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Funnier than he looks
Antonio Banderas: Star of Spy Kids doesn't get the whole 'latin lover' thing
Barrett Hooper
National Post
Antonio Banderas and Spy Kids 2 director Robert Rodriguez. This is the fourth picture they have collaborated on. The fifth is due in the spring.
Antonio Banderas with Spy Kids co-star Carla Gugino: Family values drew him to the picture.: (Photo ran in all editions except Toronto.)

Antonio Banderas has never seen the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Chris Kattan impersonates him, playing the star as the preening host of his own talk show. "Welcome to the -- how you say? ah, yes -- show," Kattan purrs in a thick Spanish accent, flipping a dark lock over his shoulder and staring seductively into the camera.

But it's a safe bet the Mambo King would appreciate the jabs at his smouldering Latin lover image. Some of the funniest moments -- for adults, anyway -- in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams show Banderas in a decidedly unsuave light.

As Gregorio, the father of a pair of junior supersleuths in the just-released adventure, his slick-haired, pencil-mustached composure takes a beating, literally and figuratively.

One particularly hilarious scene has Banderas and co-star Mike Judge squaring off in one of the lamest fistfights since Laverne threw down on Shirley in a sitcom slapfest.

"Antonio is the perfect combination of clown and great romantic hero," says Holland Taylor, who plays his mother-in-law in the film.

"It's fun to hear audiences react to this side of Antonio," says Spy Kids writer-director Robert Rodriguez, who revelled in the opportunity to ruffle the star's peacock feathers. "Everybody thinks of him as this debonair, do-no-wrong ladies man with the sexy accent, and then they see him acting wacky. I know him and he's like that already and I wanted to show a bit of that."

While he often comes across as quite humourless, Banderas says he enjoys being able to laugh at himself. "I love to tell in some way the message, which is 'Don't take it so seriously.' I never ever forget in my life that the product that we do costs $7," says Banderas, who just stepped off a flight from Buenos Aires, where he was filming the romance Imagining Argentina opposite Emma Thompson. "That doesn't mean that I don't respect the movies. But I recognize myself much more as a comedian, as a working actor who loves to be eclectic."

Eclectic easily describes the Antonio Banderas audiences will see in coming months. His next project is the Brian De Palma thriller Femme Fatale, which will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. That will be followed by the spy versus spy actioner Ecks v. Sever with Lucy Liu, and a supporting role in Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic starring Banderas' Desperado co-star Salma Hayek.

Banderas is also reteaming with Rodriguez for the third in the Sergio Leone-inspired El Mariachi-Desperado series, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, due out next spring. And he will go into rehearsals in January on the Broadway revival of the musical Nine in which he will play an Italian movie director in a midlife crisis, Banderas' "dream role" originated by Raul Julia 20 years ago.

All serious performances.

Indeed, the opportunities for Banderas to let his hair down and indulge his inner Desi have been few and far between. Since making his Hollywood debut in 1992's Mambo Kings -- and despite being an acclaimed actor in his native Spain thanks to such films as Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! -- Banderas has found himself typecast as a cat-eyed Don Juan both on- and off-screen.

He swept Catherine Zeta-Jones off her feet in The Mask of Zorro, yearned for Madonna in Evita and was spurned by Angelina Jolie in Original Sin. He also charmed Melanie Griffith away from on-again, off-again husband Don Johnson in real life. The couple were married in 1996.

"I kind of understood the Latin lover thing. It's very difficult to get away from that," he says. "I don't know what a Latin lover is anyway. I am Latin. And I am a lover -- a lover of my wife." A statement that seems to put to rest recent tabloid rumours the couple were splitting up.

It is the strong sense of family values forming the spine of Spy Kids that drew Banderas back in front of the cameras for more outlandish adventures. The sequel sees Banderas' and on-screen wife Carla Gugino's children set off on their first solo mission, and it has Banderas worried his kids no longer need him, that they no longer look up to him as a hero.

"Robert Rodriguez's main passion is about two things in life: movies and family. And he had the opportunity to put the two together in these adventures," says Banderas.

In the film, Banderas must deal with interfering in-laws, played by Holland and Ricardo Montalban, whom Banderas calls a legend and a role model.

Banderas' own mother-in-law is actress and animal rights activist Tippi Hedren, which results in a whole new set of in-law problems to deal with. "She has 72 lions in her ranch. This is true. And she has an elephant and she has snakes. So as you may imagine, my relationship with my mother-in-law is not as usual as it normally would be," he says with a pearly smile. "Normally, mothers-in-law would have a little doggie. But she is a very special woman and I love her."

Banderas, who turns 42 on Saturday, looks more like a castaway than a latin Lothario. He's wearing a white cotton shirt open at the neck, his hair is short and greasy and his beard is flecked with grey. And while he hasn't slept in 35 hours, his brown eyes are clear and sharp and they light up when he talks about his own kids.

Banderas says he often sees whole days slip away as he writes songs for his family in his home recording studio. He plays piano and guitar and has composed "so much material you could put together 20 CDs if you want. When I did Evita I got a bunch of people telling me, 'You must make a record,' but they want to put me in a suit and make me look like Luis Miguel. And I don't see myself like that. I am more of a rock 'n' roll guy. I am not interested in making money with singing. I enjoy it too much to have somebody tell me how to do it."

His love of music also informs his portrayal of the gunslinging guitar player in the El Mariachi revenge trilogy.

"We are not doing serious violence. Serious violence is Martin Scorsese, it's Francis Ford Coppola, where you find the head of a horse in the bed of a gangster. That is serious. This is an opera, this is Spanish," he says, comparing the character's movements and presence to a bullfighter or a flamenco dancer.

"He's a very sad character, very romantic. He lives alone in a big mansion that was totally destroyed, and the only relationships he has are with these guitar makers. He plays a lot of very soulful ballads. And then he goes after the man who killed his wife."

Spy Kids 2 and Once Upon a Time mark the fourth and fifth collaborations between Banderas and Rodriguez. "I love working with him, and I am not even thinking career-wise," Banderas says. "In fact, I don't really give a damn about my career. Anything he calls me to do I will do, no question."

© Copyright  2002 National Post

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