An estimated one billion TV and online viewers watched the dramatic rescue in October 2010 of 33 miners who had been trapped 700 metres underground for over two months in a mine in northern Chile.
Among those captivated by the rescue was the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who watched the events unfold with his teenage daughter Stella in Los Angeles.
“I remember feeling emotional the day the miners were coming out,” Banderas, 55, recalls in New York, his thickly accented voice suffused with feeling. “Not just because of them, but because I knew many millions of people like me were watching television with one idea in their minds – the supreme value of life.
"In a way we were all coming out of the mine. I thought somebody is going to make a movie out of this… this has a more Hollywood ending than any Hollywood movie.”
So it has come to pass with The 33, a film that faithfully re-creates the 2010 Chilean mining disaster. Banderas has the lead role playing Mario Sepúlveda, the trapped miners’ unofficial leader, who produced daily video logs to let the world know they were alive.
“In the beginning I thought what anybody would have thought – we know the beginning of the movie and we know the end,” he says of his decision to star in The 33, which also stars Gabriel Byrne and Juliette Binoche. “Then I discovered that these light female forces [the miners’ families] outside the mine were digging down as well as those masculine guys who were inside digging out. You start understanding the movie is actually an ode to life itself.”
Banderas began his life in Malaga, southern Spain, and pursued acting after his dreams of becoming a professional footballer were cut short by a knee injury. Since leaving Spain for Los Angeles in the early Nineties, after acclaimed performances in a series of Pedro Almodóvar films, his career has defied categorisation.
Banderas’s film choices have ranged from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado to Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and from Shrek 2 to The Expendables 3. (Aside from the collaborations with Almodóvar and twice playing Zorro, the only thread in Banderas’s career seems to be an inclination to appear in underwhelming films directed by British theatre luminaries: Christopher Hampton’s Imagining Argentina, Richard Eyre’s The Other Man and Peter Hall’s Never Talk to Strangers.
Banderas befriended his real-life 33 character Mario, though the pair had a strange meeting during the filming of the climactic rescue scene. Real-life miners played extras and Banderas recalls: “In the first take, I jumped over the extras and Mario was in front of me. It was a very surreal experience to find the character you’re playing right there.”
Is it really necessary, given YouTube and what is proving to be a golden age for documentaries, for a feature film to recount such a widely shared global spectacle? “They can be complementary,” replies Banderas. “I watched Titanic and then saw six documentaries about the ship. I was curious and knew the ending!”
The resilience of the miners reminded Banderas of people he had met in his off-screen philanthropic endeavours. “I have seen that spirit travelling with Unicef in war situations,” he says. “I was in Somalia and saw that in the eyes of many people I met there – invisible heroes who were with international organisations, soldiers on peace missions for the UN. Many people with that drive get so used to [those environments] that they cannot live in normal societies. They have to go back to that kind of situation in order to feel life.”
Banderas and the cast certainly felt life while filming The 33, in mines in Columbia and in Chile, two miles from where the earthquake occurred. They filmed 14-hour days in the mines over six weeks, in freezing conditions, while having to act as though experiencing the sweltering humidity the Chilean miners had faced underground. Banderas lost weight to mirror his character’s deteriorating physical condition.
That wasn’t the worst of it. “For me the most physically demanding part was being in one of the mines [in Colombia],” Banderas says. “It was a very toxic mine with a lot of methane gas that leaves a metallic feeling in your mouth for days. We were also operating heavy trucks and machinery that produced a lot of carbon monoxide that we were breathing, and dirt and rocks were falling on top of our heads.”
Even during breaks from shooting, they were staying in a small motel with no hot water. “At 5am, we were at the hotel listening to people screaming,” says Banderas. “It was like a horror movie.” He wouldn’t have had it any other way: “It brings an incredible realism to the entire story that we were tired, cold and dirty beyond belief… two months after we finished the movie, I was still getting dirt out of my ears.”
The toughest scene to film for Banderas was when Mario found himself temporarily ostracised from his trapped colleagues, after they found out from a newspaper that he had secretly negotiated a book deal. Banderas says he was drawn to the film because of its commentary on fame. “The story is about survival,” he says, “but the other [aspect] is about surviving being a celebrity.
The moment in which the group is in danger of exploding in pieces is when they realise they are famous all around the world. The Pope is sending telegrams, Obama is sending telegrams and a red carpet surrounds them with book deals and politicians wanting pictures. He pays a price – he becomes an individualist person – and he has to ask for forgiveness in order to come out with his dignity.”
Since their rescue, the Chilean miners have coped with the limelight with mixed fortunes. (Nine of the 33 announced in November that they are suing their lawyers, whom they suspect of cheating them out of their earning rights. “This group of men is still really hurt,” says Patricia Riggen, the director. “Their wound is open and very raw… some would love to go back into the mines but they are unemployed and nobody will hire them because they are famous.”)
Banderas’s 18-year marriage with the actress Melanie Griffith ended in 2014, and he is now in a relationship with the Dutch financier Nicole Kimpel. The pair spend much of their time in London and Banderas recently studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins college with a view to launching his own fashion line. In his next film, 33 Días, he plays Pablo Picasso alongside Gwyneth Paltrow as Dora Maar.
He is keen to direct again (he previously made two low-profile films, one of which featured Griffith) and he also wants to make an eighth film with Almodovar. “Pedro is a director I say yes to with my eyes closed,” he says.
Meanwhile, Riggen notes that her leading man, as well as showing the way in upholding the human spirit, gets ample opportunity to display his well-toned human body. “We didn’t do any prosthetic work on Antonio, unlike other actors,” she says. “He’s a stunning-looking man and the fact we have the luxury of him with no shirt on is a great thing for viewers!”
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