They like each other. They really, really like each other. Or else they're faking it expertly.
No, we're actually inclined to believe that the repartee between Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones is a significant reason the 1998 film "The Mask of Zorro" caught fire as it did. It's certainly a key explanation why, seven years later, director Martin Campbell and executive producer Steven Spielberg reunited the pair to swashbuckle their way through early California in the sequel, "The Legend of Zorro." The film opens Friday.
"I remember standing Catherine next to Antonio and I thought, 'I don't even need to look at the screen tests. I know exactly,' and, as it turned out, they just work extremely well together," recalls Campbell, who picked a then-unknown Zeta-Jones from four finalists for the role of Zorro's love interest, Elena.
"Legend" picks up several years after the end of "Mask." Alejandro de la Vega aka Zorro (Banderas) and Elena (Zeta-Jones) are married and the parents of a school-age son (played by newcomer Adrian Alonso). But with de la Vega waffling on his pledge to retire from Zorroing once California achieves statehood, Elena kicks him out and initiates divorce proceedings. A sinister new plot hatched by bad guys, meanwhile, calls Zorro back to action.
In a Beverly Hills hotel suite, Banderas, 45, was reassuring his leading lady, who was experiencing a bit of trepidation over hosting "Saturday Night Live," which aired Saturday. "It's nerve-racking, I must say," says Zeta-Jones, 36. "I'm probably going to have to do my opening monologue in a chicken outfit or something."
Q: Regarding your upcoming film, do sword-fighting and horseback-riding muscles atrophy after seven years?
Banderas: I discovered practically the first day of the rehearsal that I was seven years older. I said, "I did this very easy when I did the first one. Why is it taking me now so much time to learn the routines?" All the other aspects (were) just recognition, recognition of something we did before, recognition of the character and taking him to different places. The fact that (Zeta-Jones) was there was great.
Zeta-Jones: It's kind of like having a baby. As soon as they wrap, the pain goes away. You forget all about it. "What pain?" They put in much more action this time, and I'm doing all this stuff in a corset and two petticoats and not just as you see it on screen, once, but from so many different angles. Up, down, in, out. Like Antonio said, we're all getting older.
Q: What's more complicated: fighting in a floor-length dress or with a swirling cape?
Zeta-Jones: On some of the tighter shots, I used to pin the dress up so I could move faster because Martin Campbell is crazy. It has to be 115 miles per hour. It can't be 100. And Antonio could hardly see. His vision was blocked.
Banderas: I'll tell you something. Zorro in real life would last presumably 15 seconds confronting anybody who has a sword. I took a couple of big falls just running with the box at the beginning of the movie.
Because of the scabbard going through your legs while you're running 100 miles per hour. I took a fall, and I got so pissed that I took the box and I threw it on the ground, and I did it so bad that I hit my own foot.
Q: Any amusing injuries or mishaps for Elena?
Zeta-Jones: I didn't have to do half as much as what Antonio had to do. Some scratches, some broken nails. But I kicked Rufus Sewell so bad in the nose. We were on the train, and I was supposed to do a stunt kick that passes close. I got him right under his nose, and there was a lot of blood. I felt so bad.
Q: Why such a long gap between Zorros?
Banderas: It was the parameters of quality. They wanted to have a script that was right and practically the same people we had the first time. I think it's an exercise of honesty. They could have used the heat from the first one to launch a second movie immediately. I think they went on the right path.
Zeta-Jones: There's also a new generation who weren't even born when we did the first one. Maybe they've seen it on DVD. But to be able to go and get that theater experience, it would be great.
Banderas: The (new) movie doesn't belong to us now. It belongs to the audience, and they have the decision on making a sequel. But if we do (another one), I would love to do two at the same time. Maybe we would expand probably to have 6 1/2 months on two productions. But if they wait another seven years, I'm going to be like Anthony Hopkins with the whip and the cigar.
Zeta-Jones: The corset's going to be half undone because they can't do it up. "Get out of here, Zorro!"
Q: What do you remember about your lives eight years ago as "Zorro" was getting under way?
Zeta-Jones: I remember not having a place to live. I came over to the United States to give it a go, got a TV series, and Steven Spielberg saw me in it and asked me to screen test. I went down to Mexico, and I thought, "If I don't get the job, I'll rent an apartment." I was walking through Mexico City completely anonymous, nobody knew me. I just remember feeling, "Oh, this is great." I said to Anthony Hopkins, "Can I ask you something, Tony?" He had directed me in a play years ago. "How did two people from Wales get to Mexico to play two Spaniards?" He said, "I was wondering that myself. I don't know."
Banderas: I was totally into fatherhood. My baby (daughter Stella with Melanie Griffith) when we started the first "Zorro" was 4 1/2 weeks old. I was feeling a little bit of the heat of "Evita." And now, with the possibility of playing a character who was Spanish, who was not a delinquent and who was a hero. I was the first Spanish actor to play the part. I remember I had to represent my country in a nice way. I still think that.
Q: Speaking of kids, when did yours reach the point where they understand what mom and dad -- both actors -- do for a living? Or have they?
Banderas: My daughter was really worried when I did that boxing movie with Woody Harrelson, "Play It to the Bone." She got to the set and she cried. I was punching Woody, and he was punching me, and they had a lot of makeup with eyes that were closed already and things like that. When she saw that, she lost it. I think a turning point for her was when I did the play "Nine." She loved to watch from the wings, and I'd see these little eyes peeking out. And in that play, I have to cry, put a gun to my head and have all these women kissing me. She totally understood it was pretending.
Zeta-Jones:My son was doing occupations at school. So he came home, and we had to tell him what we do. So Michael said, "Mommy and Daddy make movies." And he said, "No. No you don't. You make pancakes."