NO NEED TO UNMASK ANTONIO BANDERAS

Ron Dicker

Sunday, October 23, 2005

 
Antonion Banderas doing what Zorro does best in "The Lege... Antonio Banderas and his wife, Melanie Griffith, at the L...
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Beverly Hills -- On the kind of a cool, clear day that passes for autumn in these parts, Antonio Banderas gazes out 12 floors above Doheny Drive toward the site of his latest milestone. His name was about to be enshrined on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he reflected on the path that's taken him there.

It has not, he admits, been paved with hit after hit.

Lean and sprightly at 45, he wears a denim shirt, jeans and the short bangs that seem to be in favor among actors young enough to call him mister. What has kept Banderas vigorous has been his ability to overcome the stinkers.

The successes, like "Desperado," "The Mask of Zorro" and the "Spy Kids" series, are the easy part. The Zorro sequel, "The Legend of Zorro," may join the titles in the winners column. After all, it comes with an apparent built-in audience after the 1998 "Zorro" made more than $250 million worldwide and made the Spanish actor famous in America.

But resume blots such as "Imagining Argentina," "The 13th Warrior" and "Original Sin" show Banderas' true mettle.

The philosophical actor says he embraces his flops to illuminate the imperfection in all of us. Even though his directorial debut, "Crazy in Alabama," received the back hand of critics, Banderas remains proud.

"It's my baby," he says. "If I have a baby that's retarded, I'm going to love it, even more, probably."

Twenty minutes with Banderas is like a yoga session. One emerges on the sunny side, no matter what.

"The first thing that every actor would like to do is 'Titanic,' so you can be set for life. Then you can do all the independent movies you want," he says. "But it doesn't work that way. Film is a complex art and an inexact science."

Despite the vagaries of fortune, Banderas has lived his unique version of the American dream. He grew up in Spain under a dictatorship, made a name for himself in arty sex comedies for director Pedro Almodovar, moved to the United States to become an action hero and married an American movie star, Melanie Griffith.

That story still has chapters to come. Banderas is set to direct a movie in his hometown of Malaga. The coming-of-age "El Camino de los Ingleses" ("The Way of the English") has a reported budget of $5 million and involves mostly unknowns. Banderas says he wants to give back to his country "because I need to. ... I felt a little bit guilty and I felt duty, which is a good duty," he says. "Now that I'm doing it, I'm enjoying it very much."

He and Almodovar have discussed a reunion on the sci-fi thriller "Tarantula," but the script still needs tweaking.

Banderas is busy anyway. After receiving a Tony nomination in 2003 for the musical "Nine," he is pondering a return to theater in an adaptation of the 1995 film "Don Juan DeMarco," in which the lead character believes he is the world's greatest lover.

"Broadway is not about money," Banderas says. "It's about performing. I love that possibility of independence. I have to use it. Money was an issue when I didn't have it. Now that I do, the good thing is I don't have to think about it. The rest of my life has to be focusing on what I love."

On the film front, he plays a dance mentor for New York City public school students in the forthcoming "Take the Lead" and co-stars with Jennifer Lopez in the indie mystery "Bordertown." He also has been recording voice tracks for his popular feline character Puss in Boots in "Shrek 3." There is talk of a Puss spin-off, too.

Asked if he is concerned that his potency as a film actor will ebb anytime soon, he answers, "I would be very worried if I were a woman."

The issue hits home for Banderas, who has watched his wife of nine years, who is 48, fall from the top of the marquee in the '80s and early '90s to not receiving calls from the studios.

"She accepts anything that life throws at her," says Banderas, who has a 9-year-old daughter, Stella, with Griffith, and has helped raise her children from previous marriages to Don Johnson and Steven Bauer. "She's way stronger than people think she is. Is it painful for her? Yes, of course it is."

On the flip side, his "Legend" co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones, 36, has graduated from relatively unknown eye candy in the first "Zorro" to a full-blown A-lister. DVD sales of the 1998 film and her popularity helped spark the follow-up. (But one producer, Lloyd Phillips, remarked, "It's not called 'The Legend of Zorrette.' ")

Banderas says he'll take his 19th century masked swordsman over the glut of gadget-enhanced superheroes. He adores Zorro's common touches: He's goofy, an occasional drunk, a potential cuckold in this edition, and he's a little loco. "You don't have to have this suspension of disbelief with Antonio," director Martin Campbell said. "He is Zorro."

This time around, Zorro takes on a freshly arrived Frenchman (Rufus Sewell) whose promise of employment at his winery coincides with the birth of California as the 31st state. But Frenchy has a more sinister agenda, including designs on Zorro's wife (Zeta-Jones). Zorro and his family, which now includes a 10-year-old son, must reassess why they got into the justice-seeking business in the first place.

Such a crisis of conscience has never plagued Banderas in his line of work. He likes to act -- for himself and for anybody buying a ticket. That he would someday earn a star on Hollywood Boulevard for doing it is a blessed by-product.

"I'm not surprised," he says, again philosophically. "But I see people who are."


"The Legend of Zorro" (PG) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

Ron Dicker is a freelance writer.

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