The Rediscovery of Antonio Banderas

Spanish actor Antonio Banderas went from exotic art-house import and rising star in upscale films to tabloid romantic and overexposed star in mediocre fare. How, with his life in better focus and The Mask of Zorro hitting screens, Banderas sounds a confident note as he talks about wielding swords, living with Melanie Griffith, directing his first movie, and hoping and preparing for what he knows would be the role of his life, The Phantom of the Opera.

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Antonio Banderas's romance with America began from afar with his star turns in a string of outre comedies by iconoclastic Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Eventually his bruised-angel soulfulness proved so globally appealing, the actor left Spain for a grab at stardom in Hollywood. I first encountered Banderas five years ago when he'd already debuted in The Mambo Kings and was ensconced in a Beverly Hills hotel suite to tout his upcoming films--_Philadelphia, The House of the Spirits_ and I_nterview With the Vampire_, all due out in the space of a year. Despite his gravy-thick accent and shaky English, he clearly had charm, graciousness and laser-focused ambition to back up his talent and stay afloat in showbiz's toughest town.

By the time of our second interview in 1995 (same hotel, much larger suite), Banderas had attained full-fledged heartthrob status. His English had improved markedly, and his passion, playfulness and all-around niceness had further blossomed. Even by then, however, things had begun to take a different turn. Miami Rhapsody, Desperado, Assassins, Never Talk to Strangers, Four Rooms--none of these films hit big for Banderas, and some were just awful. On top of that, Banderas had just gone public about his relationship with one of Hollywood's favorite pinatas, Melanie Griffith, whom he met while filming Two Much. The next couple of years would be brutal.

But even Banderas doubters could see right away that his performance in 1996's Evita was both risky and stellar. Had it not been for the eclipsing presence of Madonna, the fact that he had reinvented himself on-screen would have been more widely heralded. In the end, though, Evita did its work, because The Mask of Zorro, a Steven Spielberg-produced project that had been stalled for almost five years, moved into high gear with Banderas in the title role. Checking in with Banderas for this, our third interview, I find the star looking in peak form in a crisp white linen shirt, worn-in jeans and work boots at his production offices where he's making final preparations for his directorial debut, Crazy in Alabama, in which Melanie Griffith and he will star. Banderas is as winning, funny and passionate as ever, though changed in ways he's happy to talk about.

STEPHEN REBELLO: It's early morning, so an easy question first. Why did you name your production company Green Moon?

ANTONIO BANDERAS: Because the great Federico Garcia Lorca used to write that we Andalusians are not dark from the sun, but from the green moon. He says we have the color of the leaves of the olive tree.

Q: You've been in America for eight years. In what way do you think you've been most Americanized?

A: In no way. When I go back to Spain, the biggest compliment I get from my friends is, "Man, you're the fucking same--pardon me [laughs], it's early--as you were years ago." I am the same guy. If I ever lose that, that's it for me. I am a marionette with the strings cut.

Q: Between Interview With the Vampire and Evita, though, you might have feared you'd lost yourself.

A: I have felt very lost. I've made movies that felt wrong. But I had to send money to my family--and I would do it again. I come from a country where, merely to survive, you have to keep working and working. When I came here I used the same system. I did six movies in 1995 and some of them came out in theaters at almost the same time. People said, "What is going on with Antonio?" They were tired of Antonio Banderas.

Q: Hey, I like you and I was tired of you.

A: [Laughs] No one was more tired of Antonio Banderas than Antonio Banderas.

Q: I handled it by completely avoiding Miami Rhapsody, Four Rooms and Assassins. What did you do?

A: [Laughs] It's a very good exercise in humility to have a fiasco or two. It's the nature of the beast that you mostly work blind. I got pow'd! right in the face and I learned a lot about myself. I went inside, you know? I went low-key, in terms of the press. And I turned down many things.

Q: What shifted you back on track?

A: When I was offered Evita, it was the most fantastic bridge for me in every way. It was quality, that film. It's almost an art movie in the way it's shot, composed and edited. It made me excited again. It made me stick out my jaw again and say, "Go ahead, take your best shots." Pow! Pow! Pow! [Laughs] Now, I want to be "rediscovered" and to rediscover myself.

Q: Many people feel your performance in Evita was underrated. Oscar nominations have been won for much less.

A: Well, there's nothing you can do about that, is there? All you can do is be very respectful of all the decisions of the Academy. I mean, I'm the Academy, too. It's made up of practically everybody in the business.

Q: With The Mask of Zorro things seem to be going your way at the moment.

A: What's going on now is cool. Scary cool. Always in my mind is the thought, "What a roller coaster this profession is." I'm very happy with The Mask of Zorro. About some movies, I say, "Well, let's see what happens when the movie opens at the box office." With this one, I don't care. It's like a little jewel I'll keep in my heart forever. There have been, I think, 35 different films all around the world of Zorro, so that tells you the figure of Zorro has great importance as a cultural figure. My big test for the movie? It reminds me of being a little kid again in Malaga and watching Zorro at the movies on Sunday morning and we were all stamping our feet and cheering as if we were at a soccer match.

Q: The sword fight between you and Catherine Zeta Jones, in which you swap wisecracks and slash off each other's clothes, is the kind of stuff that made me fall in love with the movies.

A: Catherine is a little like a Claudia Cardinale, isn't she? I took Almodovar to see the movie and he loved that scene, too. He's very critical with me, always, and doesn't much like action movies, but he loved Zorro. He left the theater and said, "This is big. I like it. It's fun. I felt like I was watching a '40s movie and Erroll Flynn was in it. You've done a classic adventure movie now." [Laughs] I think this movie is great for little kids and for people who have a little kid still inside who aren't afraid to show that.

Q: What about your upcoming movie The Thirteenth Warrior?

A: It's a very unusual movie. Director John McTiernan shot it using Steadicam. The idea was that, as opposed to a normal action movie, you, as the audience, participate in the movie in a more "documentary" sort of way. The story is set 10 centuries ago, but the idea is to draw you into the characters. This Arab guy that I play gets caught by cruel Vikings and their cultures dash completely. But they have a mission to carry out, and that starts pulling them together.

Q: You're about to direct and star in a movie with Melanie. That would be risky in any case, but it's also a story with larger-than-life characters set in the deep South in 1965.

A: I'm jumping into a boat on rocky waves, aren't I? Melanie kept telling me what a great script Crazy in Alabama was, and when I finally read it, I knew I wanted to do it. It reminds me of growing up in Spain and hearing about America, a world that seemed like another planet--John and Bobby Kennedy, the men on the moon, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis. Why am I sitting here wearing jeans right now? Every young guy around the world from the late '40s on has been raised in the shadow of American culture. I grew up watching Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, and now, after living here for eight years, I feel closer to American issues. I've studied a lot about politics in America, just as I was interested in those issues in Spain. The movie will be about the absurdity and contrast of those years in which they were telling you, "Buy this car and life will be beautiful," while black kids were being beaten for nothing. It gives me a chance to touch on racism, which I see as equal to stupidity and ignorance.

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