ALAN Parker's dynamic and spectacular movie of the stage musical Evita which had its world premiere in Los Angeles last Saturday night, followed by simultaneous European premieres in Dublin on Thursday radically re-invents the screen musical, a genre which has had not produced a major hit since Grease in 1978. Parker's most daring move in Evita is to have virtually all of the dialogue sung in the film, and he pulls it off triumphantly.
The first person to be cast in the movie was Antonio Banderas, who had been attached to the project in its long gestation period when it was to be directed by Glenn Gordon Caron and later, Oliver Stone. Now 36, Banderas is one of the most in demand European actors in Hollywood. The camera caresses his striking good looks, and never more so than in Evita. He also proves himself a strong singer in the movie, acting out the drama while he vigorously performs the songs.
Alan Parker says his decision to cast Banderas was made within seconds of viewing an audition tape the actor had made five years earlier for the film.
"I thought, he's it" says Parker. "He sings so well and he's a fantastically charismatic actor. It was a very easy choice to make. Then I met him in a restaurant in Miami and he started singing songs from Evita in front of all the other customers."
At the Evita press conference in London on Wednesday, Banderas sat quietly throughout, responding politely to the couple of questions which came his way. In a one to one interview out of the shadow of Madonna, Banderas is much more effusive a charming personality, he looks you directly in the eye when he is talking, and while he is not enamoured of the interview circuit, he is entirely at ease. And he looks terrific his hair short and sleeked back and his dark Latin skin heightened by the white shirt he is wearing under a sleeveless grey V-necked sweater.
Since he started out as an actor in his teens, Antonio Banderas has appeared in more than 40 movies. He was born in Malaga, the son of a detective and a schoolteacher, neither of whom were initially pleased when he declared his ambition to become an actor and enrol at the local School of Dramatic Arts. At 21, he moved to Madrid and up the ladder to a five year residency with the Spanish National Theatre. His parents are proud of him now, he smiles, and he proudly adds that his mother keeps a scrapbook on him.
Banderas first attracted international interest as a film actor and showed a range which has yet to be tapped fully by Hollywood when he became one of the regular troupe in the movies of the flamboyant Pedro Almodovar for whom he acted in five films over 10 years, among them The Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
I mention that Almodovar told me last year that he regretted not being able to afford Banderas anymore. "That's a lie," says Banderas. "Pedro tells everybody that. For him, I'll always have a special price." He admits that Almodovar was none too enthusiastic when Hollywood beckoned for him for the actor himself, despite all his experience in Spanish cinema, he says it was "like starting all over again".
He could speak only a few sentences in English when he was cast in his first
Hollywood movie, The Mambo Kings, in which he portrayed a trumpet playing Cuban immigrant in 1950s New York. Before shooting began, he spent a month learning English at a Berlitz school in New York. Five years on, he has acted in a succession of American movies, with many unwise choices along the way, and he has left his wife, Ana Leza, and married the American actress, Melanie Griffith, whom he met when they co-starred last year in the romantic comedy, Two Much.
Flashback to Budapest in April and the night when I was first supposed to interview him. He was needed on the set all night and the interview was postponed to the next day. It was suggested that we might talk in his car as he was being driven from the set to his hotel, but he opted to wait until the next day because, it transpired, as soon as he settled into his car, he got on the phone to Melanie Griffith, even though they would be meeting in their hotel 20 minutes later.
As for stardom, he thinks it was eventual. "I always thought that," he says. "But in this profession, you can't sing victory never ever. Last year I did five movies and at the same time my personal life changed, too, and a lot of people were writing about it. Basically, what I'm trying to do now is to escape from that publicity because, I think, it's not good for my career. I think I should be more mysterious and disappear from the media thing and concentrate on making movies. All this stuff about parallel lives that you get in this profession can very easily burn out the personality of an actor and you can become very over exposed. That's one of the dangers."
In Evita, Antonio Banderas plays Che a Brechtian Everyman character who crops up in different guises throughout the movie to comment on the rise of Eva. In the original stage musical, the character was Che Guevara, but Alan Parker dropped that notion, given the unlikeliness of Che and Eva ever having met.
"In the movie Che tells the story of Eva," Banderas explains. "He takes a very critical view of her and he's some times cynical and aggressive but funny, too. At the same time he creates this problem for himself because, for all his principles, he gets struck by the charm of the woman. I think my character is defined in his first song, when he sings, Oh, what a circus, oh, what a show. It's like in Jesus Christ, Superstar with Jesus and Judas."
THE next project for Banderas is The Mark of Zorro, in which he plays the masked hero and it's going to be "a huge comedy", he hopes. He has set up his own production development company and says he expects to enjoy being behind the cameras for a change. One of his first projects, which he hopes to direct, is a film about Don Juan. And he would love to work on the sequel to Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire, in which he played the powerful vampire, Armand.
"It was unbelievable working with Neil," he says. "Sometimes I miss him. He's a very introverted guy, but when he jumps on the set he's such a source of ideas. It was gorgeous working with him. I had a great time. I would love to work with him again someday.
"I've never been to Ireland, but Melanie went there years ago and she's crazy about Ireland. There were some really good Irish people on the crew of Evita. As Neil told me, we Spanish have a lot in common with the Irish, and we do. We like the primitive. things, like eating, drinking and making love"