Actor Antonio Banderas

The star of The Skin I Live In and Puss in Boots explains how he came to be an actor in the U.S. when he already enjoyed success and fame in Spain and shares the secret of making a Hollywood marriage work.

Before taking Hollywood by storm, Antonio Banderas was one of Spain's most famous faces. His film credits include the Zorro and Shrek franchises, Philadelphia—in a small role that was his breakthrough to mainstream American audiences—and his latest The Skin I Live In. Banderas dreamed of becoming a pro soccer player, but a broken foot at age 14 led to his discovery of acting as his passion. He's dedicated to philanthropy and was appointed by the U.N. as a Goodwill Ambassador for its anti-poverty fight, with a particular focus on Africa and Latin America.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Antonio Banderas to this program. In addition to his role in the upcoming “Shrek” installment he has re-teamed with the man who helped forge his career, director Pedro Almodovar. The new project is called “The Skin I Live In.” Here now, some scenes from “The Skin I Live In.”

[Preview for “The Skin I Live In”]

Tavis: I was saying to you while the clip was playing, Antonio, I love movies that entertain me, but I also love movies that make me think, and I was saying to you that you have to pay attention to this movie (laughter). If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to get lost. It’s a thriller, but you do have to pay attention, and you were saying to me?

Antonio Banderas: I was saying that yeah, that there are so many movies in the world now that you actually have to pay attention, that everything is pretty cooked, so you just feel comfortable in the movie theater.

I am not against that. Listen, I think movies serve many different purposes, from those movies that are frivolous and just an entertainment, to movies that just go to exploring the complexities of the human soul. Everything is valid if it’s done with honesty and dignity, and I actually do both of those type of movies in my career.

But sometimes, and this particular time in my life, I want to go back to Spain, I want to go back to the man that actually I worked with in many movies in the ’80s, back in the ’80s, and breaking basically all the rules of cinematic (unintelligible).

Tavis: Fair to say that Pedro made you a star?

Banderas: Well, he made me an actor.

Tavis: An actor, okay.

Banderas: He made me an actor, and it’s true that when I came to America he helped me, because the professional world here in the United States really, really appreciates what he did. So it was almost like a presentation card. When I used to go to studios or to auditions and they said to me, “What have you done?” and I said, “Pedro,” “Oh, yes, you are the guy in Pedro Almodovar.” He opened the door for me to just actually have access to place I probably wouldn’t have.

Tavis: So you referenced this, I want to get you to unpack this for me. So what’s happening or not happening in your life right now that makes you want to re-team with him, to your own point, and to break all the rules?

Banderas: Well, maybe because I’ve been working now in the United States for 21 years, and in a way, I am kind of handicapped here to a very strict number of characters that can be offered to me.

You have to think that when I came to this country 21 years ago, I couldn’t speak the language at all. I did my first movie, “The Mambo Kings,” in America without speaking the language. I learned the lines phonetically. I had an interpreter actually just to understand directions from my director.

So it was in a box, in a way, that doesn’t allow me just to play a specific number of characters, and with a specific number of directors. I’ve done a lot of epic and mainly Spanish characters, which I think is absolutely perfect because I am very proud of my heritage and my community, but there is a moment that you want to do something a little bit more substantial.

The possibility to do that was coming at this particular time in my life by the hand of my dear friend that I respect and I admire still, Pedro Almodovar, with whom I did five movies in the decade of the ’80s in a very interesting Spain, actually, and it was thoroughly changing at the time, coming from a dictatorship to a democracy.

There were people like him, that they were just defying the rules of cinematic gravity, in a way, and just putting in front of an audience things that they never saw before, with narrative processes that were invented by him, touching issues that were almost forbidden at the time in Spain. So I needed a little bit of that kind of acid feeling in my acting.

Tavis: You’ve said three things now that I want to go back and unpack. This is going to be a lot of fun, because again, I want to go back and just kind of pick apart a few things you’ve said.

Banderas: Sure.

Tavis: In no particular order, number one, when you referenced that you were coming of age as an actor, a young actor, when Spain was going from a dictatorship to a democracy –

Banderas: Correct.

Tavis: – you are a long way now from being harassed and threatened and arrested for just being on the stage.

Banderas: Correct.

Tavis: That’s a long way in your career. Take me back to those days when you were being maltreated just for being an actor on the stage in Spain.

Banderas: Yeah, well, I remember very specifically there was a group in Catalonia, and Catalonia is a region of Spain that they were arrested because they did a play that was against the (unintelligible) with this type of very specific police in Spain.

So we were complaining about that, doing theater in the south of Spain, in many groups. We got together to complain about that action by the government in Spain, putting these kids in jail.

(Laughs) So I remember performing on the stage and I remember looking on the wings and seeing this shiny thing that I didn’t really know what it was. There was something shiny there. Then when the curtain came down I realized that the shiny thing were the helmets of the (unintelligible) cops in Spain.

So they got on the stage and we got down on the ground, we were handcuffed and taken to the police station. But the interesting and funny thing is (laughs) that my father was the chief of police in (unintelligible). (Laughter)

So when I got in there, I had my face painted white, and he just looked at me and says, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I don’t know, ask this guy that you sent over there to arrest me and 17 like me.” He said, “Go home.” I said, “I’m not going home if you don’t release all these 17 guys.” So we went all to the street and because of that reason.

But they were difficult times. They were difficult times because we were not allowed to talk about the things that we wanted to talk about. Everything was forbidden. In Spain at the time, when I was a little kid, I remember everything was in a stage of anesthesia. Everything was fine, but there was kind of an eerie feeling.

Those are things that I remember when that thing passed, when I could look back, when I was 25, 27 and we were already in democracy and I looked back to those times and I said, “Oh, my God, that’s the way that we used to live.” We didn’t have any information coming from the exterior; it was difficult to read certain books, to watch certain movies. It was a very repressive system.

Tavis: What does that kind of repression do for the flourishing or the suffocating of one’s artistic gift?

Banderas: Well, it’s interesting, because it plays both ways. It’s true that you are not allowed to say certain things in the way that you want to say them, but at the same time, in a way you become more awake. You become very alert and you become very critical, and that is good for art. You continuously question life and the way it is, and why are these things happening to you and why in other countries there is more freedom.

That provoked many artists in the period of time of 40 years that we had a dictatorship in Spain. Came very, very strongly, with very interesting ideas basically about freedom, and sometimes you have all those freedoms, you may take it for granted and you may just get a little bit sleepy as an artist.

I am not saying that to be an artist you need to be punched all the time, but it’s life with a double blade and you can play both, and if you’re smart enough, you can actually make an art out of what apparently is just wrong, is bad to you.

Tavis: You mentioned that you’ve been in this country now as an actor for about 21 years. You are clearly a huge star in Spain. You could have stayed there, you could move back to Spain. Every artist in a different country outside of the U.S. has to decide what is the journey that he or she will take.

Some decide to stay in their native country and do what they do in their native country. You made a decision to come here. Why or what was it pulling you here when you could very well just be the star that you are when you walk down the streets in Spain?

Banderas: Well, it was kind of an accident, in reality. The first time I came to Los Angeles it was become of one of Pedro Almodovar’s movies was nominated for an Academy Award. It was called “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” That was in 1990.

So something interesting happened that is funny, too. We went to visit some of the agencies here in town, and I remember there was, and still is, an agency called ICM.

I visited these agents because we were just kind of doing a tour over town and they received us there very kindly and they put us in a room. I remember all these guys talking to me; I didn’t understand one word of what they said. Nothing. (Laughter) So I was smiling a lot, and then when I came out of that room there was a kid that was actually taking coffees to the agents’ offices.

He spoke Spanish. He was originally from Cuba. He said to me in Spanish, “Do you mind if I represent you in America?” and I said, “Sure, you can represent me in America,” and I went away. I gave him, I think, my telephone number in Spain.

So I went to do an Italian movie, and when I went back to Spain he called me and he said, “You have to go to London and have an interview with this man from New York. He’s called Arnie Lyncher, and he’s going to do a movie called ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,’ which is a Pulitzer Prize by Oscar Hijuelos. Please go to London.”

I said, “But I don’t speak English. What am I going to do with a guy from New York?” “You have to go there. You just fake that you speak English.” (Laughter) How you can fake that?

So I went to London and I sat there and this very (unintelligible) young man, wonderful guy, came and talked and talked, and I just was saying “Yes,” and “Of courses,” and things like that, and, “Of course.” (Laughter) I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I learned one line that was my big monologue that basically was, “I can do that,” and he believed it. (Laughter) He believed it, and two weeks after they took me to New York and I did a test with at the time I think it was Kevin Kline and (unintelligible), wonderful group of actors that I admire very much from Spain, to see them in American movies.

So I did the test and they picked me to do the movie. They took the risk to say, “Well, we are interested in you as an actor for this particular character.” So when I finished I went back to Spain, and then Jonathan Demme, a year after, called me to do “Philadelphia.”

So I did the movie and I went back to Spain, and I was establishing kind of a bridge between both countries, and then something happened that changed my life – it’s that I met my wife, Melanie, and I decided just to move here to America because she came with two kids and they had two fathers here in the United States.

I didn’t have kids from my first marriage, so it was clear that I was the one who had to move, and that’s what made me live in California. I live here.

Tavis: You don’t have to give his name, but I’m really curious in this story about the enterprising young man who was bringing coffee into the room who had the presence of mind to say to you, “Let me represent you here.”

Banderas: He’s a huge agent now. (Laughter)

Tavis: Of course he is; he represents you. Of course he’s a huge agent.

Banderas: No, no, he represents me and he represents people like Tom Cruise, he represents Robert DeNiro, he represents – he actually became not only a talent agent, he became a financial agent to put packages together.

Tavis: Wow.

Banderas: He almost kind of saved – not saved, but he brought an incredible amount of money also to DreamWorks and Stephen Spielberg, and he was named the agent of the year I think two years ago. So he got –

Tavis: That’s a great story. That guy was bringing coffee to the room, but he picked –

Banderas: That’s what he was doing at the time. But this is the story of America.

Tavis: Oh, it is, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Banderas: This is the story of this country, people like that.

Tavis: Yeah. Since you mentioned your wife, what is the secret, if there is one for you, at least, of making these Hollywood marriages work? So-called Hollywood marriages.

Banderas: I think the secret is very simple and very complicated, and it’s reduced to something as simple as we love each other. (Laughter) It’s kind of difficult to say that because people may not even believe it. (Laughter)

You know what? I think it’s that we both came from failures in our relationships before we met each other, and I think we learned that you cannot keep alive those first feelings of the first encounter, the first six months, the first year.

People change, couples change, and you have to be able to accept what is coming without trying to hang on things that you had before that they may disappear but they may transform into something that is even better.

So you have to give time. People are not patient anymore. They are looking always for that first feeling that they may lose after that particular period of time. It could be two years, maybe, I don’t know. Each one has his own.

So we believed, we have faith that there are other worlds after that, and we believe that we could actually come out of our crisis, because we’re not perfect. We are human beings and we fight like everybody else. So we accept ourselves and the humanity of each other, without looking for perfection and for a clean fairy tale.

No, this is just life. Both of us at the same time I think we have a very strong sense of family, and Melanie’s a great mother, and family is another concept that came actually when we got together. It’s not only just her and me. Pepe Saramago, Nobel Prize of literature from Portugal, he used to say that a couple of made of three people, of three entities – the wife and the husband and the two of them together.

It’s a different (unintelligible). We keep our individualities, and at the same time there is that third entity that is just both of us together. I think that we are very clear with that.

Tavis: You and I were talking before we came on the set that we’re neighbors where we live here in L.A., and I remember, as all your fans do, when you and Melanie Griffith got together, and you said something now that again, I’m just – you’re so wise, I’m just curious as to your own take on this.

This is terribly common in our country now, but that is this notion of blended families – when a husband and a wife get together, and in your case you didn’t have kids from your first marriage, but she’s got kids and you’re coming in and there are a couple of stepdads – not stepdads, but fathers, biological fathers.

It’s a blended family, and every one of these things is different. I grew up in a blended family. But your thoughts on how you make blended families work these days, because there are certain examples of blended families that do work, but there are also many examples of where the infighting can just rip the thing apart.

Banderas: I don’t know, if I had the secret recipe that I actually could give everybody, I think it has to do very much with believing in yourself and giving time. Giving time to each member of the family.

For us, it’s not easy. I often feel very guilty because of the time that I spend outside of my home, and the little time that sometimes I have for my kids. So it’s very difficult for me to give advice to anybody. I know things that we did at the beginning – we used to travel with our kids everywhere, if I had to work in Argentina, we took them with us and we had a professor with us all the time, just teaching them.

But at the same time we started realizing that they need other kids and to interact with other kids. It was very good, though. It was very good, though, because I remember I think I did a movie with Mia Farrow, 1993, I think it was, and she always commented to me, “Antonio, it’s very good that you take your kids with you to another country, because I was raised in Hollywood and I thought that the whole, entire world was like Beverly Hills. That cost me in my life when I realized that that is not the world, that there were a lot of kids suffering, and they have a different life than I had. It was kind of a traumatic thing for me.”

So for me and for Melanie it was very important for our kids to see other realities, kids in Mexico, how they live, or in Argentina or in Spain and some other places, so they don’t believe that the world is reduced to the beautiful cut grass that you find in Beverly Hills. That the realities of the world are different.

So we always kept our doors very open for those type of feelings to come in the house, to share with them. But at the same time, as I said to you, sometimes I feel very guilty, so I don’t know if I am a clear example of a perfect father, because sometimes I also just punish myself, saying I’m not doing probably the right thing at this particular moment. It’s a secret.

Tavis: This is a great segue to circle back to the movie by first asking this question, which is those guilty feelings notwithstanding, are you, Antonio Banderas, at this point in your life comfortable with the skin that you live in?

Banderas: (Laughs) I guess so. Yes, I would say yes. I know that I have still areas that I’m not very happy about myself. I think everybody does. I kind of recognize them. Some of them I try just to overcome and just try to be better and trying to be self-analytic, but there are – I recognize always myself as a human being, and I’ve never done anything bad to another person consciously.

I may unconsciously probably provoke some bad things for others, but I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable with my family, with myself, with my professional life. Now, I’m 51 already and I started looking at life at this particular moment always thinking in the future, but there is a lot of things that you start accumulating behind.

That gives you a certain amount of tranquility. I am not anxious as I used to be. I used to run somewhere that I didn’t even know. It’s not like that play by Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” but “Looking for Godot.”

Tavis: That’s right.

Banderas: And Godot was nothing. I feel like I’m more tranquil now, that I can – I think the worst enemy for success is the anxiousness to get it – the worst. I am more concentrating now on what I do and what I do professionally, it starts with “action” and it finishes with “cut,” and everything else around is just part of life that I don’t have to play so intensely as I used to play before. I feel more content at this particular time in my life.

Tavis: To your beautiful phrase, how would you describe, then, what happens, how would you describe what happens between “action” and “cut” on this particular film, “The Skin I Live In?” What happens between “action” and “cut?”

Banderas: It happens – it’s very difficult to talk about this movie because if I –

Tavis: Because you can’t give it away.

Banderas: I cannot give it away. (Laughter)

Tavis: Exactly. That’s why I’m not asking you about it until the last two minutes of the conversation.

Banderas: It’s a movie that basically reflects about power, it reflects about revenge, it reflects also about creation. The characters may be sometimes confused. Sometimes I think I am playing a monster, and he is. But sometimes I think I’m playing an artist, and sometimes –

Tavis: He’s that as well, though.

Banderas: Oh, yes.

Tavis: Yeah, given his profession.

Banderas: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Banderas: I do reflect about that, I do reflect about real, real artists not being that far away from a monster, and the opposite direction too. But it’s a movie that reflects about all of those. Identity is another issue in the movie that is very, very strong, and survival. You can change a person in their exterior aspects, but the soul remains, it still is there, and especially if that person has been changed involuntarily.

The movie goes pretty much about that. Besides that is the re-encounter with somebody, Pedro Almodovar, who is still risking, who never will bend to the mainstream type of movies that he has been invited to do so, and they probably put a lot of money on the table for him to do so, but he said, “No, I’m going to keep my personality. I’m not going to bend to that. I will die being as pure as I can be.” That in our days is a big, fresh glass of water in the desert.

Tavis: Yes, and that makes this movie, “The Skin I Live In,” worth going to see. Always difficult trying to have these conversations when you don’t want to give too much of the film away.

Banderas: I know.

Tavis: But I think just saying Pedro and Antonio should make you want to go see it. (Laughter) It made me want to see it, so I think it’d make you want to see it as well.

I’m honored to have you on this program. I enjoyed this conversation.

Banderas: Thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: Antonio Banderas, thank you much.

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Last modified: October 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm