Antonio Banderas is out on a very polarized and complicated press tour at the moment. While it is not uncommon for an actor to have several projects opening at the same time, there have perhaps never been two more diametrically opposed films opening together than Puss in Boots, a feature-length spinoff of Banderas’ scene-stealing feline fan favorite from the Shrek films, and The Skin I Live In, a shockingly perverse psychological drama that reunites Banderas, now 51, with the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, who first introduced Banderas in such ’80s world cinema classics as Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown. And so, when Banderas and his frequent collaborator/Puss in Boots co-star Salma Hayek came to San Francisco for a red carpet premiere of their film, we were supposed to be talking about the family-friendly Puss in Boots. But, inevitably, the conversation kept working its way back to his other, considerably more lurid project – whether he liked it or not.
San Francisco doesn’t get many film premieres, particularly for movies that weren’t filmed here, so the opportunity to stand at a red carpet on a sheet of paper with my name on it and pretend like I was elbowing Army Archerd out of my way in the press line at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a rare treat. Not that this was a conventional movie premiere. It was a regional promotional event that featured people dressed as animated characters (see above), a handful of San Francisco football players (don’t ask me, I have no idea), and an emcee whose accent made Puss in Boots sound disturbingly like Pussy Boots. This was especially troubling during his call-and-response games with the crowd (“You say pussy, I say boots! Pussy! Pussy!”). Also: flamenco dancers.
All in all, it was quite a festive event. But then shit got real: Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek arrived. They were the only actors from the voice cast (which also includes Zach Galifianakis, Amy Sedaris, and Billy Bob Thornton) in attendance, but still: THEY’RE ANTONIO BANDERAS AND SALMA HAYEK. Icons. Sex symbols. Trail-blazers. People, understandably, were a bit excited to see them in person. Not me, though. I was cool. Just kidding, I was hysterical. I thought maybe I could play it cool, but all bets are off when this is standing in front of you waiting for your question:
So, when it was finally my turn to ask my question, I nervously ambled up to them (but not too close, as there was plenty of security) and thrust my iPhone out to record them. Antonio attempted to put me at ease right away by shaking my hand and saying hello (clearly he didn’t understand this would only fluster me further). I looked to Salma to see if she, too, would extend a hand, but she instead smiled and nodded graciously. For some reason, seeing her do this prompted me to say “Charmed!” while doing a slight and involuntary curtsy. I don’t think I’ve ever said “Charmed!” to someone before, but she’s an international pillar of glamour and sophistication, so it just seemed appropriate. I was moments away from fetching her hand to kiss it, but again: security. (By the way, the over-formal thing spilled into my interview with them the next day as well: when she greeted me with a cheerful “Hello again!” I responded with “How do you do?”, which I didn’t realize until I was transcribing the tape.)
And so, words began to spill from my mouth. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to ask until I began to speak, but I was pleased with what came out:
You’ve both worked a number of times with Robert Rodriguez. How do you think Puss in Boots would be different if he’d written and directed it?
Antonio Banderas: Ooh, dangerous!
Salma Hayek: [laughs] More violence.
AB: Dangerous, because he would have done something personal. Like the other directors I work with, including Almodovar, in totally different styles of movies, Robert is very personal. He has a very specific flair that he brings to the thing, so it would have come out very different from what we have. It would be interesting! Maybe in the future, who knows?
If you could go back and remake any of your earlier films as animated films, what would you pick?
AB: Oh, that’s interesting.
SH: For me, not a film but it’s something I produced: Ugly Betty. I think Ugly Betty would be fantastic as animation.
AB: I am thinking an Almodovar movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – as a cartoon.
SH: Not the last one.
Not The Skin I Live In?
AB: No. That one, I don’t think so.
And then the publicist ushered them along to the next journalist. So there it was. The first time The Skin I Live In forced its way into a conversation intended to be about Puss in Boots. For the record, Salma is the one who brought it up. Anyway, that was the end of our (successful, I think) red carpet interaction, so I floated into the theater and settled in for the movie. Which, by the way, is very funny! Similar to Rango, it is a thoroughly enjoyable animated Western, with delightful voice acting from Banderas and Hayek (and, of course, the ever-dependable Amy Sedaris). Anyone who’s seen the Shrek films knows that Puss in Boots is an inspired character, and this film makes excellent use of his many charms.
Then, the next day, I sat down with a more casual-looking Banderas and Hayek for a more extensive conversation about Puss in Boots, The Skin I Live In, the changing face of Latinos in Hollywood, and the #1 thing Hayek does to infuriate Banderas on the press trail.
Antonio, how did you react when you first found out that Puss in Boots was getting his own animated feature?
AB: It was a mixture of emotion, because the news was given to me right after the premiere in Cannes of Shrek 2. Mr. [Jeffrey] Katzenberg saw the reaction of the people, and how much the character got in the heart of everybody who was at the premiere that night – and I’m talking about the intellectuals of Europe who were at the festival! So he said to me, “I see the cat having a lot of potential, Antonio, so we want to study the possibility of someday putting him on the screen as the star of his own movie.” It was beautiful.
The two of you have collaborated so many times over the years. Do you still remember the first time you met and what your initial impressions of each other were?
[both suck in their breath]
SH: [laughs] That is a loaded question.
AB: It was a screen test.
SH: [under her breath] We don’t really like to talk about it… But it was at the [Desperado] screen test in Los Angeles, and I was super-excited because it was the biggest break of my life! My dream’s about to come true, and I get to meet Antonio Banderas! So, for me, I remember it very well. For him, it’s like, “Wait, which one was it that got it? This one? That one?” He met me, but he didn’t really [remember me]. He was super-nice! He really calmed my nerves and was wonderful, but apparently he had to do that with all those other girls who came in before and after me. [laughs] So I remember the first time really, really well. He says he remembers a little bit later, like a week, once we got to Texas and I showed up to the pool in a bikini.
AB: That, I remember very well.
SH: “Oh, that one! That one is the one that got it!”
Is that how you remember meeting her?
AB: I remember a woman, almost in slow motion, coming to a pool in a panther’s bikini, and I thought, “Oh man. This beautiful woman, this princess from Veracruz, Mexico. Look at that, check it out!”
You’ve both worked with Robert Rodriguez several times. What is the chemistry like on his sets? I know he moves very quickly.
SH: It’s great. For me, it was my school. I see other actors, after they get to sets, directors have to say, “Faster! Do this, do that!” For me – I had the best training! Nobody says that to me! And I think he has great chemistry with Antonio. It’s exciting to watch because Antonio is very fast too, he’s always ready to go. They’re very high-energy, both of them, so I was just trying to catch up the whole time! But it’s very vibrant on the set. It’s hot! These people don’t like to sit around and wait. There’s always something happening.
AB: I think the worst enemy for an actor may be just being very self-conscious. You can’t think too much about [chemistry], just let it go. When it happens with somebody, I try not to intellectualize that relationship. The things I’ve worked on with Salma, it has been like that. We never actually sat down and thought -
SH: “Why do we work well together?”
AB: You just forget about it. It’s better.
When you’re in the studio recording your voice work, do you get into the movements of the characters? Even though you can’t see the characters, do you get physically moving?
SH: You can’t help it! I’m Latin. I can be seated in the middle of a very serious fight, and if you start playing some salsa, my butt’s gonna start moving. Even if I’m fighting with you, my butt’s just gonna start wiggling because it’s in my blood! So I think that British people, maybe they can just talk and say the lines and go all over the place without moving a muscle in their body, but I don’t think we can. So when you’re doing the voice, everything’s coming with it!
You both played vampires way before it was cool [Banderas in Interview with the Vampire, Hayek in From Dusk Till Dawn]. And, might I add, much sexier vampires than any of the current crop. Since you’ve both gone there as actors, do you have any thoughts on the massive appeal of vampires at the moment?
AB: It’s interesting that vampires are promising of an eternal life, which is pretty much what everybody in Hollywood wants to attain. [laughs] It’s almost like a parable of what’s in the mind of everybody who’s trying to be young forever. So I remember thinking when I was doing Interview with the Vampire that they’re interesting characters. I don’t know at this particular moment if they’re a little over-exploited, because vampires, as I have seen them portrayed lately, have to do more about sex than about horror! It’s kind of weird. I like to think about vampires and go back to the times of Bela Lugosi and all those actors in the old movies, the darkness of it and the mystery of it. Now it’s almost more like an extension of sexual or sensual kinds of activities…
SH: I think that young people are having a hard time. Like, at this time in the history of the world, I think it must be a very hard time to be young. There’s so much turmoil, politically and environmentally, socially and economically. You constantly feel threatened. So I think the myth of the vampires, it’s a strange place where they can still feel the violence of the world, but have a parallel escape where there’s actually a possibility that by being the fish out of water, the outcast, you can survive these times. I think it might have something to do with all of that, and the sexuality that comes with it. [pause] I don’t know. I’m being too serious. [laughs] But I find it interesting.
How have you seen things change for Latinos in film since Desperado? Do you think Hollywood has actually changed?
AB: It has to do very much with the rise of the Latino community in this country. What I recognize there is generations that came to this country from difficult political and social situations in their own countries, looking for a better life, having probably to perform works that they didn’t do in their countries, working very hard, making their kids study so that they will become somebody. And those generations who went to university came out and started occupying positions of power. Now it is not rare to see [Latino] doctors, architects, the chief of a bank, even a politician. There is a woman on the Supreme Court who is Spanish [Sonia Sotomayor]. And that has definitely had a reflection on Hollywood.
When I came here 21 years ago, it was completely different. I remember people telling me when I was doing Mambo Kings, “If you’re going to stay in this country as an actor, you’re going to play a lot of bad guys. Spanish and Blacks only get to play bad guys.” That’s what they said to me. And then on Zorro, the bad guy was blonde and Anglo, and I thought, “Hm, this is interesting. Something is happening, it’s changing.” And now it is natural to see a hero, like this beautiful cat [gestures toward Puss in Boots poster], that has an accent. And he’s a beautiful message, not only for Latino kids, but for Anglo kids to see that the hero can have an accent!
SH: But I really think that, with Desperado, Antonio was the first Latin hero in history that was played by a Latin man! [Banderas looks unsure] No, it’s true! It was the first time! And now it’s the first time in an animated film.
AB: You know, we all do what we have to do in order to put a grain of sand on that. I never felt representative of those things. I don’t want to put that responsibility as a burden on my shoulder. You have enough just to represent yourself. But if it’s opening doors for other people to do other things… Sometimes I picture, not just actors or people in the movie business but artists in general, people who are just going up the ladder. And what you do is to just put a new step. And then someone else is going to step on it and put a new one. So you’re stepping on something that someone did before, and you’re just helping other people to come and continue going up.
But what we have to do is just be very careful how we represent our community, and try to be very dignified and honest in the way that we communicate with people. I just don’t believe, never did, in projecting people in my mind in terms of culture, religion, social establishment. Not at all. Maybe because I didn’t live the tumults of the ’60s here with the civil rights movement; in Spain we didn’t have those problems at that time. For me, we are all human beings and we all have our miseries and our greatnesses. That is how we travel through life.
Antonio, you just reunited with Almodovar for The Skin I Live In, your first Spanish-language film in many years. Do either of you plan to work more often in Spanish films?
SH: I actually have a Spanish-language film called La chispa de la vida directed by Álex de la Iglesia coming out next year.
AB: Almodovar is, for me, not just a return to my home and to my own language; it’s returning to a family that I was working with in the ’80s for a long time. Five movies. It has been an unbelievable experience.
It’s a pretty messed-up movie!
AB: Oh yeah! This [Puss in Boots] is white, that is pitch-black. I don’t judge movies from being beautiful or ugly, I judge them for being good or bad movies, and I think it’s a good movie. And also, I think this is the movie that is probably going to change my career the most. The result is something I’m probably not going to experience for two or three years, when I have the opportunity. Everything that I reflected about my role as an actor and my time in my 50s right now… It’s funny that it had to be Almodovar, 21 years after I did Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! with him, who’s come to shake me.
He doesn’t want to use any of the tricks I’ve been collecting all these years in my professional life. He takes all of them and throws them out the window and says, “You have to reinvent yourself, as I am going to reinvent myself. We’re going to start from zero, Antonio. This movie is tough and you’re going to play a tough guy, without even winking to the audience that you’re playing the bad guy.” It’s a very interesting world that I praise very much, and I’m very, very happy about my dream coming true with my dear old friend, Pedro Almodovar.
Voice recording is usually done separately, but your chemistry in this film is so strong! Did you record any of it together?
AB: [in Puss in Boots voice] Say something about that, baby.
SH: Yes. Next question! [laughs] At the beginning we did it separately, and thank God, because it was the first time I did animation. I got to build some self-confidence and create a little bit of a character. And it was nice to be in the intimacy of the studio with the director where you can just do anything, once the character was put together and we really knew who she was. Because you have to create this character, she’s not in the other movies. Then I got this great opportunity to work with Antonio and improvise with him, and a lot of the stuff we came up with in that session, it’s actually what’s in the film.
You did a lot of ad-libbing on this?
AB: Oh yes.
SH: Oh yeah! Ohhh yeah!
AB: There was a lot. They had to stop me, actually.
SH: We would go a little crazy.
AB: We would go on and on and on…
Antonio, you have these two very different films coming out at the same time, one of which represents your origins, and the other representing a culmination of your years in Hollywood. Do you think there might be any surprising parallels between the characters of Puss in Boots and [your Skin I Live In character] Dr. Robert Ledgard?
AB: It’s as different as the difference between skin and fur. It’s completely different. I’ve been saying, and Salma is probably sick of hearing me say this -
AB: – that movies serve many different purposes. That’s the way I see it. And all of them are legitimate, if they’re done with honesty and dignity, from light, frivolous comedies to movies that reflect about the complexities of the human spirit. All of them are valid. I cannot ask a person who has been working on the road for an entire week to go and watch 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. I may just believe that this person wants to have some kind of escape with Spider-Man and a big bucket of popcorn on his lap and his girlfriend, and have a good time and go home with a smile on his face. That is fair. And there are other people who want to reflect on the complexities of life. So I love to visit all of those different styles and genres. The analogies between Puss in Boots and [laughs] Dr. Robert Ledgard – they have nothing to do with each other!
SH: Could I – could I just ask a question? Could they both be looking for some kind of justice and redemption -
SH: – but from a completely different vision of life?
AB: No. Because even if revenge is one of the issues that motivates -
SH: I have not seen the movie, but Pedro told me about it a long time ago, so I know the story, sort of.
SH: It’s an honest question! I was just wondering!
SH: No? Okay.
AB: Because revenge is just something that in the Almodovar movie triggers an explosion of something within this guy that is a very profound psychopathy, and the need that this guy has to be close to God as a creator in a very sick way. He’s a monster in the skin of a -
SH: Say no more, because I haven’t seen it!
AB: I wouldn’t actually tell you the u-turn in the movie, which is probably one of the biggest u-turns you’ll ever see.
SH: I keep fishing for it. [gasps] Oh! Could they both like fish?
Maybe they both like boots.
What’s the one film that each of you feel is the most underrated in your body of work?
AB: 13th Warrior for me. It was a weird time. This was a quest movie before Lord of the Rings and all those movies. It just came out of nowhere. There were some problems there – [furiously to Hayek] Are you doing faces? Are you doing faces while I’m talking? [Hayek laughs and looks indignant] She does this all the time! On television too! I discovered that recently! I was doing an interview on television sitting next to her, and I see the interviewer’s eyes going like this: [flicks eyes side to side].
SH: [through laughter] I’m thinking! I’m listening and I’m thinking!
AB: What, you can’t think like this? [makes straight face]
SH: I’m not French or English! Everything that goes through my head you can see on my face!
AB: Now whenever we do interviews on television I’m just going to take a mask and put it on her. Then I’ll be able to talk and you can do whatever you want, you can think whatever you want!
SH: You know what I’m going to do? I’m not going to pay attention to a word you’re saying!
AB: Oh, come on!
SH: Then I won’t make any faces!
AB: Here we go. This is what our “chemistry” is all about.
SH: [mocking] Continue, continue! I’m sorry!
AB: I don’t know what I was talking about.
The 13th Warrior.
AB: There were a lot of problems on the movie I wouldn’t like to reveal because one of the persons, Michael Crichton, isn’t with us anymore. But there were definitely problems there that didn’t help the movie to shine the way it should have.
[Hayek snickers into her chest]
This is what happens when she tries to hold it in.
AB: She is just like her character! She is so much like her character! She is a tricker! She is a tricker, a thief, and a traitor! [jumps up from the table and moves behind Hayek] I’m going to answer the questions not looking at her!
[Hayek makes gagging sounds]
AB: You be careful. You are playing with a very wild card.
Puss in Boots opens today in theaters nationwide. The Skin I Live in is currently playing in the Bay Area.