Antonio Banderas: The Real Don Juan
It’s Antonio Banderas’ birthday! To celebrate, we’re revisiting an interview from the August 1995 issue of Movieline magazine. Banderas was still establishing himself as a Hollywood movie star. But his work was being overshadowed by tabloid headlines about his affair with his costar and future wife (and future ex-wife) Melanie Griffith. It’s easy to forget, but at the time the affair was seen as quite a scandal since both actors were married at the time. Stephen Rebello gets Banderas to open up about his career, his love life and what he sees for himself in the future (our past).
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.”
Doesn’t this go with the territory for a guy who wants to be a major star, especially one whose very presence whispers–now more than ever–Latin lover? “For me, it’s not about being a star,” Banderas says. “I am lucky, that is all. Lucky because there are a lot of people–producers, directors, people who buy tickets– who put confidence in me.” Still, if he does become a big star, will he whine about his loss of privacy? He shakes his head no, with resignation, “If I were to become a star, I will accept everything that comes with it. I mean, I can enjoy arriving to the Oscars with a limo. But it’s only a part of my profession.”
Tossing back cascades of wavy hair from his forehead, he explains, “I admire people who are fantastic actors and because of that became stars. I think you can play this poker match in a different way–by finding a balance between being an actor and giving the star system what it needs. You can play safe without getting yourself involved in parties, big smiles and being brilliant all the time. I told you this last time and I mean it: I am not that brilliant. You see, I’m not a star because I am not someone who is playing myself in front of the world. I am not criticizing being a movie star, but I think that to be a star requires you to be brilliant 24 hours a day. That is something that is not in me.”
Oh, isn’t it? Check out his Interview With the Vampire scenes in which, even in a Lily Munster fright wig, he comes off as malevolent, absurd, flamboyant, sly–a Charles Boyeresque, come-wizmee-to-de-Cas-bah Continental seducer. Not even Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise could block his light. “Tom Cruise is the star,” Banderas protests. “He and Brad did a very good job, I watched the movie here at the hotel on cable last night and it’s classic, not your typical horror movie, more subtle, more human, more British than a Hollywood movie, not like–” He leaps out of the chair, essays a hilariously campy vampire turn out of a grade-Z Mexican horror movie, then slithers back into his chair. “The movie is more a reflection about immortality.” Did he think well, in retrospect, of the character Armand that he created? “When I do a movie, I sometimes feel impotent. I think, “Oh man, I would like to change this character, to push this button and that button.”
“Knowledge arrives late,” he continues, laughing. “The best thing to do is to play the role from here to here,” he says, moving his hands from the waist up. “In the range of possibilities that you can really manage. If you try to go too high, too low, too east, too west, the audience detects that immediately. If we do the sequel, I will have more space to develop Armand the way I want.”
Which, I’ve heard, may happen, perhaps as soon as director Neil Jordan completes his current movie project. “I don’t think they have a script yet, but Neil told me a couple of nights after the premiere that in the second part we are going to go back in time, to see Armand in the position that Louis was in Interview With the Vampire, a person who must overcome all the problems that go with being a vampire, a person who has had a terrible confrontation with Lestat. It’s not going to be a continuation, but a chance to go back and show him as insecure, confused and also confident that he will soon have control over his situation.”
The prospect of landing a franchise character in a series of movies, which not only the Vampire chronicles, but Desperado offers, delights Banderas. Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to his tiny-budget, critically-acclaimed slambanger El Mariachi is little more than driving, shooting, avenging and cool camera angles, but it enjoys a loud, raucous buzz among industry insiders.
“I would like to have a continuing character, just for having that experience,” Banderas admits. “‘It would not scare me. It would not become a trap, because it isn’t the first thing I have done in my career, you know? Desperado is going to be great because the movie is a cross fire from beginning to end, very stylish, but like a cartoon, a Sam Peckinpah kind of thing. It looks like a Western, until somebody sticks an automatic weapon into the frame. Playing it was completely different for me because the character is obsessed, he knows that he is wrong but he cannot stop. He has to kill the bad guys who killed the woman he loved.”
The woman he loved. OK, so I admit I keep wanting to reintroduce the topic of Melanie Griffith. I decide to test the waters by asking him who, among such on-screen partners as Winona Ryder and Sarah Jessica Parker, has been his best screen sex partner? “Victoria Abril is the best kisser.” he asserts, referring to his co-star in Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and three other movies.
So, no mention of Griffith. But what about the near-kiss with fellow vampire Brad Pitt in Interview? “With Brad, it was, in a way, a kiss, a sad good-bye kiss. It was not in the script. Brad and I planned it. It’s just that we wanted to push a little bit the sexuality of these characters. Sex between vampires is not the same as with normal people. The act of killing is probably the point, sexually, between them and we were playing with that idea in that scene. We wanted to push a little more the feeling of the strange sexual relationship between these strange humans. I always feel that art in general and acting in particular should make the audience a little uncomfortable, to slap them and wake them up.
“When you see paintings by Picasso, whom I love, some of them make people unbelievably uncomfortable,” he says, highly animated. “In the museums in Barcelona, you have all of these people filled with morality, lovers of art, confronted with a Picasso of a woman sucking a man’s enormous dick, you know?” He breaks off, miming with his hands a penis the size of Mount Fuji, then continues, “And there’s another painting of a man sucking a woman’s pussy. It’s Picasso and people have to accept it because this is life, it happens, and Picasso reflects that in these paintings. Real artists have the responsibility to break rules.”
Given Banderas’s refreshing ease with matters sexual and given what must be opportunities galore, has he ever availed himself of a gay experience? “No, never have,” he replies. “Nature made me different. I don’t know why. Even I don’t deny that someday it could happen. I’ve done gay characters several times in my life and I tried to do it in the most honest way. People have said, What about box office? What about your image? You know, keep your image clean, in terms of morality, in from of society. But I am not afraid of that. I’ve never played a queen. I always played a guy who was comfortable with his problems, who reacts not so differently from a heterosexual guy. It’s not such a big deal. I think most actors think in the same way.”