Antonio Banderas: Hollywood's Leading Man
by David Hochman
"To tell you the truth, it was a total accident,” Antonio Banderas says. He laughs as he refers to his remarkable career and, by extension, a surreal life—the movies, the high-profile marriage to Melanie Griffith, the houses in Aspen, Los Angeles, and his native Spain. “I didn’t really plan any of it. I suppose that’s how it works. You set out one way and end up somewhere completely unexpected.”
Something about Banderas’s tone makes you believe him, given his enthusiasm and genuine sense of appreciation. The second he starts talking, it’s obvious he is grateful for his enduring run as one of Hollywood’s most likable and versatile leading men, and all that goes with the territory. “Even the paparazzi and people pointing iPhones at you, it’s fine, even on a bad-hair day,” he says in his self-effacing style. “I’d definitely be more upset if nobody was paying attention.”
People have been paying attention to Banderas for a long time. Since his breakout role in 1992’s The Mambo Kings and on through Philadelphia, The Mask of Zorro, Desperado, and such family classics as Spy Kids, Puss in Boots, and three of the four Shrek films, the actor, now 51, has pulled off that rarest of Hollywood feats—he has never really gone out of style. Whether making intense, critically acclaimed Spanish-language films with six-time collaborator Pedro Almodóvar or cracking up third-graders one hairball joke at a time as the voice of the swashbuckling Puss, Banderas finds an admiring audience for virtually everything he does.
In his next film, he will star opposite Annette Bening in the comedy He Loves Me, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame. “Nothing [Valerie and Jonathan] do in comedy is predictable, which is why I love them,” Banderas says. He is also preparing to play Pablo Picasso, a role he has dreamed about since childhood. Like Picasso, Banderas grew up in the Spanish municipality of Málaga. The drama, 33 Days, which goes into production in Spain and France next summer, is the story behind Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece, Guernica. The project is very personal for Banderas. “I remember seeing Picasso walk the streets of Málaga at the end of his life,” he says. “If you grew up in Málaga and were even a little creative, you ended up under the enormous shadow of his talent. I know I did. Picasso made everybody in that region think deeply about what they could contribute, what talent they had inside, whether or not they had the stuff of greatness.”
It took Banderas a while to figure that out for himself. His father was an officer in Spain’s military police force, the Guardia Civil. His mother was a teacher. Although his parents enjoyed theater, they were not pleased when young Antonio, who first thought he would play pro soccer, declared he wanted to become a film actor. “To me movies were what was cool, and they represented America,” he says. “We had this little black-and-white TV, and I’d watch the films of Orson Welles and Billy Wilder, and later Woody Allen and Mike Nichols, and think, This is the world I want to be in, even if it turns out to be a lot of weirdness and no money.”
Fortunately, things have gone significantly better. Banderas was 21 and serving coffee at the National Madrid Theater when Almodóvar spotted him and said, “You should be in movies.” The actor already had something of a cult following from his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap. But through Almodóvar’s odd, smart, sexy films—Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! —Banderas gained a wider following. His first English-language movie was The Mambo Kings, although Banderas did not actually speak English during the filming. “I learned all my lines phonetically and spoke to everyone through an interpreter,” he says. Even as he moved on to highly praised films like Philadelphia, practicing his English furiously along the way, Banderas says he mostly waited for his luck to run out. “I’d finish a movie with Tom Hanks and think, Incredible! Now I’ll go back to Spain forever and have a good story to tell my grandkids one day.”
Instead he slowly put down roots in America. Banderas and Griffith crossed paths a handful of times on Oscar’s red carpet before finally getting to know each other in 1994 on the set of the movie Two Much. By all laws of celebrity physics, the relationship should have lasted as long as the run of that screwball comedy, but they are going on 20 years together. The couple has a daughter, Stella, 15, and Griffith has a son and daughter from previous relationships— Alexander, 26, and Dakota, 22.
“People want to know the secret of staying together when you’re in the public eye, because it’s not always easy,” Banderas says with a laugh. “The truth is boring. You go to the market, you have coffee together, you have dinner together, you tell a joke, you go to bed. Are you ready for this? You live like normal people. Believe it or not, that’s what it takes.”
For all his buoyant charm, Banderas admits that life can get stressful sometimes. He oversees two production companies, including a Spain-based animation house that earned an Oscar nomination for best short animated film two years ago. He also co-owns a winery in Spain, is a longtime spokesman for the international fragrance company Puig, and juggles an active roster of charitable and political interests. (“I support Obama, but I can only do so much since I am from Spain,” he says.)
Then there is what Banderas calls “the endless complexity and fascination” of parenting a teenager. Even after rearing two other children with Griffith, the challenge remains. “You see in your kids a little reflection of yourself, even though they think you don’t understand them,” he says. “They are very determined about who they are and what they are going to be in their lives. As a parent, all you can say is, ‘Don’t do things without thinking. Be careful making decisions.’ Of course, I know I sound like an old man to her!”
To completely unplug, Banderas immerses himself in Aspen. Get him talking about his life here, and you can almost feel the sense of peace and contentment wash over him. “To find myself lost in the woods, or to fish, or bike, or run, or trek into the Maroon Bells or to American Lake” —Banderas lets out a happy sigh—“these are the golden moments I live for. Electric Pass, Pyramid Peak; riding my bike down Cemetery Lane. I mean, who cannot love Aspen?”
Actually, it took Banderas a while. When he first came to town with Griffith in the mid-1990s, he felt like an outsider. “I realized what a very little city Aspen is, and Melanie was already known around town for being with Don Johnson,” he says. “It felt funny for me. I was the new Spanish guy. I felt like people were pointing fingers. For years we didn’t go back because I didn’t feel comfortable.”
All that changed in 2001 when Banderas and Griffith returned for a Christmas play at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, where Alexander was studying. “Melanie convinced me to come for a few days, and when I started getting antsy, she said, ‘Why don’t you go ski?’ I said, ‘Ski? Like, on the snow? In the cold? I want to go back to Los Angeles!’”
Fortunately, Banderas connected with Slovenian ski racer and instructor Anda Rojs Smalls, who gave him the first of many lifechanging lessons. “She was like Almodóvar in the cinema. She kicked my butt. I thought, Oh my God! I need skiing in my life, I need the mountains. It was one of my greatest revelations.” Two weeks later Banderas and Griffith were shopping for a house. He often visits the Wheeler Opera House and pops in for events at The Aspen Institute. He orders chicken soup and shops for new music at Explore Booksellers on Main Street, or takes a window table at Little Annie’s. (“That place is like heaven to me.” he says.)
At the family home in Castle Creek Valley, the view is as unspoiled as it was 200 years ago; there is not a telephone cable or service road in sight. “When I look out, I imagine this is what the Native Americans saw,” Banderas says. In winter he even sets up racing gates in the backyard to practice his S-turns. “Part of me would love to live here full time,” he says. “Aspen has given me so much in terms of personal time, family time, and time to get deeper about who I am and who I want to be,” he says.
That is what drives him to give back to Aspen. Banderas has committed himself to local causes, most notably at Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, the valley’s oldest and largest youth nonprofit, which teaches more than 2,000 children to ski and snowboard every winter. “I can’t think of a better way to give opportunities to children who might not otherwise have these experiences,” he says. “These programs build confidence, community, and instill values while still being incredibly fun for the kids. A person— especially young people—needs to be constantly challenged to grow.”
Banderas speaks from experience. Even at this point in his career, he continues to challenge himself. His appearance last year in the lush mystery The Skin I Live In, his sixth Almodóvar film, earned Banderas his finest reviews in years. Asked the secret to maintaining so much passion in his work and life, he laughs again. “The secret? Like I said, life just happens to you.”
But this time, Banderas cannot explain it away. “Okay, here’s the thing,” he says. “You can live your life in a routine way or you can make an art of your life. I prefer the second way. I always aspire to make things extraordinary. I always look for new things, for ways to be more creative. That’s really what I love about Aspen, to tell you the truth. It gives me the space and inspiration to live the best way I know how.”
photography by art streiber
Styling by Jeanne Yang for The Wall Group
Grooming by Nena Smarz