The cat that got the cream

Antonio Banderas makes a fabulous animated Puss in Boots in Shrek 2. But, he tells Sholto Byrnes, he's a man who's very happy in his own skin
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The Independent Culture

The first thing you notice about Antonio Banderas is his eyes. Unfeasibly large and soft, they seem to travel into the room before him, leading a surprisingly slight frame in their wake. When transfixed by their gaze one can understand why it was once said of Banderas that half the world wants to be him and the other half wants to sleep with him.

The first thing you notice about Antonio Banderas is his eyes. Unfeasibly large and soft, they seem to travel into the room before him, leading a surprisingly slight frame in their wake. When transfixed by their gaze one can understand why it was once said of Banderas that half the world wants to be him and the other half wants to sleep with him.

The eyes have it, too, in Shrek 2, the film he is here to promote, in which he plays Puss in Boots. His character, an animated hitman hired to rub out Shrek, is laid low by an attack of hairballs and, after being spared by his intended victim, wields his cutlass in the service of the amiable ogre instead. Puss steals the movie with a mickey-take of Banderas's heroic swordplay in The Mask of Zorro; and when the actor enters the suite at the Dorchester Hotel for our interview, the inspiration for the winsome, beseeching kitty look which Puss affects in the film is obvious.

Banderas, of course, doesn't actually appear himself. It was not his fabled good looks that won him the part, but his voice. He has come a long way since he first arrived in America from Spain in 1992; at that time his command of English was almost non-existent. "My English wasn't. It just wasn't," he agrees, lighting up a cigarette and stretching his casually dressed limbs across an overstuffed sofa. "It was a shocking thing, actually."

Approached by an agent in Los Angeles when Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was nominated for an Oscar, Banderas then went to London to meet Arne Glimcher, the director of The Mambo Kings. "I came speaking not a word of English. I learnt two lines - 'of course, of course, of course' and 'I can do that'. And the second one worked. I got the part."

The film may not have done well at the box office, but Banderas performed creditably (especially considering he had to learn the lines phonetically), and within a few years the Spanish actor known, if at all, outside his country for his five films with Almodovar, was a Hollywood leading man, married to Melanie Griffith, and drooled over by the likes of Madonna, who admitted her desire for him in Truth or Dare.

Next year he will receive one of tinseltown's ultimate accolades - a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. "It's going to be very interesting, being stepped on by everybody," he jokes. Did he know that Donald Duck is getting one at the same time? "Oh my god," he replies, "he's my favourite American actor."

For all the trappings of film-industry success, Banderas remains very unstarry, and is modest and eager to please to a startling degree. During our half hour together he doesn't take umbrage at any question, and is ready to hold forth in his agreeable tones about any subject that comes up. Not every heartthrob, after all, might be happy to answer questions about his sexuality. Having played gay men in several films, including Tom Hanks' lover in Philadelphia, had he ever been asked if he was gay? "Yes." Did he mind? "No. I just answered the truth: I never had a homosexual experience in my life. I really love women. But I'm totally supportive of the gay community, all the way through."

At this point he expands on the strange mores of middle America. "When I did Law of Desire people were fine that my character was a criminal, but when he kissed another man on screen, and we were in bed together, that was - ohhhh!" At least that's pretty much what Banderas says. His heavily accented English makes perfect sense when accompanied by constant hand gestures - a favourite is to lean forward and place his index finger the length of his nose, emphasising those eyes even more - but a literal transcript of his conversation makes quite startling reading. His next sentence about Law of Desire, for instance, is worthy of John Prescott. "To kill another man was totally accepted, but if he kisses another man, that is, in terms of morality, that's a cliff that no people may, er, safe, and they fall in there you know." But just as with our own Deputy Prime Minister, you do know what he means.

Years in Los Angeles, which is caricatured as the land of Far Away in Shrek, have not endeared the city to him. "We moved to California because Melanie came with two kids by two different fathers [her former husbands Don Johnson and Steven Bauer], and they go to school in LA so we didn't have an option. But it's not my style of life. There's such a big ceremony of cars, people even work in them.

"I prefer a city where I can walk to a restaurant or a theatre. I prefer New York, for me it's a more European city, more real, more human. People scream at you in the street - and that's fine. Also, my parents are old now, so I would prefer to be in a place that is closer to Spain. So we are searching for an apartment in New York."

Banderas grew up in Malaga, where his mother was a school teacher and his father was a member of Franco's secret police. His father's job sounds extraordinary, I say. "Yes, he was in the secret police," Banderas replies, "but not in the social brigade, which was the Gestapo of Spain. My father worked in Customs with Morocco, nothing to do with the hard aspect" - he smacks a fist into his palm - "of the regime. In fact he voted socialist the moment the party was legalised."

In his teens, Banderas formed a theatrical group, Dintel, with friends in Malaga whom he has remained close to ever since. He is now in negotiations with the regional government of Andalucia to open a theatre complex with some of the same friends, a project embracing education for children and masterclasses by Hollywood actors. "I'll use the power of my name to bring in private investors so that we can be independent, and do as much quality work as we can." Quality is not a word that has always been associated with his cinematic oeuvre - how many can remember Never Talk to Strangers with Rebecca De Mornay, for instance - but he views the duff roles as having helped him up the ladder to the point where he now has more artistic freedom.

It was also in his teens that he saw a film that has influenced his relationships with women. Married firstly to a Spanish actress, Ana Leza, Banderas met Melanie Griffith on the set of Two Much in 1996. Their affair, even though they were both married, was not so out of the ordinary in the film business. But the fact that the two are now married to each other (they have a seven- year-old daughter, Stella) and remain so, despite Griffith's battles with addiction and jealousy, has provoked comment. At its most blunt, the question seems to be: why is one of the most handsome actors in the world still with an older woman who often looks, frankly, pretty ropy? Why isn't he taking his pick of the gorgeous young things who would drop at his feet at the snap of his fingers?

"Actually, since I was very, very young, I've liked older women," he says. "Not because I'm looking for a mother or anything like that. I just find them interesting. When I was 15 I saw a film called 40 Carats, which is about the relationship between a younger man and an older woman. There's a scene where she says 'I'm 40 and you're 20'. And he replies: 'You don't have years, you have carats, like a diamond. When you're getting older, you're getting better.' I thought it was beautiful." He doesn't mind the process of ageing? "I don't have a problem with that, not just with Melanie but also with myself. If I get older and have a big tummy or go bald, my perspective is - fine. You're welcome."

So is it true that he forbade his wife from having plastic surgery? "Forbade?" he laughs. "It's not exactly that, although she hasn't had any done since I've been with her, unless she's gone secretly and didn't show me. What I said to her was that getting old is a good thing, a natural thing, and we should respect it. I really don't care if she gets a wrinkle. I'm not that type of guy."

Griffith is in fact only two years older than Banderas. But while he may talk of losing his hair and gaining a paunch, the prospect seems so far off for the 43-year-old actor that one can't help thinking that it is very easy for him to say. Perhaps sensing that, he adds: "I'm getting embarrassed now because it sounds like the model syndrome. You know, you meet a model and you say 'you're beautiful' and they say, 'yes, but I'm studying biology and I am a very interesting person inside too you know'."

Whatever the rumours about occasional bumps in their marriage, he speaks with great warmth of his wife, whom he first saw in the flesh at the Academy Awards in 1989. "I turned to Pedro Almodovar and said 'wow, that girl is awesome'." She didn't notice him, though. "No, not at all. I was nobody - I was not to be seen." When they first met he was so tongue-tied that he opened the conversation by asking her age. That's hardly polite, I say. Why on earth did he do that? "I was nervous," he says. "She was very pretty and it was uncontrollable - stupid." What was her reply? "She said 'oh, great question'." But she managed to forgive him? "She did, obviously," he smiles, reminiscing about the time she turned up on the set of Two Much. "I remember looking at her through the curtains of my trailer and going 'oh yes, she's got good legs!'"

There is the prospect of a reunion with Almodovar, who is planning a film adaptation of the French novel Tarantula, a story in which a plastic surgeon kidnaps a man who raped his daughter, forcibly gives him a sex change, and then falls in love with him (by now her). It sounds very bizarre, I say. "It is. But, man, we are in bizarre hands, too! If someone else explained the same story to me I'd say that they were crazy. But in Pedro Almodovar I trust." After the next Zorro film Banderas will return to Broadway in another musical (he made his debut in Nine last year), Death Takes a Holiday; and he has bought the film rights to El Camino de los Ingleses, "a story about some friends growing up in Malaga at the same time that the country was growing from dictatorship to democracy. It's pretty much my own experience of the time."

One senses that such projects are much closer to Banderas's heart than Hollywood blockbusters. This is a man who, to play the part of a Cuban trumpeter convincingly in The Mambo Kings, learnt the exact hand position on the trumpet valves for every note his character performed on screen. He may have earnt himself a star on the LA sidewalk, but it is the detail of the theatre in Malaga that animates him most in conversation. "I think mine is a good perspective on life," he says.

I'd tend to agree.