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Banderas: Valentino for the 1990s? : Spanish Actor, Set for ‘Desperado,’ Steals U.S. Hearts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I am sorry I am so late,” Antonio Banderas apologizes with hand-wringing sincerity as he clomps into a Culver City photographer’s studio.

It’s one of those blazing summer mornings when everything not air-conditioned wilts before noon. But Banderas--slumming in brown-leather clogs, jeans and what is probably a hideously expensive faux gas-station-attendant’s shirt--looks almost insultingly dapper and composed. At least he’s late.

Banderas is here to get his picture taken for the cover of GQ. And unless a costume-change is in the offing, the 35-year-old Spanish actor, best known for roles in “Philadelphia,” “Interview With the Vampire” and as the star of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s critically lauded movies, will go before the camera sporting the sort of tousled smolder that makes every other man in the studio feel like Don Knotts.

Lately, the flower of American womanhood seems to have spontaneously clasped Banderas’ handsome head to its breast. (“Not handsome,” corrects one of their number, “hot.” ) Playing homosexuals in Almodovar’s movies and in “Philadelphia” (he portrayed Tom Hanks’ lover) has given Banderas a considerable gay following as well.

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Banderas’ latest movie, “Desperado,” directed by film festival darling Robert Rodriguez, is a hyper-violent Western parody in which the actor plays a revenge-seeking troubadour. The movie, which opens Friday, could bring Banderas a step closer to bona fide American movie stardom. Later this fall he will appear with Sylvester Stallone in “Assassins,” with Rebecca De Mornay in “Never Talk to Strangers” and, next year, with Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah in “Two Much.”

Meanwhile, Banderas is a bit wide-eyed from the scorching publicity he’s received since separating from his wife of eight years, Spanish actress Ana Leza, and taking up with Griffith. Hounded by paparazzi on land and water during a recent vacation to Madrid, the couple has been buzzed by camcorder-toting citizens on the freeways of Los Angeles angling for footage to sell to “Hard Copy.” (Banderas dispatched one carload of rubber-neckers by flooring Griffith’s Porsche.)

The tabloid coverage has inevitably portrayed Griffith as a home-wrecker and Banderas as a lout. Neither, Banderas says, is true.

“We are trying to do things in the best way possible, with integrity and dignity and honesty,” he says with a sigh, lighting a Camel and shaking his head. “There is not a connection between the breaking up of my marriage and my relationship with Melanie. The people are saying I was unfaithful, that I went with a celebrity and things like that, which are not true.

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“My own press, in Spain, they make comments like: ‘Melanie and Antonio, Stop It!’ For me, fine, I would stop right now. . . . But there is nothing, nothing, nothing possible you can do. I can accept any kind of review, criticism, because you learn from that. But these kinds of articles that say you are a pimp , it’s something I don’t understand.”

Banderas taps his cigarette ash into a cup. Surely he must have known the press would hardly ignore his involvement with Griffith, whose vacillating marriage to Don Johnson, whom she recently divorced for the second time, has lit up the tabloids for years.

“We thought something was going to happen, but not this big,” he says ruefully. “In terms of making a scale, we thought 5 and it’s 100.” He shrugs, then adds in his heavily inflected English: “Probably is a storm that will pass as soon as they get bored.”

For what it’s worth, Banderas and Griffith, who has accompanied him to the photo studio but declines to be interviewed, exude the ditsy solicitousness seen in freshly minted couples shopping for their first hide-a-bed at Conrans. He impulsively nuzzles her and plants a kiss. She dotes on him, nipping into the interview to see that he is properly fed and watered. “Honey,” she coos at one point, “can I make you a bagel with cream cheese on it?”

The media storm over Banderas and Griffith comes at a time when Banderas, who has made an astonishing 43 movies, is being heralded as a Latin lover incarnate, a Valentino for the ‘90s. He’s being considered for the lead in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “Zorro,” and would like to produce, direct and star in a movie version of Zorrilla y Moral’s classic “Don Juan Tenorio.” The hot-blooded image fits him like a suit of lights, and Banderas, though charmingly self-deprecating about his looks, knows it.

“I don’t push that idea, of the Latin lover,” he says. “I accept it. It doesn’t worry me. I mean, it is only a question of time that I will be getting older and probably lose my hair.”

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Banderas was born and raised in Malaga, on Spain’s southern coast. His father was a policeman, his mother a teacher. He recalls clearly, during the grim years in Franco’s postwar Spain, sitting transfixed before the family’s black-and-white TV watching hours of Spanish-dubbed Hollywood classics.

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“I was always fanatic about American movies--I love George Cukor, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder. Seeing Americans using washing machines in the ‘40s--the first washing machine my mother bought was in 1970-something. It was like a dream of a faraway world.”

Banderas would eventually enroll in Malaga’s School of Dramatic Art and perform with the city’s independent theater company. By 21, he had decamped for Madrid and was working in television and theater when Pedro Almodovar tapped him in 1982 for the director’s “Labyrinth of Passion.” Banderas became one of Almodovar’s utility players, appearing in 1987’s “The Law of Desire,” 1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and 1990’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” sometimes playing gay characters.

“ ‘Law of Desire,’ it was a tough movie,” Banderas says. “In Spain, it was something completely new, touching all the taboos: homosexuality, drugs, change of sex. Everything was put into the movie and people accepted it--it was huge box office in Spain.”

Now that Banderas has, along with Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” made it nominally feasible for straight actors to portray gays in mainstream American movies, he patiently reiterates the position he’s held on the subject since his early Almodovar films.

“It would have been surprising for me if the producers and actors said to me, ‘Hey, Antonio, we cannot count on you because the image you have in the public eye is that you are homosexual.’ I wouldn’t have been proud of my profession as an actor if someone comes to me and says these kind of stupid things. I’m an actor and was playing a homosexual and did it as honestly as I could.”

While the Almodovar movies made Banderas a hit with American art-house audiences, his first taste of Hollywood came when director Arne Glimcher cast him opposite Armand Assante in 1992’s “The Mambo Kings.” At the time, Banderas spoke almost no English. (Tutoring has since given him a remarkable grasp of the language. Asked to comment on director Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s passion for American pop culture, Banderas responded: “Yeah, they surf the same wave.”)

“I came here because [Glimcher] trusted me,” says a still-grateful Banderas. “He took the risk. And from that movie, Jonathan Demme calls me and it’s impossible to say no to a name like Jonathan Demme. And then--boom.”

For now, Banderas, flush with the unprecedented acceptance of a Spanish actor by American audiences, is attempting to serve two very different masters: the Hollywood mainstream and the art-film world he came from. Even as he contemplates “Zorro,” he’s been cast as Che in the long-delayed movie version of “Evita,” to be directed by Alan Parker. (His co-star is none other than Madonna, whose unsuccessful attempts to woo the still-married Banderas were immortalized in her 1991 tour documentary “Truth or Dare.”)

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“I love musicals,” says Banderas, who plays guitar and piano, and sings in “Desperado” (a video of one song, featuring Banderas, is airing on MTV). “I remember in 1975, when I didn’t have a penny, putting money together to buy the record of ‘Evita.’ ”

Meanwhile, his plans for “Don Juan Tenorio” would send a Hollywood studio’s marketing department into apoplexy. “I’ve always dreamed of doing the classic version, in Spanish, with a Spanish crew, the whole thing in verse,” he says. “The British, they put Shakespeare, their ancient culture, up there on the screen. Spain never did that, and I would like us to bite the cake and see if it is possible.”

His presently tumultuous personal life aside, Banderas seems to have the balance of his professional priorities well in hand.

“I don’t feel freaked out,” he says of his sudden high profile. “I don’t feel fear. I’ve been in this profession 20 years. . . . I believe exactly when they say to me ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ That’s where I want to focus all my energy, in that moment. That’s what I’m looking for my whole life.”


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