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The Untold Truth Of Antonio Banderas

From a delusional kidnapper to beloved cartoon cat, from gun-toting killer to loving father, from Spanish counterculture to American pop culture, Antonio Banderas' story could only happen in the movies. Imagine joining the art scene at the time and place of your country's greatest artistic explosion in decades. Imagine landing a lead role in an American film despite not being able to speak English. Imagine being a brown man and playing first a hero and then a respectable father.

Over his career, Banderas has been leading man and muse for acclaimed directors from Pedro Almodovar to Robert Rodriguez. He's played Pablo Picasso, Che Guevara, and Pancho Villa. Now he's set to join Harrison Ford in the fifth "Indiana Jones" movie. Throughout his career he's proven to American audiences that a Spanish man with an accent can play the hero.

Despite all his success, Antonio Banderas is fiercely loyal to his humble roots. He's expanded his career to include clothes, wine and cologne. And somehow the young Spanish heartthrob has grown into a distinguished, yet still dynamite, older gentleman.

He might have become a football (soccer) player

Europeans are obsessed with football — or as we call it in the United States, soccer. And Banderas was no exception — it's funny how many dreamboat leading men started with athletic dreams revolving around versions of football (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Travis Fimmel come to mind). According to Banderas' youth coach (quoted in a Guardian item), he was a good striker but "too well-mannered for this football business." Another article, detailing the process of Banderas possibly buying his hometown football team, says the actor played competitively until he broke his leg at 14.

While many bios say he wanted to be a pro footballer, it's hard to find Banderas himself specifically saying that. Obviously the young Antonio liked it and sounds like he was good at it. Whether he wanted to be a footballer or not, he was luckily able to go for an easy backup plan after his injury: becoming an international A-list movie star despite being from a small Spanish city.

Almodovar's muse

Pedro Almodovar is one of Spain's most acclaimed living directors. One of the first feature films he directed was "Labyrinth of Passion." It was also Antonio Banderas' second film role. A few years later Almodovar would direct "Matador," starring Banderas as a young man idolizing an aging bullfighter (the bullfighter, incidentally, likes to kill women in coitus to relive his bullfighting days). Then in Almodovar's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," Banderas plays a delusional young man who kidnaps and ties up a porn star he's infatuated with.

This compelling yet mentally unstable character would be Banderas' last performance with the director for several decades. His performance apparently caught the eye of many Americans, from Madonna (more on that later) to Arne Glimcher, the eventual director of "The Mambo Kings." When Banderas was offered the co-lead in "Mambo kings," he took the Hollywood role instead of appearing in Almodovar's next film, apparently much to Almodovar's chagrin.

The two would finally reunite for 2011's "The Skin I Live In," followed by the auteur's most recent film, 2019's "Pain and Glory," for which Banderas received an Oscar nod for his turn as a character based on Almodovar (though to what extent is unconfirmed). It's nice to see longtime friends come full circle.

He got his Hollywood break without speaking English

Arne Glimcher bought the film rights of Oscar Hijuelos' "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" when he read it in an unfinished version. He went on to direct the movie version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. "I had a lot of trouble with the studio about the casting," Glimcher told the Sun-Sentinel in 1992. 

He explained, "I knew I wanted Antonio Banderas from the day I read the manuscript. From his performances in 'Matador' and other films from Pedro Almodovar, I knew Antonio had that quality of melancholy, poetry and beauty that would convey my Nestor." 

But there was only one catch. When they had dinner to discuss Banderas joining the project, "It was very clear that despite his laughing and nodding, Antonio didn't understand a word I was saying," said Glimcher.

So Glimcher brought Banderas in and, as Banderas explained to NPR, "I did a screen test — several, actually, in a period of time of three or four days. And I learned my lines phonetically." After he got the part, he learned English. As he spelled out in 1992 to the Chicago Tribune, "From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., I worked out at the gym. From 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., I took English classes at Berlitz, and from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., I practiced the trumpet." After that, weapons training for "Desperado" was probably a piece of cake.

Madonna obsessed over him in Truth or Dare

As mentioned before, Arne Glimcher wasn't the only Hollywood type with an eye on the Spanish actor. Madonna talked about Banderas in her semi-documentary, "Truth or Dare."

"Antonio Banderas is this Spanish actor that I've had a crush on for two years," Madonna says in the movie. "I have to say he's one of the few actors, movie stars that I was really dying to meet."

Let's put this in perspective: when "Truth or Dare" came out in 1991, Madonna was on top of the pop world. Her 1989 album, "Like a Prayer," went multi-platinum and her subsequent Blond Ambition World Tour is considered one of the most revolutionary pop concert tours ever. Meanwhile Banderas had basically only done Pedro Almodovar movies.

Apparently her line about Banderas was just a joke. As he told the Hartford Courant while promoting 1992's "Mambo Kings," "I said to her, 'Hey, what are you doing with me, girl?' And she said, 'You're going to be treated like a king, believe me.' She was joking. It was a joke."

Still, a few years later she would date and have a daughter with the very-Spanish-looking Carlos Leon, so maybe it wasn't all joking. And Madonna and Banderas would go on to work together in "Evita," where she played the title character and he played Che Guevara.

Part of the post-Franco Spanish counterculture

La Movida Madrileña was an artistic uprising following the end of dictator Francisco Franco's tight-fisted rule. As the Guardian put it about Banderas, "The sudden relaxation of decades-worth of state censorship lifted the lid on a thriving subculture of new-wave bands, low-budget filmmakers and comic-book scribblers." Banderas had freshly arrived in Madrid just as the city was exploding after decades of suppression, a fortuitous moment to become an artist.

As Banderas explained in the article, upon his arrival in Madrid from Malaga, "I saw people with painted hair and men wearing beads and girls in miniskirts. And there were no beards and no political issues and it was all fun. I knew I didn't belong there, but it was great."

Another artist making his way up in Madrid at the time was, of course, Pedro Almodovar. According to the article, the two met when Almodovar walked by Banderas and said he had a good look and should be in movies. Asked by the Guardian how his early films like "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" went over with his family back in Malaga, Banderas said his mother's friends wouldn't talk to him because he hung out with punks. "They're not punks, mum," he claimed to reply. "They're filmmakers. They're breaking the rules."

Banderas was told brown men only play villains in America

It was a big move for Banderas to go from "imported arthouse fare ... to mainstream American movies," as the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1994 article. It would seem that his starring turn in "Mambo Kings" would set him on that path, but Banderas received some sobering news during the process.

According to a GQ interview, when he got to America he was told, "Oh, you're going to stay in America, get ready to play the villain." He continued quoting the nameless person (or people) who said this, adding, "The villains here are black and Hispanics. Those are the villains."

Or course he would go on to play deep, dynamic roles in "Philadelphia," "Interview with the Vampire," and "Desperado." Then, as Banderas put it in the GQ article, "Three, four, five years later, I got a mask and a hat and my horse [referencing 'The Mask of Zorro']. I was a hero in a movie, and the bad guy was blond, he got blue eyes, and he spoke perfect English. And I thought, Hmmm, that's interesting."

Banderas became El Mariachi after Hollywood star turns

According to the Guardian, Banderas finished struggling through his broken English in "The Mambo Kings" and figured his Hollywood career was done. "But then Jonathan Demme called me to screen test for this movie with Tom Hanks," Banderas says in the article. That led to Banderas playing Tom Hanks' lover in "Philadelphia." Then he played Armand in "Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles," alongside American megastars Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. He had transcended the villain typecasting that he was warned about.

Then came "Desperado." According to the LA Times, Robert Rodriguez had shot his first film, "El Mariachi," while a college film student for a budget of $7,225 dollars. The movie would land Rodriguez an agent, a development deal with Columbia, and win the Audience Award for favorite film at Sundance. "I wanted to make another movie with a Latin hero," said Rodriguez.

Carlos Gallardo, Rodriguez' then-partner who played El Mariachi in the first movie, was "content this time to remain on the other side of the cameras as associate producer." So here's this director with a fast-rising career and a Spanish actor who's now respected in Hollywood. "Desperado" established Banderas as a Hispanic action hero, and Robert Rodriguez as a director to watch.

Of course Rodriguez and Banderas worked together again: Banderas would break the mold as the proud, debonair papa in Rodriguez's PG-rated "Spy Kids" series.

Banderas champions his home region in Spain

Antonio Banderas is from Malaga, a corner of Andalusia not well known outside Spain. This is part of what makes his Hollywood success story so amazing, that he could make it from this city of just over half a million people to become an internationally-recognized movie star.

So, in classic "local boy does good" fashion, Banderas has used his popularity and money to invest in and promote his hometown. In 2009 he bought into a local winery. In 2019 he opened a musical theater in Malaga. In 2010 he founded Lagrimas y Favores (Tears and Favors), a foundation that helps people from Malaga pay for a college education.

In 2020, Banderas used his charming smile and gentlemanly air to head a tourism campaign for Andalusia. And, oh yeah, he may buy a piece of a local soccer team. It seems you can come home again.

Banderas bleeds home team pride

Many American actors are die-hard supporters of their home teams. Since they're American, we hear about baseball, basketball, (American) football and hockey teams. Just like them, Banderas is also a big fan of his hometown team but one we don't hear about: Malaga CF.

Being a promising young soccer player growing up in Malaga, he likely at some point fostered dreams of playing for his hometown club. His support now is such that he used his substantial influence to speak out against the UEFA ban levied on Malaga in 2013. Yet his support may go beyond trying to influence governing bodies and cheering on a smaller-market team in the second-strongest European football league.

According to the U.S. Sun, he may be buying a part of the team. "My involvement in Malaga will depend on who the new investors are, and what they want — nothing more and nothing less," he said. Nothing is confirmed for now, but it sure would be sweet to be a co-owner of the sports team you grew up idolizing.

Antonio Banderas, designer and scentmaker

Antonio Banderas has invested in wine, helping kids go to college, tourism, and maybe a football team. Sounds like a lot for a man whose primary job is the strenuous business of acting. Banderas probably wants to stop there, right? Wrong.

The actor has also dabbled in fashion design and scent-making. At 55, Banderas decided he wanted to go to fashion school. In 2015 he enrolled at London's Central Saint Martin's, a school whose alums include luminaries like Lee McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. In 2016 he launched a menswear collection.

He hasn't launched any more clothing lines since then, but maybe that's because he's been concentrating on his perfumes and colognes. With names like Blue Seduction and The Golden Secret, he's playing to his strengths and image as a Latin lover and enigmatic actor. In the end, who wouldn't want even just a scent of Banderas' obvious sex appeal?

A heart attack changed Banderas' perspective

Banderas opened up about his heart attack in a 2020 NPR interview promoting his newest Almodovar movie, "Pain and Glory."

"I suffered a heart attack about 2 ½ years ago and was an alert in my life," he explained. "And when I say this, people may just think that I am crazy, but it's one of the best things that ever happened in my life because it just gave me a perspective of who I was."

Of course this also set him up to play the role of Salvador Mallo, a thinly-veiled depiction of Almodovar in "Pain and Glory" a la Fellini's Guido Anselmi in the Oscar-winning "8 ½" (ironically, or maybe not, Banderas played Anselmi in a recent Broadway production of "9," the musical based on "8 ½").

In "Pain and Glory," Mallo's dealing with aging and bad health in an industry known for pushing its players to physical and mental extremes. Banderas' heart attack may have led him to the role, for which he received an Oscar nod.

"Pedro said to me, you know, I don't know how to describe it, but since you have the heart attack, there is something different in you," Banderas revealed to NPR, adding that the director told him, "It's going to be very close to all of these pains that I describe in the movie."

Voicing Puss in Boots was a big deal for Banderas

So here we have Antonio Banderas: a man who jumps from foreign arthouse films to the Hollywood A-list. A man who's acted opposite many of the most noted names in the business (Pitt, Cruise, Hanks, Salma Hayek, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins, to name a few). We have a man who's played a vampire, a gay man during the AIDS pandemic, a gunslinger, a swashbuckler, Che Guevara, Pablo Picasso, and now he's set to star alongside one of the biggest action heroes of cinematic history. So what does Banderas consider one of his most beloved roles? Voicing a cartoon cat.

"With Puss in Boots," Banderas told GQ, "the kids are listening to a hero who has an accent, and the bad guy — Billy Bob Thorton specifically — [talks in] perfect English ... You send messages that go to the back of your brain — and in this case the back of kids' brains — for diversity and understanding."

As he also said in the interview, "What is interesting about that is, actually, I came to this country without knowing the language. So the fact that they call me to do a character just for the use of my voice, not my image, was fantastic."

So that swashbuckling cat with the adorable face is not only helping build acceptance, he's also an inspiration for people who want to expand beyond their comfort zone. What a cool cat. Which is also how you'd have to describe Antonio Banderas himself.