Antonio Banderas issues a warning before even starting the interview: “I shouldn’t talk a lot because I have to sing every night.” Then a torrent of words starts pouring out of him as he comments on all kinds of subjects, from musicals to fame, his 2017 heart attack, politics and religion.
A surprisingly strong winter sun is shining down on the sea in Málaga, the southern Spanish city where the actor was born and has now returned to after a successful career in Hollywood. The star of 1990s box-office hits such as The Mask of Zorro, Philadelphia and Interview with the Vampire is now devoting himself heart and soul to musicals. In 2017 he acquired a local theater and reopened it as Teatro del Soho. The venue has put on world-famous productions like A Chorus Line and is now featuring Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which Banderas has a role in.
The 61-year-old celebrity, who is also busy making movies and launching new perfumes, says that his personal goals have changed. It’s not about fame and money anymore, but about pursuing his lifelong passion, musical theater.
The following is an abridged version of the original interview in Spanish published in ICON, the style supplement of EL PAÍS.
Question. After a successful global career, it sounds strange to hear you say that you’ve never felt as comfortable as you do now, living in a small city and working on a modest project
Answer. The key is to discover what one really wants, and I feel I am now doing one of the greatest things of my entire career. I am acting, which is my passion, and I couldn’t care less about its potential impact. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve already been there, done that. I’ve lived in the US for 26 years, I go to Japan and people there recognize me...But right now the most important project of my life is right here, because it gives me tremendous pleasure regardless of fame or money. I am losing money, but this project is not designed for [making money], it is designed with the search for excellence in mind. If I wanted to make money I could not seek excellence, because I could not put 26 musicians into the orchestra pit; instead I’d have put in seven and done some pre-recording work. Nobody can take this pleasure away from me. When I had the heart attack, I realized that I am going to die one day, and that’s why I want to do the things that give me pleasure. When I die, I won’t be able to take money with me; this fact seems very simple yet people don’t get it. People live as though they were not going to die.
Q. And now you feel that what’s really important is theater, and more specifically musicals?
A. I became an actor because of musical theater. My family was very fond of theater and they used to take me to see plays all the time. I thought it was such a a magical thing, people telling a story to other people, a precious act of civilization. In 1976 there was Hair, a revolutionary musical with hippies in it that talked about Vietnam, and I really flipped my lid with that. I was 16 at the time; the day after watching it I went out and bought bell-bottom pants, let my hair grow long and began to consider the possibility of going through the looking-glass myself. Musicals may seem frivolous if you just think about people dancing in feathers, but then you find authors like Sondheim who throw in deep thoughts about subjects like relationships, and which are set to music. It’s a genre that’s been looked down on in Spain, it hasn’t been appreciated the way it is in England or the US even though Spain has a great genre of its own, the zarzuela, which we are also going to produce here.
Q. Theater, Málaga… It sounds like you’re going back to your origins
A. People think I’ve come here to my grave, but that’s not the case. I’ve come to a cradle where I am nurturing the child in me every day. Success for this project will mean if it no longer depends on me, if sponsors back it financially and by the time that I die we have created a major theatrical production center here. I’m not going to stop: we’re going to build a second theater, a school to train theater production technicians and managers, a school for opera and jazz singers, a huge auditorium for large festivals...People see this as a small, local thing, but I see it in a big way, as something that can make the leap from Málaga to the national and international scenes.
Q. Was your decision to return deeply pondered?
A. Things have changed a lot. Earlier, you needed to be in certain places in order to get calls, but now Hollywood is not a place, it’s a brand. And if you’ve got it, it doesn’t matter where you live, they’re going to call you anyway. I can no longer stand to live in big cities, I get really stressed out. And when I had the heart attack and bought the theater, I came to Málaga. The city’s size is just right; I can find what I need, I can walk to the theater every day. I love to walk down the streets, to sit at a bar with friends, to live a more real kind of life. Even Madrid is too much for me.
Q. How did you find your country upon your return?
A. Pretty screwed up...We’ve gone from being citizens to being all suspicious for one reason or another. There are things that really stand out, like the great ease with which we have turned into precisely what we used to criticize. We’re seeing a lot of people penning theories that make the same mistakes that we once criticized, and I am afraid we might be losing our bearings and no longer appreciating what was done at a certain point. Right now I don’t lean any specific way politically: I consider myself a democrat who deeply respects the decisions of the majority. But we are being governed by a lot of minorities.
Q. Your Twitter account shows great concern for certain issues such as climate change.
A. Yes, and for world poverty. I have been collaborating with the United Nations for a long time. There are things that are an absolute outrage, things that could be easily fixed, but it would take 40 or 50 years and politicians only want quick fixes. We complain that Africans are coming in large numbers. That could be fixed with a Marshall Plan where not just countries but also private companies would cooperate. But that doesn’t earn votes...And it’s no wonder Africans are coming – if I had been born in Ethiopia or Sudan myself…
Q. You would get on a migrant boat?
A. There’s no question about it! Rather than stay there, starving to death and feeling like a fool...If we don’t go help them, they’re going to come over here.
Q. When you talk with your American friends, do you sense that climate of civil confrontation that so many people have described?
A. You could see it coming ever since Al Gore won the [2000 presidential] election and they gave victory to George W. Bush because the Supreme Court ended the recount, just like in a banana republic. Back then some of us started to say that something big was underfoot. And it ended like it ended a few years later, with a Cicciolina-like character in power. Americans don’t like the government to meddle with their lives; this has a few advantages and a lot of drawbacks, because you can withdraw from the idea of community and become too individualistic. Things happen in the US that are unfathomable to Spaniards, like the lobbies that go to the Capitol to ask ‘so what’s going on with my interests?’ The pharmaceutical companies, the weapons industry, oil...all those lobbies are in control because they donate money for campaigns that spend pornographic amounts. And really absurd ideas are seeping into politics. For instance, what happened with Gone With The Wind, which cannot be seen now because there’s a Black maid in it that says ‘Miss Scarlett’ and now we need to conceal the past and hide it under a rug.
Q. Are you concerned about the tyranny of political correctness?
A. We’re creating a new kind of censorship. What do we do with Shakespeare’s Othello? Do we burn it in a bonfire like the Nazis did with books? What happened with Gone With The Wind is very curious, because the main character is a woman with huge balls at a time when women were not ballsy at all. But we forget that and just focus on the Black maid. But those things happened back then, and even today African Americans are in a much worse situation than, say, Hispanics. I’ve seen it! I’ve been in Arkansas and damn, there are places where they can’t go in because they get dirty looks!
Q. You never miss the Easter celebrations of Semana Santa. Is is just tradition or are you a little religious?
A. I am comfortable with the mystery of it. I have big doubts, I don’t know whether agnostic is the right word. But I do believe there is something even if we don’t know what it is. Ok, yes, there was the Big Bang. And before that, what? The Semana Santa has many colors to it, it has to do with faith, with popular religion and with Andalusia’s own idiosyncrasy. It is really the Ides of March of Roman times: winter dies and spring is born. In Andalusia it is very colorful and happy because everyone knows that come Sunday, the guy is resurrected. There’s a happy ending.