Desperado: Interview with Star Antonio Banderas

Antonio Banderas, who’s rapidly becoming one of the hottest international sex symbols, stars as the mariachi without a name in Desperado, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to the critically acclaimed 1992 hit, El Mariachi, a movie that “came out of nowhere” and cost practically nothing.

Desperado is “the second in a unique series of movies set in Mexico with a musician as the hero, a man in black with a guitar case full of weapons,” says writer-director Robert Rodriguez. “It’s a weird, contemporary Western, it’s just not a typical movie.” Comparing the two films, the director, who’s a favorite on the film festival circuit, notes: “The Mariachi now lives the ballads he used to sing about.”

In the new story, the mariachi plunges headfirst into the dark border underworld, when he follows a trail of blood to the last of the infamous Mexican druglords, Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), for an action-packed, bullet-riddled showdown. With the help of his best friend (played by Steve Buscemi) and a beautiful bookstore owner (the alluring Salma Hayek), the Mariachi tracks Bucho, takes on his army of desperados, and leaves a trail of blood of his own.

“Desperado has many classic elements of the best Westerns and action movies,” explains Banderas, who assumes his first leading role in an American movie and his first true action hero. Desperado represents a big leap forward for the handsome actor, following his success in such serious and arty films as Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning Philadelphia, in which he played Tom Hanks’ lover, and Neil Jordan’s high-profiled Interview With a Vampire, in which he co-starred with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

“There is romanticism and humor,” says the Spanish-born star, “but, of course, being an action-adventure, there are lots of explosions–and lots of real excitement.” Still, for Banderas, the movie is not just a mindless exercise. He explains: “I think the movie has something inside, the main characters have feelings, they experience pain, they have struggles with themselves.” What attracted him to the story, he says, is “the contrast between who the Mariachi is and who he would like to be.”

Says Banderas: “The Mariachi is both angel and devil, but he is also a dreamer. It’s very attractive to see this kind of person really grappling with this kind of fate.” In one of the film’s tell-tale moments, which was improvised by the director and actor, the Mariachi looks at himself in the mirror and prays: “Give me the strength to be what I was, and forgive me for what I am.” For Banderas, “the Mariachi is the image of the wounded animal–fate and destiny have put him on the wrong track.”

The decision to cast Banderas in the title role came to Rodriguez shortly after Columbia Pictures bought the original film. “I thought to myself,” the young director muses, “with a little more money, great music by Los Lobos, and Antonio Banderas, I can certainly pull off a good movie.” And he has.

Columbia’s initial intent was to remake El Mariachi, but instead, the studio released the l992 picture theatrically, and assigned Rodriguez to write a new chapter in the saga. The director was elated. “When I saw Antonio in Mambo Kings,” he recalls, “I knew that he was the right actor to play the role. And now that I’ve worked with him, he’s turned out to be so much more than I ever hoped.”

Rodriguez was aware of Banderas’ more than twenty features, including some comedies for Spanish enfant terrible Pedro Almodovar. “I saw in Banderas a polished performer with vast acting experience to his credit, but he was relatively fresh to mainstream American audiences–and absolutely new to the action genre.” After collaborating with him, the director has only praise for his star. “Everything I asked him to do, he did. I wasn’t interested in an actor who would just play the Mariachi; I wanted an actor who could be the Mariachi.” Banderas surprised everyone on the set when he sang his songs, played the guitar, and even danced.

The action genre was new to Banderas, who’s best known for embodying cerebral and sensual characters. It was a challenge the actor relished. Armed with heavy weapons and an attitude, he was called upon to do everything, from sliding across bars to dashing in front of trucks and jumping backwards from rooftops. Indeed, one thing stands out in Banderas’ mind from the first two weeks of shooting–pain. He recalls with a broad grin on his face: “I’ve spent a lot of time at night putting cream and oil on my knees and elbows, thinking, ‘My God, I can’t move!'” But, as Banderas aptly comments, that experience too ended up fitting well with the character: “I think the Mariachi is covering up a great deal of pain.”

The single ray of hope in the Mariachi’s life is the alluring and fiery Carolina, a woman who offers him a refuge from his troubled life. Banderas describes Salma Hayek, his sensuous Mexican-born co-star, as “a little dark, mysterious, wild woman, with big incredible eyes.” As for the role she plays, Banderas says “her character becomes very important to the Mariachi. She is the light through which he can come out of the violent life he’s been living.”

Carolina owns a bookstore and a coffee shop in a town where people do not read, though her books are her whole life. “Carolina lives on an island, an oasis, a fantasy world,” says actress Salma Hayek, contrasting her peaceful character with the violent, crime-riddled world in which she lives. “She is like an island, waiting for a prince to take her out. When she saves the badly wounded Mariachi, Carolina realizes this man is her destiny.”

The choice of Hayek to play Carolina reflects Rodriguez’s faith in the actress, who, surprisingly, is the first Mexican star to play a female lead in an American movie since the great Dolores Del Rio hit Hollywood in the l930s. Hayek first starred in the title role of the blockbuster Mexican novella, Teresa. “I thought she was funny, very charismatic, and fiery,” says director Rodriguez, who first spotted Hayek in a TV interview. He went on to cast her in his first 35mm project, Showtime’s cable movie, Road Racer. Rodriguez’s idea was to use that experience to demonstrate to the studio that she was perfect for the role of Carolina.

Rounding up the truly international cast, which includes actors from Spain and Mexico, is Portuguese actor, Joaquim de Almeida, who first gained international recognition starring with Harrison Ford in the blockbuster thriller A Clear and Present Danger. In Desperado, Joaquim’s foreboding presence, as the infamous druglord Bucho, is the Mariachi’s final foe, a specter whose demise he believes will bring him peace. Bedeviled by the threat of the Mariachi, the more Bucho senses the legendary gunslinger on his trail, the more paranoid he becomes.

Rodriguez’ shrewd eye for casting is clear throughout the movie. He turned to his friend, comedian Cheech Martin (Up in Smoke), for the role of the short bartender, in whose establishment much of the nefarious action takes place. Cult writer-director, Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), was asked to play a pick-up guy. Tarantino, whom Rodriguez met at the Toronto Film Festival, jokingly and naively volunteered his acting services, not knowing what he was getting into. Taking a few days off from his promotional tour for his hit film, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino suddenly found himself being bloodied on the set in a gory scene right out of his own infamous movies.

Rodriguez conceived the role of the Mariachi’s best friend with Steve Buscemi (In the Soup, Reservoir Dogs) in mind. Collaborator Carlos Gallardo, who created the role of the Mariachi in the first film, plays a bit part–in addition to being one of the film’s producers; the other producer is Elizabeth, Rodriguez’ wife.

With the character of the Mariachi, Rodriguez set the stage for something he’d yet to see in American movies: “An action film with a sexy Latin hero–and lots of humor.” Growing up watching movies in San Antonio, Texas, Rodriguez made his first film when he was thirteen. He explains: “I wanted to include humor along with the action, a strong female character, and a real clean-cut good guy who is Mexican.” Rodriguez wanted to challenge and correct the cliche that “Mexicans are usually the bad guys in movies.” “My friends grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker. No one cares what nationality or colors their heroes are, as long as they are heroic.”

Banderas’ striking good looks–as well as his homosexual roles in Almodovar’s movies and in Philadelphia–have given him a considerable gay following, which is unusual for a mainstream star. Flush with the unprecedented acceptance by American audiences, Banderas is attempting to serve two very different masters: The Hollywood mainstream and the art-film world, from which he came. His upcoming pictures include Assassins, the big-budget actioner with Sylvester Stallone, and Never Talk to Strangers, an edgy thriller with Rebecca De Mornay

The future look even busier. Banderas’ new projects include a remake of the classic romantic adventure Zorro, also to be directed by Rodriguez, and the long-delayed movie version of the musical Evita, to be made by British filmmaker Alan Parker. His co-star in Evita is none other than Madonna, whose unsuccessful efforts to woo the then-married Banderas were immortalized in her 1991 tour documentary, Truth or Dare. “I love musicals,” says Banderas, who plays guitar and sings in Desperado. A video of one song, featuring Banderas, has already aired quite successfully on MTV.