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BANDERAS, ANTONIO: Crazy in Alabama

A CHANGE FROM SALAMI
He wanted a change from salami movies, Antonio Banderas tells JIMMY THOMSON, which is why he wants to direct; his first film, with wife Melanie Griffith in a starring role, was premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, before its Australian release.

The studios weren't keen. Audiences weren't keen. But, finally, no one could stop Latin pin-up Antonio Banderas slipping away from the Hollywood spotlight and slip behind the cameras to try his hand at directing.

"The urge was born in me five or six years ago, when I started thinking about the possibility of jumping behind the camera and I sometimes didn't understand the stories of someone else," says The Mask of Zorro star in slightly re-assembled English. "So many actors are doing that. There was Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Johnnie Depp, Gary Oldman ... You just want to share with people your opinions.

"they're a little bit like making salami"

"Usually actors go much more experimental when they're directing, too. They're usually the stars of big mainstream movies, which are magnificent but they're a little bit like making salami. You're doing the same thing over and over. It's very well done, but the same.

"So I wanted to do an alternative to the big, mainstream Hollywood movies that I usually do. Not because I hate them, but because I saw an opportunity to say what we are about, to follow my heart, to follow my instincts."

Banderas' debut as a director has already proved the skeptics wrong. His first movie, Crazy In Alabama, is a fast-paced black comedy with a serious edge of compelling drama about race relations in the US south of the '60s. The comedy comes from his wife, Melanie Griffith, in her starring role as an eccentric dame who cuts off her abusive husband's head and carries it, in a Tupperware box, to Hollywood to strike for stardom.

It was a tough ask to meld the two themes seamlessly, but most critics agree: Banderas has pulled it off, and in dashing style.

Sitting drawing on a cigarette in Venice's upmarket Excelsior Hotel just after the premiere, Banderas looks comfortable and relaxed as he chats about the movie that's turned him from Latin beefcake into ... intelligent, creative Latin beefcake.

This film may have been an exceedingly ambitious first choice as director, but as soon as he saw the script, he was won over.

"I just fell in love with the book," he says. "It's about justice, life and death, freedom, all things that are very close to my heart. I had years under a dictatorship in Spain, so freedom is very important to me. And I know about racial intolerance.

Dressed entirely in black, Banderas rocks forward from his relaxed slump,
leaning intently to emphasise how seriously he takes his new role.

"It is fun, interesting and really alternative"

"It is completely different to anything that's been done before, it is original and a little bit eccentric. It is fun, interesting and really alternative. Exactly the type of vehicle I wanted."

It wasn't the easiest to raise the money for, however. The studios were nervous. While Banderas and Griffith had formed their own production company, this was their first project, and Banderas was as yet untried, particularly for such an ambitious project.

"In the end, I lied to the studio to get it up," says Banderas, smiling. "Alan Parker in London asked me how a studio allowed me to do such a different, politically incorrect movie. I said because I felt they were thinking in different way. I sold them the idea that we were doing Something About Mary II.

"In reality, when they saw the movie, they loved it, but said maybe we should take out the politics. We then waited to see what the audience said. And in the test screenings, 73 per cent gave it a high recommendation. Then the studio says, `Love the movie!'

The response to the movie has since been generally warm, but varied. "In America, they've been saying it's an interesting European way to look at the culture," smiles Banderas. "Here in Europe, they say, `Antonio! It's so American! Then a reviewer in Hong Kong doesn't even believe I directed the movie. It's funny. He keeps saying someone from the studio did it and put on my name to promote it. Jesus Christ! The opposite happened!"

While he loved the experience of directing, though, Banderas was plagued by a whole new set of doubts to what he's shouldering a movie as an actor. He admits he was desperately worried at times with so many people's work - and sometimes lives - resting in his hands.

"It was kind of scary"

"It was kind of scary because one of the stories in the movie is based on reality," he says. "I was so worried that I might damage someone by not telling the story properly or if I destroyed Melanie. Imagine if I'd done that in my first movie! Or if I hurt the people involved in the civil rights movement of the time.

"I'm very respectful of the civil rights movement, but imagine if that happened. I think the movie ended up portraying them in a very dignified way, I hope. They've got a purpose and they go for it all the time with the principle of no-violence of Martin Luther King."

Banderas, as we all know, rose to international fame through his starring roles in the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. His first American film was The Mambo Kings with Armand Assante, for which he learned all his lines phonetically because he didn't speak a word of English.

His success in that debut led him on to a variety or projects, including Interview With A Vampire, Evita - directed by Alan Parker - Never Talk To Strangers, The House of the Spirits, Desperado, Assassins and The Mask Of Zorro. His most recent success was in The 13th Warrior, while he'll next be seen in Play It To The Bone, opposite Woody Harrelson.

"firing with ideas for new projects of his own"

In addition, he is firing with ideas for new projects of his own, including one of racing driver Ayrton Senna and another on General Franco.

"Ayrton Senna is another of our projects," he says. "This character was tormented and having a bad time and predicting that he was going to die. We have flashbacks in time, reflections of being a champion.

"We got the rights from his family only just recently and we're moving ahead little by little. The problem is, you can't make a film about racing without having to see some action and that's expensive. I will play Ayrton and Michael Mann will direct."

The Franco film will, however, be his next as director. "It's a novel that I have in my hands and I am close to getting the rights," he says. "It would be my second directing job, I think. It is called Malaga is Burning. It is about a woman who was a witness to the civil war in Spain in the '30s. It's a poetic vision of civil war that will probably be my second project. Franco was born in Malaga at that time.

"For Crazy In Alabama, I was a foreigner talking about a foreign issue. This time it's a North American woman, played by Melanie, talking about a very strong, taboo European issue."

But does this success mean that Banderas will, in future, concentrate on directing more than acting? He shakes his head. While he loved the experience of directing and relishes starting his next project, acting always has been his first love.

"I'm not going to stop acting"

"I'm not going to stop acting, I love acting because that's my profession," he says. "It's because I'm acting in big-stream [he probably means mainstream] Hollywood movies that has allowed me to have the possiblity of directing.

"I have the advantage in one way over the other directors in that all they do is direct. For me, on the other hand, all my directing can be personal, because I don't have to worry about the box office, that's not my only concern."

You can almost hear the sigh of relief from studios and audiences around the world.

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