The Hollywood veteran Antonio Banderas exudes a confidence and charm that translate into box office success. John Hiscock meets the Spaniard convinced of his Arabian roots.
On his quest for Black Gold, Antonio Banderas may just find his roots
It is easy to see why the producers chose Antonio Banderas to join Tahar Rahim at the head of the international cast of Black Gold, which is being touted as the biggest Arabian epic since Lawrence of Arabia and the harbinger of major filmmaking in the Arab world.
Banderas's smouldering good looks and charismatic presence are ideally suited for the starring role of the rapacious desert sheikh Emir Nesib in what is being touted as the biggest Arab-backed production of all time, a sprawling tale of warring Arabian tribes during the nascent oil boom.
Filmed mainly in Tunisia and Qatar and directed and co-written by Jean-Jacques Annaud (who directed Enemy at the Gates and The Name of the Rose), Black Gold is the story of a rivalry between two emirs as oil is discovered on the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s. Based on the Hans Ruesch novel The Great Thirst, it opened the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last week and goes into general release later this month.
"It has been a very exciting project since day one," Annaud told The National at the Doha premiere. "What was a real privilege for me was to do such a large-scale movie on the Arab world, which is a subject matter that is uncommon in international films unless it is about contemporary events."
Annaud says the Spanish actor Banderas is convinced he has Arabian roots, having been born in Andalusia, which was under Islamic rule until the late 1400s. "He is absolutely serious about it," the French director said.
It is easy to see how Banderas gained a reputation as a ladies' man early in his career, entrancing Madonna among many others, although he has now been happily married for 15 years to the actress Melanie Griffith and is a devoted family man with grown-up children. The handsome features and gripping presence that characterise his on-screen performances transfer into his private life and, when combined with the twinkle in his eye, ready smile and fondness for a joke, make him a charming and funny companion for both men and women.
He is on time for our meeting in a Toronto hotel and, with a down-to-earth attitude and easy conversation, conveys the impression we have known each other all our lives.
"I'm very open," he says with a smile. "You can ask me anything you want and I will always have an answer. I will never get upset."
So it is easy to tell him that Madonna is in the same hotel and is due to give a news conference shortly. Two decades ago in the documentary Truth or Dare the singer admitted to having "a passion" for Banderas. She recalled recently that she had had "a terrible crush" on him.
He holds his face in mock horror. "Madonna's going to be here? Oh, no! She didn't have a relationship with me but if you say that to her, she's going to whack me. She's going to hit me. Like, pam-pam! Tell her that I love her very much. That I've been thinking of her all these 20 years. Almost every day."
Funny and loquacious, he talks volubly in fractured English with a strong Spanish accent, laughing frequently. Once he pauses to apologise: "I'm sorry. I talk too much." He is in Toronto because his other latest film, the dramatic The Skin I Live In, is having its premiere at the Toronto film festival.
In it he portrays an eminent plastic surgeon who, ever since his wife was burnt in a car crash, has been working on creating a new skin with which he could have saved her. In order to test it on a human guinea pig he kidnaps a beautiful woman, portrayed by Elena Anaya. The film marks his sixth collaboration with his fellow Spaniard, the Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodóvar, with whom he first worked on his feature film debut, Labyrinth of Passion, in 1982 and with whom he appears to have something of a love-hate relationship.
"Pedro is not an easy director. He's very precise and demanding," Banderas says. "He doesn't like actors who are coming with a suitcase filled with tricks of everything that they have been accumulating through the years. So he took this suitcase that I brought and he threw it out of the window.
"He said: 'We have to start from zero. You may use some of those tricks and they may be very effective. And they may work for audiences. But we don't work like that, Antonio. I hope that you remember.'"
But, he hastens to add: "I love Pedro. If I die tomorrow, people will remember me as the guy who did six movies with Pedro Almodóvar. Yeah, there's Zorro, Evita and so on. But Pedro is part of my professional and personal life. To me, he is a genius.
"Many people ask me what is the secret that we have been together such a long time and the answer is very simple: we love each other. That's it."
The Skin I Live In took the 51-year-old Banderas back to his native Spain, a place he still considers home, despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, and where he feels more comfortable with the language.
"I don't have to do the extra work I have to do when I'm working in English," he says, "but it's true that as years go by English is becoming easier for me. Still, all my memories, my nostalgic thoughts... everything is in Spain. So for me it was going home.
"I could have dual nationality because I married an American woman and my daughter is American, but I am very Spanish and I am very, very proud."
Banderas became an actor when he was 14 years old after a foot injury sidetracked his plans for a career as a professional footballer. He enrolled in drama classes and joined a small touring theatre troupe. His work landed him a five-year apprenticeship with the National Theatre of Spain, where he caught the eye of Almodóvar. After three pictures with the famed director Banderas was already a major star in Spain when he was introduced to global audiences with the director's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and then Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in which he played a charismatic mental patient who kidnaps, binds and woos a drug-addicted porn star.
Hollywood took notice and although he spoke hardly any English he made his debut in The Mambo Kings in 1992, portraying a soulful Cuban trumpeter. When an intensive English language crash course didn't help, he had to learn his dialogue phonetically, and although it was plain to audiences he did not understand what he was saying, his presence and charisma were undeniable.
As his English improved he co-starred in Philadelphia, Interview with a Vampire, The House of the Spirits and Desperado and then he met Griffith in 1995 when they starred together in Too Much. They were married in London in May 1996 and they are still happily together with a close-knit family. Griffith has a son, Alexander, 24, by her ex-husband the actor Steven Bauer; a daughter, Dakota, 21, by Don Johnson; and she and Banderas have a 15-year-old daughter, Stella.
But Banderas admits: "At the beginning it was very stormy." Griffith had just divorced Johnson for the second time while Banderas was separated from his first wife, Ana Leza. Spanish newspapers portrayed him as losing his way in Hollywood and betraying his wife as well as his Spanish roots.
"That was so far from the reality of the situation," he says. "For more than a year my wife and I had gone our own ways. We'd already broken up when Melanie and I fell in love."
But gossips spread rumours about his alleged womanising and about violent rows between them, and paparazzi followed them wherever they went.
"The first couple of years were totally nuts but now we are left alone because we are so boring," he says, laughing. "Photographers follow us for three days and they see that we don't fight, we don't throw dishes at each other's heads or attack each other with hammers, so they just leave and go to somebody else who is involved in some kind of scandal."
Things still get a bit frenetic when they return to Spain for holidays but they have worked out how to get some peace and quiet.
"We do a press conference when we arrive so everybody has a picture of us," Banderas says, "and then when we go to the beach Melanie and I and our daughter wear the same bathing suits every day so if photographers follow us they just get the same picture again and again."
Before he married, women played a major part in the life of the handsome young film star. "Each and every one of the girlfriends I have had has left a groove in my heart and helped me understand women more," he says.
Unlike many of his Hollywood counterparts Banderas is an ardent proponent of marriage and family life and has no difficulty in renouncing any temptations that come his way. According to him, anyone can do it if just by following his advice.
"Try to stick with the things you believe in and try to know who you are in relationship to your profession and life. And don't be distracted by all the candies that are around," he says. "Now that I am 51 years old that has become an easier game than before, when I may have been attracted to all the temptations that were put there. Many people ask me what is the secret that has kept Melanie and me together for such a long time, and it's very simple."
The answer, it turns out, is the same as the one he gives for his relationship with Almodóvar: "We love each other. That's it." Then he thinks for a moment. "We keep it fresh because we believe we don't have to reproduce the things that put us together. Some people want to reproduce the first six months, but that passes. You have to recognise that something new is coming. Because we both were coming from failed relationships we learnt and we have a very strong sense of family. I'm not going anywhere."
Banderas has made the most of the professional opportunities available to him and is enjoying the fruits of a full and varied career. He has starred in almost 80 films, including Evita and the two Zorro films; directed his wife in Crazy in Alabama; starred on Broadway in the musical Nine; supplied the voice of Puss in Boots in the Shrek films and in the spin-off Puss in Boots that is due to be released shortly; has another film, He Loves Me, awaiting release after Black Gold; and now works only when he wants to.
"I try to be in harmony with my life," he says. "I don't have any anxiety to get anywhere anymore. At this particular moment in my life I'm content and satisfied with the work that I am doing. And I think when you are content with the things you are doing, it helps you to feel and look good."
Black Gold is scheduled to be released in the UAE on November 24. The Skin I Live In awaits a UAE release date.
The Banderas file
BORN José Antonio Domínguez Banderas, August 10, 1960, Malaga, Spain
SCHOOLING University of Malaga
FAMILY Wife Melanie Griffith, daughter Stella
FIRST JOB Touring Spain with a theatre troupe
CURRENTLY READING Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
LISTENING TO Jazz
WORST FILM Original Sin
SECRET PLEASURE Watching football
CAN'T STAND People without a sense of humour
The Skin I Live In is the sixth film in which Antonio Banderas has been directed by Pedro Almodóvar. The previous five were:
LABYRINTH OF PASSION (1982) Banderas is fifth-billed in this screwball comedy - the actor's first film and Almodóvar's second - about a nymphomaniac pop star who falls in love with a gay Middle Eastern prince.
MATADOR (1986) Banderas stars as a student matador who confesses to murders he didn't commit in a stylish comedy about sex, death and religion. Almodóvar considers this one of his weakest films.
LAW OF DESIRE (1987) Almodóvar's first explicitly gay film focuses on a complex love triangle between three men. Reviewers liked the film's energy and passion.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988) This wickedly funny black comedy full of zany characters, dark humour and convoluted plot twists earned many film nominations and awards and catapulted the director to international attention.
TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! (1990) This dark romantic comedy about a recently released psychiatric patient who kidnaps a porn star in order to make her fall in love with him was a big hit in Spain but was embroiled in controversy in the US, where it led to the new NC-17 rating for films that are explicit but not pornographic.