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MOVIES

A Cape. A Sword. A Star?

Antonio Banderas hopes his swashbuckling role as the legendary Spanish hero Zorro will turn him from a hearthrob into a major Hollywood player.

July 12, 1998|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

It was around 2 o'clock one afternoon near Guaymas, Mexico, and temperatures were hovering at a throat-parching 118 degrees. The heat had been so brutal that urgent calls had gone out to Mexico City to send salt tablets for cast and crew members who were beginning to wilt.

And there was the hair-raising admonition of watching where one stepped. More than a dozen men would fan out to clear the area of poisonous snakes, and they were averaging three or four rattlers a day.

On this particular afternoon, as the order to commence action was given, Antonio Banderas, bearded and cloaked with sweat, began running . . . and running . . . and thinking, "What am I doing here?"

"It's like you have to get into an almost Zen position and try and overcome the situation," the actor recalls now with a laugh.

Like Banderas, they had all come to Mexico to film TriStar Pictures' "The Mask of Zorro," and, like Banderas, each had his own reasons for making the high-profile summer action movie.

For co-star Anthony Hopkins, it was a chance to shake off bygone roles and play a character who wasn't, in his words, "dead from the kneecaps up." And what better character to portray than Zorro, that sword-slashing Robin Hood of Old California?

For Catherine Zeta-Jones, an ex-dancer who hails from a town in Wales not 20 miles from Hopkins' Port Talbot, it was a chance to appear in her first major American film, a chance offered her by no less a Hollywood titan than Steven Spielberg.

For Martin Campbell, who made the 1995 James Bond thriller, "GoldenEye," it was the opportunity to direct an action film devoid of high-tech weaponry.

Spielberg's production company, Amblin Entertainment, and TriStar's parent studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment, were simply taking a gamble that Zorro would emerge as an action hero for the late 1990s, spawning lucrative sequels like "Batman."

And Banderas?

If it flies, if audiences flock to "The Mask of Zorro" when it debuts Friday the way test audiences indicate they should, then Banderas will achieve something that has eluded the 37-year-old heartthrob: the lead role in a certified blockbuster.

Born in Malaga, Spain, Banderas is well aware of the immense popularity Zorro enjoys in the Latin world.

"It's a myth--a Spanish myth--that has never been acted or performed by a Spanish guy," he says. "I think they deserve to have a hero back from the old days."

Sitting cross-legged on a sloping lawn outside Culver Studios in Culver City, where he is directing his first film, "Crazy in Alabama," Banderas greets a visitor with a warm smile conveys instant friendship. He wears shorn locks that bear a resemblance to a Roman emperor--or a kid playing soccer. This casual look--a director's look--is a bit of a change from the sweat-streaked sex symbol that he portrays in "Zorro."

Banderas needs no encouragement to launch a conversation. The words spill from his lips in a rapid-fire, heavily Spanish-accented English that is difficult, at times, to understand. His mind races from subject to subject--the challenge of making "Zorro," the self-doubts about directing "Crazy in Alabama," the mistakes he made midway in his career, the times when he and his wife, Melanie Griffith, were hunted by the paparazzi, the years growing up in Spain.

As a boy, Banderas knew first-hand what it was like to live under an oppressive political climate. At school, he and other children were forced to give the straight-armed fascist salute and sing the national anthem of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. Caution was his constant companion.

"You feel you cannot talk about certain things--even if you are a kid," Banderas said.

Although he was never a political rebel, Banderas recalled being led away by police at 14 after he and members of a theater group defied the government by performing the forbidden work of Bertholt Brecht.

"I remember seeing the shine of the helmets of the cops in the wings of the theater just waiting for us," Banderas said. "I remember just getting out after the applause and putting my hands like that [straightening his arms out in front of him] and being handcuffed."

As a child, Banders says, he would sit in the darkened theater, wishing he were up there on stage.

"I remember being impressed by old actors because they were still kids," he said. "Those old men, 70 years old, were on stage playing like a kid. It was fascinating to me--the possibility of not growing up."

After working in a small theater company in his hometown, Banderas moved to Madrid in 1981, becoming an ensemble member of the National Theater of Spain. A year later, he was cast by writer-director Pedro Almodovar in "Labyrinth of Passion," the first of five movies they would make together, including "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

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