Antonio Banderas heats up -- The red-hot import gets fired up with killer roles in ''Desperado,'' ''Assassins,'' and about a zillion other upcoming movies

Two years ago, an interview with Antonio Banderas was a low-key affair at a breezy afternoon lunch, the only attendants a curious waiter and an eager translator, ready to unsnarl the Spanish actor’s charmingly garbled expressions. But that was before Tom Hanks thanked him from every award dais, including Oscar’s, for playing his lover in Philadelphia. That was before he stole scenes from Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview With the Vampire. That was before his simmering, gunslinging turn in Desperado, before his marital breakup, before his steamy, tabloid-touted romance with Melanie Griffith. That was before Antonio Banderas was a star.

These days, Banderas and Griffith are camped out in a rambling beachfront house in Wilmington, N.C., where she’s filming Lolita and he’s keeping her company. A translator is no longer required, but a bulldozer would be helpful, if only to cut a path through the two personal assistants, the publicist, the cook, and the gofer, as well as the photographer, the photographer’s two assistants, the hairdresser and makeup artist, and the fashion magazine stylist who have come to shoot Griffith during the couple’s quiet weekend at home. It’s more star wattage than even the electrical wiring can bear; a blackout has killed the air-conditioning, rendering the house, perfumed with rose- and lilac-scented candles, a tropical swamp.

Wait for the air to clear, and you’ll spot Banderas. He’s dressed in pristine white jeans and a white T-shirt. Around his waist, he’s wearing Melanie Griffith, joyfully giving her a free ride into the room. The sight of Griffith’s buttocks, draped in white panties so sheer you can trace the outline of a tattooed pear, momentarily obscures your view of the actor.

No matter. Banderas’ ardent fans — whose numbers grow with every new movie — would probably recognize him if he were wearing a muumuu. Those who have been paying close attention know the actor from his work with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, most notably in 1988’s Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In 1991, he was deemed a suitable lust object by Madonna, who panted after him at a dinner party in her documentary, Truth or Dare, even if she couldn’t pronounce his name. Then came the more mainstream successes of Philadelphia and Vampire. And if, after his All About Eve turn in this month’s Assassins — in which he plays protégé to Sylvester Stallone’s hitman — you still don’t know that Banderas is Hollywood’s second coming, you’ve been living in a box. There’s never been a Spanish star in the blockbuster era, but he’s looking like the first. Never mind that he’s successfully navigated from art-house films to Hollywood. He’s crossed the Atlantic.

”Honey, I’ve been in this profession for 20 years, and I’ve been eating a lot of s—,” Banderas says, momentarily disentangled from Griffith, who has been herded off for primping. He sinks into an overstuffed couch, slouches against the pillows, and strokes his newly grown, gray-flecked beard. A nonstop work schedule, singing lessons to spruce up the voice he showed off in The Mambo Kings and Desperado, and early-morning runs to strengthen the 35-year-old smoker’s lungs (for his forthcoming role as Che Guevara opposite Madonna in the musical film Evita) have left Banderas physically spent. Even his suntan doesn’t disguise the shadows under his eyes.

”’I started working when I was 14 years old, [acting] on the streets of villages,” says Banderas, whose English has become almost entirely comprehensible, as long as his hands underline the meaning. ”It was like that for five years.” At 19, after a stint at the School of Dramatic Arts, Spain’s national theater company, Banderas left his parents and younger brother in Mélaga and went to Madrid. Before he got steady work on the stage (and, later, won a role in 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion, the first of five movies he made for Almódovar), Banderas earned as little as $5 a day. “I remember I couldn’t even [afford] to take a bus, so I had to walk six miles to get to an audition,” he says without emotion. ”I would look between the cars to see if there was money.”

Banderas hasn’t had to look past his own front door since his American film debut in 1992’s The Mambo Kings, in which he pulled off playing an English-speaking Cuban musician by learning his lines phonetically. ”His language abilities at the time were none. Zero,” says his agent at CAA, Emanuel Nunez. ”He did a deal saying he would go to Berlitz. I apologized to the producer for originally misleading him about Antonio’s English, but I knew once he’d met him…”

Despite his now near-fluency and roles in films that don’t hinge on his Hispanic roots, Banderas still has to struggle to be seen as something other than a smoldering Romeo. ”I never felt like a Latin lover until I came to this country,” says Banderas, whose roles for Almódovar tended more toward a neurotic Spanish Woody Allen sensibility. ”I never felt like a star, or a hunk, or a har-throb — I don’t even know how to pronounce it.”

Plenty of people can enunciate the word for him. The public has seized on his relationship with Griffith, whom he met eight months ago while filming Two Much (a comedy in which he plays a man so desperate for the affections of Griffith and Daryl Hannah that he pretends to be twins). Two months after filming started, Banderas split from his wife of eight years, Spanish actress Ana Leza (she played Banderas’ sister in Philadelphia), and went public with Griffith. ”There is no connection between [separating from] my wife and Melanie,” Banderas says forcefully. ”It’s not like I met this girl and poom. In terms of getting famous, I could have done that with Madonna.”

But what are subtleties of timing compared with the endless photo ops the relationship has seemed to provide? Banderas and Griffith snuggle at premieres. They embrace at parties. They kiss in public. They are flashbulb-friendly. “We decided to go in front of the public eye at the Blockbuster Awards [on June 3] because if you don’t, [the press] starts to have fantasies that are wilder,” Banderas explains. ”They were inventing things about Melanie and me, saying it was a publicity campaign for Two Much.”

Even when the twosome hasn’t posed, cameras are ready to document their every move: Hard Copy films them jogging together, gossips insist Griffith is pregnant (she’s not), and People snaps pictures of them kissing, with the headline ”Oh, Stop It Already!” When the couple vacationed in Banderas’ Madrid home this summer, local journalists slept in his doorway.

While America has ogled them with an enough-already-show-me-more ambivalence, his Latin colleagues are more blasé. ”I would never have put Antonio with Melanie,” admits Salma Hayek, Banderas’ Desperado costar. ”But he seems to be very happy…. I think Antonio likes that she is Hollywood and America. He just loooves Hollywood. To hear him talking about people he would meet, he gets all ‘Ohhhh!’ Melanie fits into that whole scene also, don’t you think?”

”In Spain, we don’t give a damn who sleeps with anyone, unless you’re a priest,” says Katrina Bayonas, a producer and Banderas’ first agent. ”The Spanish public will love, admire, and envy Antonio Banderas forever. We either want to be him or sleep with him. It’s as simple as that.”

Unless, of course, you’re Ana Leza. Banderas says he no longer has contact with his wife (they have no children), and that she’s the one he worries most about hurting. As for the madness surrounding him, ”I’m not a-scared or freaked out. I’m not ‘pressed,” he says, simultaneously pouting and raising his shoulders and eyebrows in that uniquely European What-are-you-going-to-do? gesture. ”But I don’t think it’s for everybody, just to break up a relationship.” Banderas is not characteristically impulsive. ”The conception of the world I have is probably more scientist,” he says. ”I read a lot of Stephen Hawking, and my favorite scientist is ‘Zack Newton.” Given such bedside reading material, ”I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he says. ”I don’t know if I’m going to continue with this woman for the rest of my life or a couple of months. Nobody knows.”

Griffith, apparently, isn’t willing to leave this relationship to fate: She appears and reappears throughout the interview, throwing her bare legs over his, planting kisses on his cheek, and murmuring endless goodbyes. ”This time I’m really going,” she coos breathlessly. The stylist has gotten the lay of the land, and she comes in to check with Banderas: ”How do you think she looks?” He blows out his cigarette smoke. ”She feels confident. I can tell.”

Finally, the crew and Griffith troop outside to begin the photo shoot, and Banderas lights another cigarette. ”There is a famous poet in Spain who says, ‘There is no way. You make the way when you walk,”’ he says. ”That’s pretty much the story of my life, you know. I’m trying to walk and don’t stop. Not in a hurry, but not stopping.”

Apparently, no one’s explained to Banderas how Hollywood works. It’s one thing to be an actor in demand in Europe, where movies are generally made for less money in less time, and sex symbols tend to be national soccer players. In Spain or France, it’s a sign of success to move from your last project to the next without ever unpacking your suitcase. In American movieland, on the other hand, power is an exercise in restraint. At 33, Tom Cruise has made 17 movies; 31-year-old Brad Pitt has made 13; at 46, the comparatively prolific Meryl Streep has clocked 22. At 35, Antonio Banderas has already made 43 films, so many that even he hasn’t seen them all. (”Have you?” he asks rhetorically.)

This year didn’t allow him any time to catch up. In August’s Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s $7 million follow-up to last year’s $7,000 El Mariachi, the actor is a renegade who makes gunplay look like a pas de deux. In addition to Assassins, opening Oct. 6, Banderas also has a small role in Rodriguez’s segment of next month’s comedy anthology Four Rooms. Never Talk to Strangers, a romantic thriller costarring Rebecca De Mornay, comes out Oct. 20, and his romp with Griffith in Two Much will open on Feb. 14. (Just in case there happens to be a week when a Banderas movie isn’t in theaters, director Betty Kaplan’s Of Love and Shadows, in which Banderas plays a Chilean revolutionary opposite Jennifer Connelly, has been sitting on the shelf at Miramax for a year.) Next, Banderas will sing every line of his part as Che Guevara in Alan Parker’s Evita, which begins filming in January in Buenos Aires, Budapest, and Spain. And then there’s Zorro: He beat out Andy Garcia for the title role, which Banderas says is ”a good model for the Spanish community to have,” and will rejoin Rodriguez in Mexico this summer to begin production. David Frankel, who directed the actor in this year’s comedy Miami Rhapsody, says, ”The first time I had lunch with him, I knew it was very important to him to become a star…and he’s worked very hard [at it].”

”I suppose that I am ambitious,” Banderas concedes. ”But I wanted to do all of these projects because the work is different from each other.” Rodriguez says he was able to snag him for Desperado because ”I knew he was eager to do a smaller, independent movie. He had already made a few of the bigger Hollywood movies, where he spent most of the time in a trailer, sitting around waiting to work.” Banderas, who says his relationship with Rodriguez was ”love at first sight,” wasn’t disappointed. ”[Making Desperado] was very much the way I lived with Almódovar,” he says, ”the same feeling of breaking rules, and I needed that. And the character was an action hero, and I never did that before, so why not?” Two Much appealed because of the chance to make a comedy and work with Fernando Trueba (director of the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Belle Epoque). As for Never Talk to Strangers, ”I liked the idea of doing a good guy who’s played like a bad guy for the whole film.”

The intensity of his schedule has been so relentless that when Banderas was offered the starring role in Assassins — a movie so expensive even the director got $10 million — he did the unthinkable: He said no. ”I wanted to stop after Two Much. I needed to stop and settle down my life a bit,” he says. ”But [director] Dick Donner said, ‘Hey kid, we’re going to make a gorgeous movie and we’re going to have fun.”’

Which, by all accounts, they did. After the hectic pace of Desperado, even Banderas was seduced by the leisurely schedule a big-budget movie can afford. And he’s proud of the results. ”I really think I stretch my edges,” he says of his work as a hyperanimated psycho killer who is ”an incredibly charming son of a bitch.”

”It’s the same thing I saw in Mel Gibson,” Donner (Lethal Weapon) says of Banderas, adding with a chuckle, ”he’s not a very attractive man, that’s his problem. But he’ll overcome it with his acting ability.”

When it comes to his paycheck, Banderas isn’t yet on a par with the $20 million Stallone now commands, nor is he sure he would care to be. His biggest pay leap came between Desperado and Never Talk to Strangers, thanks to the $225 million worldwide windfall of Interview With the Vampire. ”We used Philadelphia to get him Interview With the Vampire,” says Nunez. ”Then we used Vampire to increase his asking price,” which is now reportedly as high as $4 million.

”I don’t want anything I don’t deserve,” says the actor, who happily accepts less pay for smaller movies. ”[But] if they offer me more money, I’m not a-stupid.”

Banderas’ only luxuries have been purchasing a house in Madrid and another one in the south of Spain. It’s not just that he has no idea where he will live from month to month, given his schedule. It’s that nothing can convince him his future is secure. ”You can be right at the top, and the next week because you’ve got a failure movie, you go down again,” he says. ”The hottest thing in Hollywood right now is probably me and a pig named Baby.”

Several hours late, Griffith has returned to the still-stifling house for a catered lunch and a cool-down shower, and headed out again. The light is fading, and the mosquitoes move in for the kill. Donning wading boots to trek through the marshy grasses that separate the house and the shore, Banderas, his camera slung over his arm, walks toward the photo crew down by the water. He pauses to document the posing Melanie, standing behind the photographer and mirroring his movements. He walks along the beach, dodging waves, stopping to take pictures of feeding gulls and the patterns in the sand.

The simple freedom to live as he chooses is something the actor never takes for granted: Until he was 15, he lived under Franco’s Fascist regime, which toppled in 1975. ”The system was to control everybody. I was acting in a play in Mélaga and I remember seeing the cops waiting for us backstage, and all the actors, when they were finished, would go with them [for questioning]. We were just living like that, and we didn’t even realize how scary it was.

”In my personal life, I am very contemplative,” he says, kneeling to pocket a scallop shell for Griffith. ”I like the sand, the texture it has when I put my hand in it. It feels good, and I don’t know why.” It takes a lot to make Banderas feel bad: Not even the battalion of people at his house, or his inability to remember the last time he had a day alone with Griffith, or the dawning awareness that he can no longer walk the streets unrecognized, rattles him. ”You don’t understand how easy I take the whole thing?” he asks. ”You see that I am not in bad mood. Sure, it’s odd, but I try all the time just to make an exercise to be with my feet on the ground and look at what’s happening with a sense of humor…. All the things around are just bulls—, like the stars of a Christmas tree, shiny from the front and paper from the back.”

Naturally, there are those who accuse Banderas of having the same kind of false front. “Some people think he’s changed since he’s become a star in Hollywood, and they don’t like that,” says Enrique Arias Vega, editor of the Madrid-based paper Focus on Spain. ”They think his character and his attitude used to be very familiar and very approachable. Then he went to Hollywood, and it became like drunkenness. He kept on drinking and he couldn’t get enough.”

Banderas shrugs off such criticism. ”I don’t think in basis I’m different. It’s the same jokes as 20 years ago. But I’m living a very fast life in a way. What’s really changed is the parallel lives around me.” He is fierce about his desire to return to Spain to work. ”I like the memories, I like the past. I would like to be more like a Don Juan, the conception I have of all that. He’s a very spiritual character breaking the rules of his time and society and family, looking for a confrontation with God and saying, ‘What the hell is this?”’

Fantasies aside, for the moment, Banderas is trying not to question everything. ”I suppose everything is going all right,” he says with some resignation, as he aims his camera lens at the horizon. ”I have a friend who says when things are going right, don’t make a problem. That’s fair, for me to do that right now. Enjoy it. Take it. Because probably, tomorrow, you don’t have that.” — Additional reporting by Jessica Shaw