Sunday 20 October 2019

'I hate the notion of HAVING a career'

The Spanish superstar refuses to be typecast – his proudest moment came when 'The Skin I Live In' and 'Puss in Boots' were playing in LA movie theatres at the same time – so that his latest venture involves a boutique animation company in his homeland is no real surprise, says Julia Molony

When Antonio Banderas speaks, his voice is a low, rhythmic growl, like a chain-smoking panther. The effect is powerful. So much so that, more than half way into our interview, I notice he's been on a passionate monologue for some time about the small, boutique animation company in southern Spain he's been working with. It's all interesting stuff, don't get me wrong, but time is flying by and I'm barely past question one.

This, I suspect, is his interview strategy. Hypnotise them with the accent, the big brown eyes and the solicitous manner. Make them forget their questions. Suffice to say, I am not immune.

There is a natural sense of theatre to Antonio. When I first arrive in his room in Claridge's I find him standing silhouetted against the window, gazing at the rain. "It seems appropriate, for London," he sighs, while directing me to a chair. Judging by the depth of the tan he's sporting, he's in a position to appreciate the poetry of a bit of city drizzle. He splits his time between his homes in Los Angeles, Malaga (where he is from) and Aspen.

He's an intense but languid talker, rarely breaking eye contact and sitting close enough that I can detect a faint smell of cigarettes. Which saves me the effort of asking how the efforts to quit are going.

He likes to think of his life's work as being like a paella. "With many different ingredients," he explains. "I have done action movies, I have done horror movies, I have done musicals, I have done movies for kids, animations. I directed, I went to Broadway, I produce. I do a number of things, and I love that.

"I hate," he says, with a curl of the lip, "the concept of career."

A career, to Banderas is something very linear, perhaps suspiciously American. "It's attached to a certain behaviour and attached to a very specific types of characters that you can play ... But I say ... what about playing EVERYTHING!?"

Banderas became a star in his 20s in Spain as a result of his collaborations with art house darling Pedro Almodovar, the director who also launched the careers of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

He broke into Hollywood against his own expectations. ("Among other things because I didn't speak the language") after being cast in the movie The Mambo Kings.

"I was going to go back to Spain and just tell my grandsons someday that I did a movie for Warner Brothers and that was it," he says.

But Hollywood wanted more. Next he won a role as Tom Hanks's lover in Philadelphia, and then drifted into the mainstream, playing Zorro and then the character he describes as his animation alter ego, Puss in Boots.

"Two years ago," he says, "it was a real satisfaction for me, I went back to Spain and I worked with Pedro Almodovar on The Skin I Live In, and there was a moment where at two movie theatres in Los Angeles, one was showing The Skin I Live In, and the other one was showing Puss In Boots, and I thought – that is me!"

He plays up the Latin lover cliche when it suits him, lampooning it to great comic effect in Puss In Boots, but is happy to defy it, too. If anything, he made his name playing against type. "Doing The Mambo Kings," he remembers, "when I got there, all the actors who were working with me said, 'Hey, if you're going to stay here, be prepared, you're going to do villains all the time.' But three or four years later, we're doing Zorro, in which the bad guy was blond and had blue eyes – and I killed him!"

He's a good raconteur, with an actorly sense of timing and a willingness to exploit the inherent drama of his accent. He can insert ostentatious romanticism into what he's saying and get away with it. "We artists," he tells me earnestly, talking about the challenges he faced as producer of his latest film, "we are not very good at creating a company ... We are a bunch of romantic guys who think that just doing the right drawings and the right rendering we can get the movie out. It doesn't happen like that."

All evidence suggests that Banderas is a sticker – a man defined by his enduring commitment to things that matter to him. His marriage to Melanie Griffith is one of the most solid in Hollywood, despite her well-publicised struggles with booze and pills. Then there's his faith. More than just a common or garden practising Catholic, he's a member of a religious brotherhood and goes home to Malaga every Easter to don special robes and take part in the city procession.

I suspect it's the committed part of him that explains why he's here today. Because 10 years ago a bunch of Spanish animators asked him for some creative and moral support and now, he's here to promote the film he's produced and starred in for them.

"They came to my home, very humble, with a bunch of drawings and a very little DVD of something they were doing called The Missing Lynx," he says. "It was a project that they'd been working on for schools in Andalucia that had been shut down by the government and so they said, 'now we have the material we don't know what to do with it, and we want to make a movie but we need some support because we cannot do it alone' ... And I kind of fell in love with the idea. Because they were very good cartoonists and they had ideas and they were developing their own programme."

Fast forward 10 years and he's been central to the production of Justin and the Knights of Valour, a 3D animation movie for kids that is the result of an enterprise, he acknowledges, the rest of the industry must find a little odd. "A group of crazy guys there led by Antonio Banderas making animation movies in the south of Spain?" The outlandishness tickles him.

But Kandor Graphics are not quite outsiders any more. Since Banderas's involvement, they've notched up a Goya award and an Oscar nomination. He hopes before long they'll be the European answer to Pixar. And thanks, no doubt, to his pull in Hollywood, the film has a killer cast, including Charles Dance, Olivia Williams and our very own Saoirse Ronan.

In August, he and Griffith, whose birthdays are a day apart, celebrated with a joint party in Marbella. Their steadfast togetherness seems genuine. I once had lunch at the next table to them in a restaurant in Cannes and they definitely conducted themselves like an inviolable little unit. They had failed marriages behind them when they got together, but this one must have been worth hanging on for.

He says that what sustains his marriage, among other things, is patience. Which comes as a surprise to nobody. "We are not perfect. We fight like everybody else; we have our problems, our crises like everybody else ... You know," he says, "people get attached very much in relationships ... to the initial feelings. The feelings at the beginning of the relationship ... the energetic and beautiful thing of falling in love. And the bad news for people is it goes away. But the secret is that other feelings come that are very, very, very interesting. And you develop another kind of love, and only time can give you that. No way that you can get to that state through other ways. There are no shortcuts. You have to pass through the tunnel of life, and time, and then you may have the opportunity to fall in love with your own wife again."

It also takes an infinite capacity for forgiveness, "for everything," he says. "We've been going through a lot of challenges and situations, but after 20 years we're still together."

What does he make, I wonder, of the news that his stepdaughter Dakota Johnson (Griffith's daughter from a previous marriage) has been cast in the role of the moment, as Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey?

For the first time, he looks every so slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps it's because it's my last question and the PR has entered the room, breaking his hypnotic spell, but a tiny ripple of disquiet seems to travel across his smooth countenance. "We are very happy," he insists. "Because we trust Dakota as an actress. We love her acting. She was in a TV series last year called Ben and Kate and she did great as a comedian ... and suddenly we just trust her judgment as a person, too. Somebody asked us if we were afraid – no, we are not. It's her issue; it's her way. She made a decision to go there, and we totally respect it and we'll support her if it's necessary."

Justin and the Knights of Valour is in cinemas now.

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