It’s been 17 years since Antonio Banderas came to America and it’s been something of a roller coaster from action movies to musicals to Broadway with most of his biggest success coming from family films like the “Spy Kids” series with long time collaborator Robert Rodriguez, and now the “Shrek” films as the suave and overly confident Puss In Boots; although he’d be the first to tell you that his career is in many ways just getting into gear, and he may be right. As I’ve discovered in the short space of time leading up to this interview, his popularity, especially with women, is as high as ever.
It’s a blustery Houston day when Antonio comes into a room at the Four Seasons in a baggy green shirt and cargos for a brief peek at the eagerly awaited Shrek the Third (view new images!). He’s a very animated speaker who talks with his hands and occasionally does voices, and unfortunately no print interview can quite do the experience justice.
Antonio Banderas: It’s like an audition. [Laughs]. So, what do you want to know about this cat?
CS: How did they approach you for the Puss and what’s it like being an animated cat?
Banderas: It’s unbelievable for me, especially knowing I arrived in this country 17 years ago not speaking one word of English and now they are calling me just to use my voice. So weird. I suppose there is something there of acceptance, from American audiences, for my accent, and recognition at the same time. And just to give me the possibility, in a way, to laugh at myself and some of the characters, in my life, [that] I have done. Like Zorro, there is obviously a mocking situation here, in between Zorro and Puss In Boots. And then I think, in the world we live in today, to have the possibility of laughing at yourself is something very healthy, so I am very happy actually that I am part of this family. It’s a good family.
They know what they’re doing, very serious in the way that they attack the project. Different departments, all of them creative, from a technology point of view. They are developing the programs in the studio every year under secrecy, because they want to use them themselves, they don’t want to pass them to anybody but the use of hair in the characters, wetness, shadows, all this stuff. So there is actually a very big difference between the first one, which was, initially, very impressive, to the last one. There are certain steps they are taking, they are very serious. All the creative side of it you know, everybody who is working on this movie, which is obviously a big team of people, creating this story and when we would actually record… it’s a very interesting thing because not so many people know how we do it. We do it separately. We never got all the actors together. And there’s a reason for that.
Probably we could do the whole entire movie, we’ve got the script, we could do the whole entire movie in one week, just make an appointment for the actors at once. But then you lock the movie, and don’t have the possibility of growing in the process. What we do, what they do, is distribute the entire recording of the movie in a year and a half. It’s a long process. Now, you cannot actually count, with 15 different people all on different projects all around the world, to put them together to do a session and then send them away, bring them back. That’s why we record one by one.
But that allowed us to actually create and take branches of the movie and grow them in one direction and other ones, they don’t grow in that direction so to modify the initial script, the initial idea, so the original script we had in our hands when we start doing the movie and the final product are totally different. Not totally different, but very different, because they want to have the input of everyone who’s working on the project. I mean when you start working there you just say your lines as they are written in the script, and then they ask you, and that’s the beauty, to improvise and to bring your own ideas and to even ask you as an actor what would you do as that character now? Would you hide behind the tree, would you jump on the shoulders of Shrek? What would you do? And everyone is subject to that process, so the movie starts growing in totally different directions. I think that is, in a way, the secret to the freshness of “Shrek.”
And I have experienced this, not myself my wife did, I think, Margot, which was a bird in “Stuart Little” and the process was totally different, totally different. She said to me “oh my god, they just made me repeat this line 80 times,” and then everything is almost like put into a tube. You don’t have the possibility of letting out and expressing yourself in a way that you feel the character, that you feel the whole entire story.
At the same time we have cameras, the whole time, when we record the voices, so they record our body movements, and that is demanded all the time by the animators. They want to see what did you do with specific lines, did you do ‘this’ [mimes snapping the brim of an imaginary hat] with your hat, the way that you look, the way that you do this with a sword, because we move a lot when we are doing it. You cannot spend three or four hours in front of a microphone and… you actually perform.
So that is the whole entire thing for us. Just to give them the best material they can have, different possibilities, saying lines in many different ways, and just having your input “I would say this line this way” or “I wouldn’t say this, but what about this?” “Oh, that’s funnier.”
You’re trying to discover, what I said to you before, what are the sources of comedy for the character? If I’m going to go with a voice that fits the body [high pitched squeak] “looks like this, speaks like this,” it wouldn’t create so much comedy. It’s the fact that we actually broke the voice that doesn’t correspond with the body, and when you create contrast, that’s the beginning of comedy and then you can jump into something different. It’s just that kind of arrogance and old Spanish persona that you bring to this, that’s what starts producing comedy because it doesn’t correspond to the image he’s supposed to have. He’s never looked at himself in the mirror. If he looked in the mirror he feels that he’d be six feet tall. But he’s not like that, obviously [laughs]. So that is the whole entire process of how we make this happen.
CS: When you saw it on screen the first time, the whole thing put together, what was your reaction to it?
Banderas: Freaky. Freaky, freaky. Freaky because you are watching this cat and you are watching yourself. It’ like an alter ego. And you are watching it and you see yourself, or things you have done in characters in some of your movies. The way that he looks [mimics Puss’s sad eyes]. I do that. Even the way he walks, sometimes. It’s funny, because sometime he looks like Zorro. It’s a freaky experience. Especially Donkey. Eddie Murphy always said to me “You know, sometimes I look at the guy on the screen and I see myself.”
CS: Have you ever pulled off the sad eyes look?
Banderas: I tried, but it hasn’t worked. In this third part he tries, but now his friends know that weapon. He tries it on Shrek at the beginning of the movie and he is thrown out of the room. He wants to sleep in the beautiful comfort there and [Shrek] is “No, out!” So he is out, and he looks in through the window with the eyes and Shrek just “pop” [mimes closing curtains] takes the curtains down. Says no way, you’re not going to do that to me any more.
And then, they switch characters. Merlin [voiced by Eric Idle] has a problem with his magic and they [Puss and Donkey] traumatically, I may say change bodies. He [Donkey] wins, because he gets the better body. But then he tries to do the same eye thing with Donkey, and pulls the most stupid face you have ever seen in an animated movie, and everyone goes “what are you doing?” [Laughs].
Obviously you can see we had our fun with it, and that’s important. You have… if I’m going to have fun, the audience is going to have fun, too. That’s very important.
CS: You said in a 2004 interview “I hate that cat because women love that cat more than they love me.”
Banderas: Yeah, that is true. I was obviously joking [laughs]. But it says a lot about how much I love this cat and in fact and… it’s very interesting because people say to me “wow, the kids stop you in the street, huh?” No. I’m a cat, you know? But the mothers, I hear them say sometimes “look, that’s Puss In Boots.” And the kids look at me and say “no, that’s not Puss In Boots, that’s the father of ‘Spy Kids!'” [Laughs]. And they tell me “say something to my kids” and I “Hello” and it’s “oh, mom, it’s him!” [Laughs]. But I was just joking with that whole thing. But it’s true, actually. It’s based on true story. Women, especially before, were “oh, we loved you in Zorro, you looked so cool” and now it’s “I love you pussy cat!” [Laughs].
CS: I notice there is a “Shrek 4” coming out in 2010. Is there a lot, even more than that, already planned?
Banderas: The “Shrek” entire run is going to be 5 movies, so far. Now in between 4 and 5, Puss is going to have his own movie. It’s going to be called “Puss In Boots: The Story of an Ogre Killer.” I don’t know if you realize but Donkey doesn’t have a movie, himself. [Laughs]. And that will be it, from what Jeffery Katzenberg is communicating to us, but I don’t know, if the character probably some place in the future they may take the character and do it again, and things like that but so far, there were going to be four, but they discovered the novel game them the opportunity to do five. And it’s going to be good for paying audiences, too. It’s not that we are like shaking [laughs] because we know it is going to be a big movie. We know that, because we know there is a lot of expectation, having the awareness of this movie at 100%, which is, well, there’s no higher than that. So everyone’s expecting the movie, the movie’s going to behave very well in the domestic market, the international market, so I suppose the five movies are written down.
But you never know. The movie business gives you surprises some times.
CS: Are you going to be involved have they told you they need you all the way up to number five?
Banderas: Yes. In fact, in number five if I am not wrong I’m going to play two characters. I’m going to play Puss and the badass brother that he has, a black cat. So it’s an opportunity to do a different voice [puts on scratchy, American accent] “hey bro, how you doing man?” and things like that. So it will be awesome if that happens. I don’t know if that’s going to be included, but I’m going to say at some point that will happen.
His brother, this is the dark side of the family you know, a black sheep, and he comes in there and [puts hands together interlocking fingers] has a confrontation with his own brother, in the movie. But we don’t know yet until it happens.
CS: Are there any roles that you didn’t take that looking back on that you regret not doing?
Banderas: There have been characters that I rejected that actually the actors who did it were rewarded. But I’m going to tell you something. It was meant to be that way. And if I had done those characters I wouldn’t have gotten the attention that they received because they were, the actors, they were right to do those characters and not me. And I have to recognize that.
And it happened to me, specifically, in “Before Night Falls” I didn’t reject it consciously, I was just signed to do another movie at the time and couldn’t do it and the character that Benicio Del Toro did in “Traffic.” That was offered to me, too, and I couldn’t do it because I was signed to another movie. But that’s the history. I don’t want to live in a world of possibilities of what could have happened and didn’t happen. I live in a world of what actually happens to me and I am very happy and satisfied with my career, with the feeling still that I am getting started yet. I have certain characters that I would like to chew on, more serious characters.
It’s a coincidence in my life many people ask my “why you did so many kids movies?” and it was a coincidence. I did six movies with Robert Rodriguez, and when he called me to do “Spy Kids” I would have rode with him to Hell. And if he would have asked me to do something else I would have done it. We worked very beautifully in “Desperado” and that friendship and so I did those three movies for Robert and they were successful so there was a second and a third part.
In the case of “Shrek” it’s totally different. “Shrek” became a counter cultural project. You’ve got to think that with this project, the first one and the second one were presented in the Cannes Film Festival with the whole entire intellectuality of Europe in the movie theater after they are watching very interesting Czechoslovakian movies [laughs] and suddenly, in the first time they were there, there was a big buzz in the entire festival that the movie could have won the Palme d’Or. So it’s a movie that in the world of animated movies, you have to respect it. Immediately, after Jeffery Katzenberg called me I said yes, I want to be part of that. I didn’t even know the length of the character at the time. I said an unconditional yes to him, and I don’t regret it.
And things may change in the future. I am searching now for other types of characters. I think I didn’t totally squeeze myself in American movies yet. But I am searching for movies that are more mature, more urban. I’m really tired of doing epic characters and characters that are two centuries ago. I want to do characters that are more me, like the characters I did, for example, in “Take the Lead.” Urban, our day and life, with actual problems.
At the same time I am preparing my way back to Broadway. We are I suppose you know Nilo Cruz? Nilo is a Cuban fighter that won a Pulitzer Prize, actually the year I was on Broadway for a play called “Anna and the Tropics.” So he is writing a play now for us, for David Leveaux who is going to be the director, the same director as “Nine” and myself. We’re going to produce Don Juan, Don Giovanni, on Broadway with a totally new approach to the character. The music we don’t know yet who is going to write it, we have to finish first with the book then give it to a composer, but we plan that to happen at some point in 2008.
At the same time I have a production office opening in Spain for the production of movies. I just directed my second movie “El Camino de los ingleses.” In English it’s going to be called “Summer Rain.” It was presented in the Sundance Festival, in Berlin, which we got an award there, and it’s going to go now probably to Seattle Film Festival.
So, the vocation of the company, it wasn’t born just to produce my movies as director, but to produce young kids that don’t have the opportunity to direct movies, that have been just traveling with a script under their arm, knocking doors and stuff like that. I think there’s a lot of talent in Southern Spain and I want to promote that. So we’ll just now produce our second movie with a young kid, he’s 20 years old.
But that is a project that I have preserved to Spain. Partially because I want to direct more, movies that became for me very personal. I don’t think in the box office when I direct I don’t think what’s going to be the reaction of the professional world or anything like. I just try to create in a space of freedom to experiment with movies in a way that I cannot do in Hollywood. For doing these mainstream movies I have this. But if I want to experiment and travel in a different direction I go to Spain and I have opportunities to do that there because money is not such a big issue there.
It’s a totally different thing. You have to think in Spain and France and Italy, Germany movies are sanctioned by the government. We don’t have studios, but movies are considered the cultural wealth of the country. So the different administrations in the country the central government, the different regional governments, the local governments and then some sponsors are the ones who pay for the movies. For me or whoever, it works, in a way. So the risk is minimal, because if the money they give you is lost they don’t want it back. It’s considered the cultural wealth of the country, it’s almost like keeping a museum alive. This is a concept that in America doesn’t exist.
I was with Paul Newman, a couple of years ago in New York and talking about the possibility of America having a national theater, he said to me “that’s impossible.” Because there’s nothing that the state actually could culturally sanction, because this is a private art. Wherever you do movies, do theater, it has to be private.
In Europe it’s not like that. You have to think that the distance between Moscow and Madrid is the same between New York and Los Angeles, but we speak 16 languages in the middle. So we don’t have a domestic market the size of America. In America, just the domestic market feeds the industry in Hollywood because you have potentially 300 million people to watch a movie. So that gives you power to jump into the world of promotion and people risk a tremendous amount of money just to make movies.
But in Europe, no. How do you sell a movie in Czechoslovakia that’s spoken in Spanish when we have even different cultures. For me it’s more difficult to understand a movie from Hungary or Switzerland than an American movie. Why? Because we are codified into American culture. We have been seeing these movies since we are kids. But I don’t know so much about the culture in Hungary. I don’t know… why are the relationships between people, why is it so slow, why is it so strange? It looks a little bit odd to me, and it is because our cultures are absolutely different from each other. And that is one of the main problems and that is why governments have to take action in order not to allow cinema to die.
Shrek the Third opens in theaters on May 18.