Antonio Banderas: Don't call me sexy

Antonio Banderas wants out of his 'Latin lover' reputation. And he's really not a dancer, either, he tells Lesley O'Toole
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The Independent Culture

For a man having the last laugh on many fronts, Antonio Banderas seems not amused this chilly afternoon in Beverly Hills. "I'm still alive, which is enough," he sighs, lighting his cigarette. "Have you watched the news today? We're living in hard times."

Perhaps he missed the day's best snippet: that Stuff magazine readers would rather go camping with Saddam Hussein than Tom Cruise.

"No, I didn't hear that," he says, "but I don't care about being more popular than anybody. Being popular is a pain in the ass. It would be a great gift to have for six months. For your whole life, it's not fun, unless you've an ego the size of this hotel."

Banderas, famously, has a pocket-sized ego and is a delightful man. The only thing outsize about him is his reputation for loyalty and decency, traits he shares with the real-life person he plays in his new film Take The Lead, Pierre Dulaine. Dulaine is the four-times World Exhibition Champion winner featured in the wildly successful documentary Mad Hot Ballroom who has worked tirelessly to introduce ballroom dancing to inner-city New York schools.

"He started with eight kids and now he has 9,000 kids and 34 teachers in the US. And he's talking to other countries about introducing it there too," marvels Banderas.

The ballroom dancing hook should ensure the film gels with Dancing with the Stars devotees on both sides of the Atlantic, though it does not deviate greatly from a familiar Hollywood formula: teen no-hopers find respect thanks to dancing/basketball/football.

And if the film's release looks strategic given that the recent US version of Dancing with the Stars emulated the phenomenal success of its UK counterpart Strictly Come Dancing, it is not. The director, Liz Friedlander, delayed production for more than a year to accommodate Banderas's congested schedule. "There wasn't anyone else I could visualise in the role," she says.

Banderas's performance - empathic, self-assured and very sexy, particularly while tangoing - is responsible for Take the Lead's being more than a coming-of-age story-by-numbers. And as for his gift for acquiring and pulling off talents for his film roles, he downplays his prowess on the dance floor.

"I'm really not a dancer. I'm not a horse-rider or a swordfighter. I'm pretending, trying to make believe for the movie. But the dancing was more difficult than either of those."

That Banderas's film career is more buoyant than ever - even the Zorro sequel clocked $45m (£25.7m) at the US box office - seems as surprising to him as to the nay-sayers who thought he would never make it in Hollywood. "The people were a bit annoyed in Spain that I didn't go back there with my tail among my legs within three years like they predicted. 'Don't go to America. It's too competitive and people will step on your head if they can,' they'd say."

Banderas chats fluidly in English, never stumbling to think of the right word, though frequently employing the wrong one. Yet when he made his first Hollywood film, 1992's The Mambo Kings, he spoke no English bar some Beatles lyrics and had to memorise his dialogue phonetically.

But his Hollywood entrée predates that film. It was Madonna's infamous 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, that introduced Banderas to a new audience unaware of his work in Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

If Madonna made no secret of the fact that she then found Banderas very attractive, millions of thinking women worldwide have coalesced on the subject since. A friend of mine fixated on Banderas in lieu of drugs while in labour with her first child.

No wonder that Banderas has never shaken the "Latin lover" image. He shakes his head, a frown clouding his still strikingly handsome 45-year-old features.

"They call me that all the time and I haven't really played love stories in America, except for maybe Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and the Zorro films. (He neglects to mention 2001's Original Sin, which featured toe-curlingly intimate sex scenes with Angelina Jolie.) I don't even know if I want to analyse this so-called sex-symbol status, except that when I arrived here 16 years ago maybe there was an empty space that nobody had filled before."

Certainly, Banderas was prepared to tackle roles that established movie stars would have shied away from - playing Tom Hanks's lover in 1993's Philadelphia, for example. Hanks's status as a bankable movie star was already cemented, Banderas's was not. His agent almost certainly advised him against it. That agent - if Banderas has the same one - must be less inclined to question his client's choices these days, notably his breakout role in Shrek 2 as Puss in Boots.

"It was fun to be called just for my voice after being here for so long and arriving in America without even speaking the language. But I hate that character. Women used to come up and say, 'Oh Antonio, we loved you in Zorro.' Now they come up and say, 'We love your pussycat.'" Surely the money must have ameliorated any perceived dent he imagines in his screen lothario reputation? "Yes, I'm joking. I love that character."

He tells a revealing story about seeing Shrek 2 for the first time at the Cannes film festival in 2004. "That audience can be really harsh and mean, but at the end they were applauding and I started getting a bit emotional. I was sitting next to Cameron Diaz and she was next to Justin Timberlake. I looked over at Justin and he was getting a little emotional too. So we both held one of Cameron's hands and she was looking at us as if to say, 'What the hell is going on here?'"

Perhaps he was simply misty-eyed at the prospect of what his percentage of profits on the film would earn him. His character was critical to the film's titanic success (it took $436m at the US box office alone). The executive producer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, phoned Banderas to tell him the film's highest per-screen average in the US was in El Paso, Texas, a town overwhelmingly Latino.

Banderas may not hail from Central America, but Latins worldwide have embraced his success and DreamWorks knows it, greenlighting a Puss in Boots spin-off, due in 2008. Banderas will also reprise his role in 2007's Shrek the Third. With Arnold Schwarzenegger's withdrawal from contention, Banderas is Hollywood's most successful accented star.

Given that his first attempt at directing - 1999's Crazy in Alabama, starring his wife Melanie Griffith - was both commercially and critically lacklustre, Banderas might have been forgiven for deciding to slink permanently back to the other side of the camera. But his current project - the Spanish film El Camino de los Ingleses - is as director not actor.

"The title means The Path of the British and the book, which won a Nadal in Spain, like a Pulitzer Prize, was written by a friend. It doesn't have anything to do with England. It's a street in Malaga and it tells the story of four young guys who live in this neighbourhood in 1976 and 1977, a couple of years after Franco died.

"They're discovering life at the time my country was growing up from a dictatorship to a democracy. It relates very much with my own experience. I lived that reality and when I read the book I flipped out and said, 'This is something I have to get my foot in.'"

Since leaving his hometown, Malaga, for Madrid when he was 18, Banderas says he hasn't spent more than two months there. "I spent seven months in pre-production there and during filming. So it wasn't just a trip back to Malaga but a trip back to 1978 for me, too. It's like rewinding, the turning back of time. I used to go to school until I was 15 singing fascist anthems, having to pray the whole rosary every day and parading, military stuff."

He laughs when I ask if there's a role for his wife in it. "Oh no, it's totally an Andalusian story with three young kids [and his Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! co-star Victoria Abril]. It's hard, it's not sweet. Very sexual, very poetic. My two eldest kids can see it [Alexander, 20, and Dakota, 16, stepkids from Griffith's previous marriages] but not Stella [their nine-year-old daughter]."

Given that Banderas has been so vocal about Hollywood's disdain for actresses over 40, I ask his thoughts on raising a "tween" daughter in Los Angeles. "I just try to make her believe in things she doesn't see. She thinks that life is just like the one she has in Beverly Hills and it's not.

"When I got with Melanie we took my stepson and stepdaughter around the world. We took them to shanty towns so they could see kids living a different way. It's really important for me that they don't live in a fictional world. The thought of that scares the shit out of me."

What about the horrendous pressure on even pre-teens to be thin? "I really worry about that. I don't want to say the name of the designer but I went to only my second catwalk show in Los Angeles recently. And I saw these models and they looked sick. I found myself not attracted to any of those girls at all. I like flesh. I do! Something to hold."

Unsurprisingly, then, the family is relocating to Manhattan shortly. "It's good to be a little detached from Hollywood. We have bought a beautiful apartment on Central Park West. It'll be great for Melanie and the kids. And I'll be much closer to my father in Spain. He's very old now. Also, Melanie and I are going to take dance classes with Pierre Dulaine. We both love to dance, so why not?"

If Banderas does have much to celebrate, his proudest achievement is surely his and Griffith's 10th wedding anniversary next month (they married in London on 14 May 1996 while he was filming Evita). Doesn't he ever feel like giving certain doubters the finger? He laughs hard.

"No, no, nothing like that. But I do remember when we got together that people were making bets. It was embarrassing. I won't say the name of the guy but he offered me a bet that we wouldn't last longer than six months. I should have taken the bet. I'd have made a lot of money."

Griffith landed on the cover of the National Enquirer recently, photographed attending an AA meeting and supposedly confessing to a drug relapse. Banderas says that they are both beyond caring. "My wife has been an alcoholic her whole life, or so AA says, and she's been going to meetings for years. They're just trying to make a story. Whatever. She's sponsoring people now. It's just a normal thing."

How will they celebrate their anniversary? "Oh, we're pretty boring. We'll just do something low-key at home. Maybe just a little cake."

A man, indeed, who can have his cake and eat it, too.

'Take the Lead' opens on 14 April