Claudia Leisinger


As Zorro and Desperado Antonio Banderas became the first Spanish-speaking Hollywood A-list star, a position he’s maintained by voicing Puss In Boots in the hugely successful Shrek movies. He tells Leigh Singer about his struggle to the top in America and the new challenges still awaiting him.

June 2-8, 2007

So pronounced is the public image of Antonio Banderas as a “Latin lover”, with “smoldering good looks” that meeting him in the flesh you half expect the Zorro star to undress you with his eyes while carving a heart on your shirt with a few flicks of a sword.

The reality today is that a whirlwind, worldwide publicity tour for animated movie behemoth Shrek the Third has left the 46-year old Spaniard exhausted. Though still undoubtedly a fine-looking man, those bedroom peepers are merely eyeing a bed, and the only thing steaming is the cup of herbal tea keeping him awake. “We just came here from Tokyo,” he smiles wearily, “and the hours change, so I woke up at three in the morning. Though it’s fine.” 

All part of the job of promoting a fairytale-tweaking series about a grumpy green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), whose two previous installments took over $2 billion worldwide. Debuting in Shrek 2, Banderas’s pint-sized conquistador with furballs, Puss in Boots, rapidly became a favourite with audiences and the actor himself, allowing him to satirize both his own Zorro roles and dashing Lothario tabloid persona.

“He’s kind of dangerous, he’s irreverent.” he characterizes his feline alter ego. “Casanova in the body of a pussycat is absurd, that’s why he’s funny. The contrast between what he is physically and his mind and how he operates is a source of comedy.”

For many actors, a voiceover role is easy money: a few hours in a sound booth while the digital animators slave away for years doing the donkey – or kitty  - work. Banderas, however, makes a convincing case as to why this role, aside from being a huge Shrek fan, means so much. 

“I arrived in America in 1990 without speaking the language at all,” he explains. “I never talked to the director, an interpreter came and said to me, ‘Take that glass and put it there’ and I said OK. To be called for my voice, it’s like an acceptance, a recognition of the audience. They know how I sound and they accept that in a character that doesn’t have my looks.”

Indeed Puss is so popular (his own spin-off movie is being prepped), that for all the success that 1998’sThe Mask of Zorro brought Banderas, the cat version may have burgled away his most famous screen role. It’s a neat anecdote – upstaged by your own cartoon creation - but there’s a serious point here about Latino or ethnic actors as viable leading men.

“We were shooting [1992 American debut] The Mambo Kings,” Banderas relates, “and many of the Spanish actors would say to me, if you’re going to stay in this market, you’re going to do delinquents, narco traffickers, bad guys. There’s no space for us to play normal characters, heroes and stuff like that.”

Banderas it was who broke the mould, with Zorro and his shoot-‘em-up Desperado roles for Robert Rodriguez, though he’s too modest to take the sole credit. “It was a coincidence,” he shrugs. “I think it was a combination of different situations, attached to social work, politics and other things.” Nevertheless, he insisted on doing all his own Zorro swordplay and horse riding stunts. I don’t like people to put on the suit of Zorro when I am there. It’s mine,” he insists, mindful – and mildly affronted – that “Tom Cruise was offered the part before me.”

José Antonio Domínguez Banderas has become such a Hollywood fixture in the past decade and a half that it’s easy to forget his entirely different, hugely successful career back home in Spain before coming to America. Trained for the stage, he collaborated onscreen five times with Pedro Almodóvar in some the director’s most provocative, sexually explicit works like Matador and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

American movies offered less outré, if still varied, work, Tom Hanks’s chaste gay lover in Philadelphia, Che Guevara opposite long-time admirer Madonna in Evita. Marrying Hollywood royalty, actress Melanie Griffith, immersed him further, setting him up for ever more extreme media frenzy.

“We both came from failing relationships and I think we both learned from that,” he assesses. “I know that people didn’t give a penny for our relationship. I mean nothing. The comments I remember reading in the newspapers, they were betting we would not even last three months.” He shakes his head ruefully, eyes flashing in jest. “I should have taken those bets.”

Though mainly based in Los Angeles – “a very deceiving city. I don’t like it, actually,” he grimaces – Banderas is adamant his own family, step-daughter Dakota and daughter Stella, experience life outside the Hollywood bubble: “I take them with me to Mexico when I’m making movies, so they can see how the kids live, the shanty towns, the reality of what the world is all about. They cannot think the world is just full of beautiful cars and houses and everything you want because it’s not like that. I don’t provide them with everything they want - they have to gain it.”

It’s an approach Banderas evidently wants to apply to his career too. Despite all the movies, he cites his lauded Broadway performance in Nine (a musical version of Fellini’s 8 1/2) as “the best time I’ve had in America”; he recently directed his second feature Summer Rain, a “very personal” coming-of-age tale set in his hometown of Malaga. For all the fun Puss in Boots allows, it’s a bit, well, two-dimensional.

“I’m looking for something to chew on,” he practically growls. “I’ve been doing this tremendous exercise for seventeen years of holding up my career and keeping it at a certain level. But how much longer I can be just doing Spy Kids and movies like that, I don’t know.”

Then the eyes light up, smolder even, and you find yourself seduced, nodding in agreement with his heartfelt credo. “It’s my life,” Banderas implores. “I have to take risks. If you don’t do things because you are afraid of them, what is left?”

Shrek the Third is out now.

'© The Big Isue 2007. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'