 20 years to get where I am right now. In terms of my personal life, I respect time, too. I build things slowly. I tell you now that time is going to put together all the pieces. People right now may not understand my love and what I have done for it. A lot of news is coming from a lot of sources. And there are many private things that I cannot say now. But I repeat the truth: I am in love."

Look, I know this guy is an actor, a damned good one. But he makes his confession with such passionate conviction that I think, Maybe he'll bring off international stardom and a liaison with a woman you'd think twice about bringing home to mother. (Unless you were really, really pissed with mother,) Still, Banderas could trounce his image if fans perceive him as choosing someone who seems... well, let's be kind here... a long shot in the sweepstakes of enduring love. I think Banderas is terrific, but even I'm looking at him differently knowing where he's been lately.

"If bad things are going to be said about me, I have to bear that," he says when I raise the topic. "If I don't understand that it's part of being in show business, then I'd better go work in a bank. I don't want to enter into the details of why I just broke up with my wife. Melanie is part of the story, of course, but there are many reasons. It's a slow process that was going on before I met Melanie Griffith. The one thing I can tell you, the one thing I want people to understand is that a person fell in love with another person. I fell in love with Melanie. I feel loved by her. Now, this profession is hell sometimes, but that's a price that someone like Melanie, like me or anyone in Hollywood has to pay. I am ready to pay. Melanie and I did not want to keep the story secret, just to give it time. Right now, everything is very hot, very raw. Melanie has kids and that means a lot to her. We're trying to move things on the right track, hurting people as little as possible, I am trying to stabilize my life right now and I cannot say more to you about this, please"

As Banderas sits there puffing away and telling me all this, I register that his nonstop work jag in American-made movies has improved his command of English, though his accent and vibe remain resolutely Spanish. I also note he looks amazing, which is an accomplishment, given that he's obviously stressed out as well as overworked. "After these two wonderful, crazy years of work, I have to seriously consider stopping because I don't want to be overexposed," he says. From what I can tell, I say, there's no way he could get exposed enough. Judging from the response his name engenders, the popular cry seems to be IMucho mas Antonio! "This will happen until I get fat and lose my hair," he declares, grinning and betraying the merest hint of vanity. "And both of those things will happen." he adds.

Until he becomes a guzzler of Slim-Fast and a shill for Hair Club For Men, though, Banderas will be dealing with celebrity. At the Four Seasons he's had to register under an assumed name, for reasons having nothing to do with Melanie Griffith. "It's sad that I, or anyone, has to do this secret, sneaking kind of stuff,'" he says quietly, "but it's because of this guy who keeps following me." As Banderas goes on to talk about this misguided admirer, he does so with sadness, not rancor. He ends up staring at the ground, and his English fails him. After a long pause, he says, shrugging, "I'm not such a big star. I am just a little planet. In Spain, people don't put so much attention on the star system. But here in America, I can feel it. Mostly, people are very, very nice. But there are also a bunch of fanatics behind the stars."

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