If you define a man by his dogs, Antonio Banderas is happy, welcoming, and eager to please. His three pooches — a boxer, a pit bull-Labrador mix, and a mutt — trot toward my car as I pull into the driveway of his 1925 Spanish-Colonial home in the heart of Los Angeles. Banderas — rugged and relaxed in a T-shirt, parachute pants, and tennis shoes — greets me with a grin at the front door and introduces the pups as Velvet, Jack, and Elliott. As I shake hands with their handsome owner I think, "Lucky dogs."
Banderas leads me inside to a book-lined study. Now 51, he grew up in Málaga, Spain, when dictator Francisco Franco was still in power. Twenty years ago he moved to the United States, becoming one of the most successful Europe-to-Hollywood crossover actors of our time. He has played wildly different roles in films including Evita, The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, and the Shrek series, metamorphosing from sizzling sex symbol to action hero to comedic adventurer to…a cat? This month he will reprise his turn as Puss in Boots in the movie of the same name. "Puss has got a huge heart, he's very bold, very devilish, very romantic," says Puss in Boots director Chris Miller. "I would say he's a lot like Antonio."
As we chat, Maxwell, one of his family's two kitties, slinks up behind me on the back of the couch. More than once Banderas rises and gently moves Maxwell to the floor. ("Lucky cat," I think.) The actor's warmth and affability — his casual, sensual charm — are well-known to his colleagues and friends. "He makes everyone around him relaxed," says Robert Rodriguez, who cast Banderas in Desperado in 1994. "He's very generous and one of the sweetest guys."
Those good-guy qualities are especially evident when Banderas talks about his off-screen role as family man, which began in 1996 with his marriage to Melanie Griffith. (His first marriage, to Spanish actress Ana Leza, ended in divorce.) At the time, Griffith, now 54, had two children — Alexander, from her marriage to Steven Bauer, and Dakota, from her marriage to Don Johnson — and Banderas enthusiastically embraced the role of stepfather. Soon he and Griffith had a child of their own, Stella, now 15, and the family has successfully blended together.
Banderas admits that he and his wife have struggled at times, notably with Griffith's substance abuse. But the challenges, he says, have only strengthened their relationship. As we talk about the peccadilloes of famous men, Banderas reveals his thoughts on how couples — he and Griffith included — can keep passion alive.
And I think: "Lucky Melanie."
Q: When you came to the U.S. to do The Mambo Kings, you were an accomplished actor in Spain but you didn't speak English. Was it hard for you to adjust?
A: It was difficult. I was living in New York, and I went to Berlitz two months prior to starting shooting, studying eight hours a day. But making the movie was not the most difficult part. The problem was living in a place where I didn't understand anybody. I was staying in a hotel, and I was afraid even to call room service. There was a deli on the same street as the hotel, and I spotted a tag on a guy there that said "Rodriguez." I used to go down and talk to Rodriguez and buy sandwiches, then take them back to my room.
Q: How did the opportunity occur for you to come here in the first place?
A: I had done a lot of films with the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, and one of them, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was nominated for an Academy Award. I came to Los Angeles for the awards show, met some agents, and was eventually asked to read for The Mambo Kings. I thought that I would do that movie, go back to Europe, and just have the story of what happened in America that I could one day tell to my grandsons.
Q: Soon after that you did Philadelphia, playing opposite Tom Hanks, then Desperado. At what point did you finally say, "Okay, I'm here for a while"?
A: When I met Melanie and had to make a decision about where we were going to live. She had two kids, and they had two different fathers in America. It would have been very difficult if we moved to Europe, because those kids needed to visit their parents. The kids cannot pay the price of whatever love story was happening between Melanie and me. We cannot be putting them on planes every 15 days. I was alone — in my first marriage I didn't have kids. So it was clear: I am the one.
Q: Did that decision feel like a sacrifice?
A: Not really. If she had been living in Uganda [laughs], yeah. But we're talking about the United States of America — a really great country.
Q: You've done many different films. In your latest, you play a cat in the animated Puss in Boots. What do you think of the Puss character?
A: He means a lot to me, as I came to this country not speaking the language at all. When they called me to play Puss in Boots for Shrek 2 in 2003 and asked for the use of my voice for this character, it was very surprising.