Banderas: I'm No Latin Lover

ByABC News

Aug. 1, 2002 -- At the Academy Awards in 1989, Antonio Banderas was a wide-eyed young actor from Spain, nominated for a role in a small foreign film.

He wandered among the movie stars like a kid with a free pass to Paradise, and then he stopped short.

"I saw this beautiful woman with a cream dress, with pearls," Banderas remembers. He asked his companion, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who it was, and learned it was Melanie Griffith.

Six years later, Banderas and Griffith found themselves on the same movie set for Two Much, and it was love at first sight — sort of.

"It was very, very fast and very compulsive, but at the same time, we were tied at the time," Banderas told Primetime's Diane Sawyer. Banderas was married to actress Ana Leza, and Griffith was married to Don Johnson, though both say their marriages were already foundering.

"We tried as much as we could to be respectful," said Banderas. "We just thought this may be one of those, you know, infatuation moments that we have when we shoot movies because we got to play together a couple, so let's just go home."

But the pair found that the infatuation did not go away. After both of their marriages ended in divorce, they were married in 1996.

Center Stage

Today Banderas, 42, is no longer a spectator, but the center of attention. Luck seemed to smile on him over and over. He was born in Malaga, in southern Spain, the son of a policeman and an elementary school teacher. He became a classically trained theater actor, but he was discovered by Almodovar, one of Spain's most renowned directors, who put him in several of his movies.

Then he was discovered again by a powerful woman hungry for a new conquest: Madonna. In her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare, Madonna confessed she had a crush on the little-known European heartthrob. Madonna tracked him down and flirted with him, but Banderas didn't understand a word she was saying: he didn't speak English.

Banderas and Madonna co-starred in the 1996 movie version of the hit musical Evita. She played ambitious politican's wife Eva Peron, and he played the conscience she didn't have, a fictionalized version of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.

A Modest Latin Lover

Banderas — one of the world's most visible Latin heartthrobs — has said he does not believe in the concept of the Latin lover.

"I think he never existed," he said, modestly insisting he is a family man: "I am very, very Latin, but I am lover of my wife. And of my kids."

In Hollywood, he's known for his range and his risks. In Interview With a Vampire, he played a fey older predator opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Then in Philadelphia he played the lover who tenderly nursed Tom Hanks as he was dying of AIDS.

"I don't think there is a guy that played more gay characters than I have done in my life," Banderas said. "That doesn't fit a Latin lover, so I never was careful of trying to keep an image."

His Latin lover image is completely blown apart in his new movie Spy Kids II, though. He lampoons the image of the suave spy, making fun of the good hair and the smoldering looks, instead playing a family man terrified mainly of his mother-in-law.

Outspoken, But Fragile

Griffith has always had a beguiling combination of daring and fragility, nurturer and child. She has been in the spotlight since her teens, when she left home to marry actor Don Johnson. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 1998's Working Girl, but soon entered rehab for alcohol and cocaine.

Now 45, she was until last year Revlon's icon of aging defiantly. "Now I'm too old for 'Defy It!,'" she laughs. "I mean, now I'm like f--- it."

She is famously outspoken, talking frankly about her plastic surgery and telling interviewers she had to get her breasts "back where they were before my baby."

But Banderas says he doesn't mind her outspokenness. "I love it, actually. I like that aspect of Melanie. I enjoy that very much."

Griffith's addiction problems made headline again two years ago as she battled an addiction to prescription drug Nocor, a very powerful form of codeine.

Griffith says her addiction to painkillers rocked their marriage, but she says her husband held on. "He's always been extremely supportive of me in situations where other people might have run away," she said.

She remembers one specific night when she was unable to sleep because she was not taking the drug. "He would just hold me, and nothing was said but it was like, I knew at that point that this couldn't go on because I had to get the pills or I couldn't get to function."

Banderas admits there were frustrations — and that he would have left Griffith if she did not manage to beat the addiction. But she did beat it, checking herself into rehab and staying there until she was well.

These days Griffith says she lives for her husband and children. The couple have been married for six years, and have a 6-year-old daughter, Stella.

With ups and downs like any other family, they say they enjoy their life.

"Life is life," said Banderas. "Life is good, it's bad and it's many things, but we love it. And we don't want to get away from it. We want to live. Life is life."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events