Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
En español | 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.
Q: By then you had already married Melanie Griffith. What was your attraction to her?
A: I had admired Melanie long before I met her. I remember seeing Working Girl in Madrid and thinking, "Wow, she's so beautiful, so special!" And on the night of the Oscars, when I came for Women on the Verge, I saw her on the red carpet but couldn't remember her name. Pedro Almodóvar said, "It's Melanie Griffith, you idiot! She's nominated for an Academy Award tonight!" Six years after that, we're married!
Q: You met when you costarred in the 1995 comedy Two Much. How did you go from a professional to a personal, romantic relationship?
A: I think we were both unhappy with our different relationships at the time. I wouldn't put anything on the shoulders of the other persons. Things just don't work sometimes, and that's the way it goes. But we recognized that we were unhappy. And I saw this sweet, vulnerable soul, funny, also very smart and generous. I saw her with her kids, and she was so beautiful as a mom. It happens sometimes that you connect with your costar. It's normal. But at the end of the movie, it's just "delete" — you go home and it's good-bye. But it didn't happen. We kept calling each other on the phone all day long. And then one day we had to actually confront it. And we did. It was not easy.
Q: How was it becoming a stepfather?
A: It was hard because the kids had to accept me, and I was totally inexperienced. Suddenly I had a 6-year-old girl, a 10-year-old boy, and Stella came along almost immediately. I was, "Oh, my God!" But as soon as the kids knew that I was there to stay, they were fine. They needed solid ground in which they could grow. As soon as I realized that, I started establishing my relationship, giving them security, little by little doing the father thing.
Q: How long did that process take?
A: It took less than a year for them to realize that I was not temporary.
Q: Are you all close now?
A: Yes. They call me Paponio — Papa and Antonio. But Dakota is 22 already, and she's making movies. And Alexander is 26 and living in New York. And Mama and I have been together for 17 years now.
Q: That's a long time for a Hollywood marriage. What's your secret?
A: The secret is that we had failures before. And love at the beginning is a rush. It's big, full of energy, beautiful. But it doesn't last like that. Melanie and I talked about that a lot. Are we going to make the mistake of looking back for that thing all the time? Or are we going to look ahead and create universes that are different? We made the second choice. That thing at the beginning disappeared, but it became something better. We discovered the value and warmth of family, and what is home — that we can be stronger together. That thing that you thought was gone comes back again, and you fall in love again. Even in crisis, we have been patient enough to detect that at the end of the tunnel was a light. We have had as many problems as anybody. We've never hidden it. We've been open about addictions, in the case of Melanie. She has overcome her problems beautifully. I didn't know she was so strong. It makes me love her even more, because she has been an unbelievable lion fighting, and she got it. The last [relapse] was three years ago, and it just welded us.
Q: When she went back into treatment? How did that weld you?
A: The whole family participated. We did all the therapies together — the kids, everybody. It was a very unique experience, not only for Melanie. It was very rewarding at the end.
Q: Many people want to keep these kinds of problems from their kids.
A: The pretending is the worst, because kids are so smart. They can see through all of those things, and if you don't talk openly about problems, it creates a very dark place. They carry that through the rest of their lives, to their marriages, to their kids.
Q: Who decided to be open with them? You or Melanie?
A: Melanie. She was the one.
Q: Can we talk about fidelity and recent instances in the news of men behaving badly? Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Tiger Woods — what is going on?
A: It has always happened, and it's not just in Hollywood or in Washington. Is it in our genes? Are we monogamous or not? Have we been trying to put men on a path that is not natural? I think men are drawn to the hunting — the psychological reaffirming of themselves in their manhood.
Q: So how do you deal with temptation when you're in a marriage?
A: It's a very, very personal issue how you deal with that. [You have to ask yourself ] if you are willing to damage what you have — your kids, your family, your friends. How do you deal in your sexual life with your wife? How rich can you make it in order to not have to look for something outside your marriage? What other things can you do, in your home? What are the things that you may tell her, or are you going to be always lying? There may be people who don't even allow themselves to watch a movie and say to their wife, "Ah, that actress is sexy," because their wife may get very upset. I think that you should be able to be honest with your wife: "I should be able to tell you that, yeah, sometimes I walk into a party and I feel there are women there that are very beautiful. And you shouldn't be upset. In the same way, you may see a guy who's very attractive." The question is, how much will you stretch that? It's all about balance in life. We all need water, obviously, but I'm not going to drink the pool. [Laughs.] I think it's very important that you know exactly where the limits are.
Q: You had a big birthday last year. How was turning the Big 5-Oh for you?
A: Perfect. Being in my 50s isn't hard for me at all, because I feel good. I think the problems with being older come when your body cannot do what your mind wants. Then, Houston, we have a problem. [Laughs.]
Q: How do you stay fit?
A: I do yoga every morning, then I run for half an hour and take a sauna. And I eat properly. I drink a lot of white tea — it's a very powerful antioxidant.
Q: Is there anything that you would like to do that you haven't done?
A: Oh yeah, but I will die with that feeling. Jumping in parachutes. I would like to be a great piano player. There are so many things, but there's no time in one lifetime.
Q: Are you still a Spanish citizen?
A: Yes. I have what's called an O-1 visa, which allows me to work here.
Q: Have you ever considered becoming a U.S. citizen?
A: I love this country and have 20 years of memories here. My wife and my daughter are American. But I am Spanish. I love my country. And I would have to renounce my Spanish citizenship to become a U.S. citizen.
Q: Do you plan to return to Spain to live one day?
A: I don't know. Melanie and I bought a house in New York five years ago. The ideal for me would be to live six [months in New York] and six [in Spain].
Q: But you live in L.A. now.
A: I know — because of the kids. And because my wife doesn't want to move to New York! [Laughs.]