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This famous Hollywood actor didn’t speak English until the age of 30

Antonio Banderas - Credit: FayesVision/

Our culture correspondent on Antonio Banderas, the Spanish actor who switched his European career for a Hollywood one.

Antonio Banderas – whose latest action movie Security (in which he plays a security guard protecting a female witness to a crime) is currently showing across the UK – is a versatile, crowd-pleasing actor who is seen very much as the toast of Hollywood. But while he may come across as one of Los Angeles’ major film industry players or even a quintessentially all-American star, at home in Spain he is regarded as ‘the most international of Spanish actors’. This was the verdict of the jury of the Spanish Film Academy who, earlier this month, announced they will be awarding Banderas the 2017 National Cinema Award.

Despite his global career, they said, ‘he manages to remain close to his roots. He has been a star with an extraordinary career at national and international level who has opened the door for many Spanish actors and actresses’. He will receive the award at the 2017 San Sebastian Film Festival at the end of September.

It’s easy to forget that Banderas hasn’t always been part of Hollywood. And that he is actually seen as the actor who is most prominently flying the flag for European talent in the US. Before the age of 30 he couldn’t even speak any English at all and never expected to have a career outside the Spanish film industry. A quarter of a century after he first left Spain, he is one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood.

As a result of his success across the Atlantic, Banderas, 56, is forever receiving prizes in Spain. He has the Donostia (San Sebastian) Prize, the Gold Medal for Merit at the Bellas Artes in Madrid and won an honorary Biznaga de Oro at the Malaga Film Festival earlier this year. The Spanish press wrote: Antonio Banderas es un astro que eclipsa todo lo que se le pone alrededor. (‘Antonio Banderas is a star who eclipses everything around him.’) In 2015 he was granted the Goya Award by the Spanish Film Academy, describing him as ‘a hometown Malaga boy without borders’.

Amusingly enough for British readers, he has another European dimension to his life. Banderas might frequently be working in Spain and the US, but he lives most of the year in Cobham in Surrey in a tailor-made eco home, where he moved in 2015. ‘I find Surrey magical,’ he says, ‘I am not a party person anymore, so I have the space and peace to write and really get inside my own head.’ Surrey will help you with that, Antonio. In fact it already is: ‘I am working on several scripts,’ he adds.

Banderas, a huge commercial force in recent years largely thanks to the Shrek franchise (he’s the voice of Puss in Boots), is having something of a renaissance, with roles in 10 films coming out this year and next, despite suffering a heart scare earlier this year (an ‘episode’ which he has since joked about). This year marks the 35th anniversary of his screen debut. Banderas first performed on screen in the 1982 film Labyrinth of Passion, the second film to be made by Pedro Almodovar. The director went on to cast him in Law of Desire, Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The latter was the role that brought him to the attention of Madonna, and then Hollywood, leading to The Mambo Kings and a role opposite Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

More big-budget movies followed: Interview with the Vampire, Evita (where he played the narrator Che opposite Madonna’s Eva Peron), Zorro and the hugely lucrative Spy Kids trilogy. In 2011 he returned to work with Pedro Almodovar in one of his most critically acclaimed performances, as a plastic surgeon avenging the rape of his daughter in the thriller The Skin I Live In. Banderas has also been a much-loved feature of the gossip columns thanks to his 18-year marriage to actress Melanie Griffith, which ended in 2014.

Growing up in Malaga, he has joked that he quickly understood that he needed to ‘stop applying after-sun and start applying culture’. That thought was ‘the beginning of a very important journey towards a new cultural level for me’. He has said that he thinks of himself as an Andalucian and speaks fondly of Andalucia as a place where ‘the mountains come right to the sea and the architecture is Moorish’. His father Jose was an officer in the Civil Guard. His mother Ana was a school teacher. As a child he dreamt of becoming a professional football player but a broken foot at the age of 14 put paid to this ambition. He trained instead at youth theatre schools in Malaga and was eventually selected for the Spanish National Theatre, where he was noticed by Almodovar.

He also maintains links to Spain thanks to his wine business, Anta Banderas. In 2009 he bought a 50% share in the company, becoming co-owner and changing the name (from Anta Bodegas). Anta Banderas has 235 hectares of vineyards in Villalba Duero and Nava de Roa, north of Madrid. They produce around two million bottles of wine a year. The way he describes the wine is heartwarming: ‘It has a feeling of velvet in the mouth, with hidden tannins, tremendous depth and complexity, and the taste and smell of bacon and meat.’

He has said that he feels that the people who grow grapes in this region ‘have romantic ideas about wine’ and that is what drew him to the project: ‘I became interested in making wine years ago,’ he told Wine Enthusiast magazine, ‘I had been looking for years for a winery that was passionate about making wine. Creating art is important to me. Making wine is creating art. I get enormous pleasure watching grapes grow and mature. I have a passion for growing grapes and making wine. It is hard to explain in words – but I can say this – it is a feeling that I have in my heart.’ (Don’t worry, Antonio. We understand you.)

He appears to allude frequently to the fact that the most extraordinary thing he ever did was to get out of Spain (in the best possible way). His is clearly one of those careers – however merited by his talent – that genuinely happened almost by accident. He recently told Forbes magazine that his greatest achievement is ‘probably Hollywood. To perform more than 40 movies in such a competitive universe, especially for someone like me who couldn’t speak English at the age of 30… That was quite a challenge.’ He has said that he is challenged by certain English words, including the word ‘animals’ which he absolutely refuses to pronounce. (The line ‘You look like a bunch of animals’ in Zorro was changed to ‘You look like a collection of beasts.’) The biggest risk in his career? ‘The biggest risk is not being liked. If they don’t like your work, they’ll kick you out.’ They don’t look like kicking him out anytime soon. And in any case, he can always go back to Spain and get a hero’s welcome.

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