WHEN swoon-inducing Spanish actor Antonio Banderas first came to the United States, in 1991, to star as a Cuban trumpeter in The Mambo Kings, unimaginative comparisons to silent-film star Rudolph Valentino flew fast and furious. Hollywood apparently had very few points of reference for Latin actors, and fell back on the tried-and-true "Casanova" archetype in the absence of any more astute analogy. But Banderas, who already had a passel of Spanish feature films and awards to his credit by the time he skipped across the pond, was determined to bring more to his Stateside efforts than just his oft-cited smoldering Iberian comeliness. With good reason: his career up to that point had been a determined exercise in classical training — not to mention the occasional crash course at the actors' school of hard knocks — that fueled both his native burning ambition and a daring tendency to tackle controversial roles. Thanks to his excessive brio, the Spanish heartthrob has parlayed his swarthy good looks and energetic acting style into a career that is considerably more than just the oeuvre of another Valentino-esque Latin Lover.
Banderas knew fairly early on in life what he wanted to do when he grew up. Born in Málaga, Spain, during the height of the oppressive regime of tyrannical leader Francisco Franco, he was a lively child with a healthy desire to both please others and achieve greatness. After his early ambition to become a professional soccer player was snuffed out due to a foot injury, Banderas discovered his true calling when he saw Milos Forman's hit 1979 cult movie Hair. Living in a small town where theater was a venerated, structured enterprise, Banderas was thrilled to discover that acting could be spontaneous and fun.
The teen enrolled in drama classes — against his parents' wishes — and soon scraped together a group of other young thespians to form his own troupe, which subsequently traveled all over Spain, performing on the streets in little towns. Banderas was hungry and itinerant, and loving every minute of it. After moving to Madrid in 1981, he auditioned for and won a place as an ensemble member of the esteemed National Theater of Spain; to keep himself fed, clothed, and sheltered, he waited tables and took small modeling jobs.
After one fateful performance at the theater, Banderas was introduced to radical young film director Pedro Almodóvar. The repressive Franco regime having recently toppled, artists and intellectuals all over Spain were churning out valuable and exciting work in the newly liberated atmosphere of the country, and Almodóvar was one of the most outrageous and talented of an emerging breed of cinematic pioneers. He wanted Banderas to help him forge a new film industry, and together they set about making a handful of respectable, if controversial, movies, the first of which was 1982's Labyrinth of Passion, an absurdist sex farce peopled with transvestites, punk rockers, and nymphomaniacs. (Banderas also worked with a number of other Spanish directors during this period, among them José Luis García Sánchez and Lluis Josep Comerón.) It was Almodóvar's 1988 hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that would first bring Banderas to the fascinated attention of an international audience.
Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!, the actor's final collaboration with the maverick filmmaker before heading to America, featured Banderas as a charismatic mental patient who kidnaps a drug-addicted porn star and keeps her tied to a bed until she falls for him. The film's controversial theme didn't intimidate Banderas in the slightest: here, after all, was an actor who had willfully undertaken a number of roles that called for him to portray gay characters (notably Almodóvar's Law of Desire), and then breezily shrugged off any resultant rumors that he was himself gay. For someone so young and so ambitious to woo that fickle temptress Hollywood, such characterizations represented gutsy career moves indeed.
Gutsy is just the word to describe fledgling American director Arne Glimcher's commitment to casting Banderas as one-half of the mambo-playing brother duo in his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. Why was Banderas' casting such a big risk? Well, apart from the fact that the role was a large one and the young actor was practically unknown in the States at the time, there was the small matter of language. Banderas didn't speak any English. After winning the role, he undertook the painstaking process of learning all his lines phonetically. Bolstered by frantic and intensive English lessons at a Berlitz school, and motivated by an even more frantic desire to learn, Banderas gradually coaxed forth a startlingly deep rendering of his lines that won him a large portion of the acclaim awarded the only moderately successful film.
Despite the tepid reception of The Mambo Kings, Banderas remained determined to take Hollywood by storm. Next stop: Jonathan Demme's deeply affecting AIDS-message pic Philadelphia, in which Banderas found himself once again in the role of a gay character. Despite the fact that America is arguably even less tolerant of gay-themed art than Spain, the intrepid actor felt strongly about accepting the challenges of the role, and ended up turning in a highly creditable performance as protagonist Tom Hanks' understanding lover.
Banderas went on to appear in a string of movies that further tapped his talents for bringing complex personalities alive on screen, including The House of the Spirits (1993), Interview With the Vampire (1994), Desperado (1995), and the shoot-'em-up Stallone actioner Assassins (1995). Even when the films themselves were only mediocre, Banderas showed audiences that he possessed a singularly funny, quirky, and vulnerable style, and that combination of qualities — so un-American — fostered his unusual reputation as a steamy and sexy actor who could also laugh at himself.
In early 1995, those steamy, sexy ways of his caught the attention of Melanie Griffith while the two actors filmed the screwball comedy Two Much — words, coincidentally, that echoed throughout Hollywood in reaction to their very public displays of affection. Banderas divorced his love-at-first-sight actress wife of eight years, Ana Leza, and he and Griffith subsequently braved the shocked reactions of fans (not to mention those of Banderas' staid parents) and married in May 1996. The couple welcomed their first child together, Stella del Carmen, the following September.
On the career front, Banderas starred opposite Madonna in the 1997 musical Evita; and 1998 brought the highly entertaining swashbuckler The Mask of Zorro, which teams the hunky actor with the much-revered Sir Anthony Hopkins. The following year, Banderas headlined The 13th Warrior, a film based on the Michael Crichton supernatural thriller about 10th century man-eating monsters, Eaters of the Dead, wrapped production on his directorial debut film, Crazy in Alabama, which starred wife Melanie; and co-starred with Woody Harrelson in the Ron Shelton-directed boxing pic Play It to the Bone. He is slated to reunite with director Glimcher for The White River Kid, which recounts the irregular adventures of a redneck evangelist and a young serial killer who tramp about the Midwest posing as monks; and he'll also headline the futuristic thriller The Sparrow, in which he'll play a Jesuit linguist who discovers signs of intelligent life on another planet.
Biography by Mr Showbiz