Antonio Banderas for “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams”

Antonio Banderas arrives for our interview wearing a crumpled white shirt, jeans and a heavy thick beard. Not normally the attire one would expect from one of the world’s leading film stars. “I didn’t mean to look do scruffy”, he says, with thick Spanish accent still in toe. “I’ve been flying all night from Argentina where I’d been shooting a film with Emma Thompson. I haven’t had much sleep.” And the beard was purely for his art, he insists. “I don’t do these things for the fun of it”, he adds laughingly.

Banderas, who remains a major sex symbol at a youthful 42, still has difficulty chatting away in English, despite being married to Melanie Griffith, admitting that he while he is more comfortable working in English, “your mother language is still your mother language, no matter what. The difficult part for me is the subtleness of the language which is tough. If I see a movie with an accent, I often have to turn to my wife for an explanation. But I think I can use much more English now to work than I did at the beginning.” While Banderas longs to return to his native Spain to work, he has found a niche in Hollywood and remains busier than ever.

While critics and audiences avoided the actor’s maligned Original Sin, they are more likely to flock to Spy Kids 2, the kid-friendly addition to the Spy Kids franchise. Here, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) Cortez are back for another adventure in Spy Kids 2: The Island Of Lost Dreams. Their newest mission takes them to a mysterious island where they meet a wildly inventive genetic scientist (Steve Buscemi) and his imaginative creatures, while fighting the forces of rival spy kids, Gary (Matt O’Leary) and Gerti (Emily Osment) Giggles, as they head right into a trap that will test each and every Cortez spy, from super spies Mum and Dad (Banderas) to their spy grandparents (Ricardo Montalban, Holland Taylor).

As big and commercial as the film is, Banderas is happy to concede that this movie, as well as its predecessor, belongs to the kids. “It’s for them and they’re the stars. I’m just there to help them along and have some fun.” As to working with the spy kids themselves, they have grown since the first film. “Did you see Alexa dancing there at the end of Spy Kids 2? She’s turned into a little Madonna”, Banderas laughingly says.

Banderas admits that shooting the Spy Kids films is not a lot of hard work, but a lot of hard play. “Both Robert [Rodriguez] and I share two big passions: Family and movies and both come together on this set. The set of Spy Kids 2 is more like a circus than a movie set. We have clowns and magicians around, so it’s almost like going to an amusement park.I’m not going there thinking I’m doing Shakespeare but to have fun with my friend and just to add a little bit to the movie.”

Banderas first worked with director Robert Rodriguez in Four Rooms and Desperado and loves the change of pace offered by the director when they reteamed for the far more adult Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the duo’s follow up to Desperado. It’s a relationship born out of a genuine friendship, but it goes further than that, he explains. “I think we continue to work together because we kind of started together arrived in Hollywood practically the same time, so there’s a bond there. We used to look at each other when we were nobodies and dreaming of what we were going to achieve here, and I think that leaves something inside your soul, something that’s going to be of value in the years to come. Everytime we see each other we remember those years in the beginning, when we did Desperado with no money.”

The relationship between the pair, Banderas adds, also has to do with “a mutual understanding of our languages. Once I go in front of his camera, I know EXACTLY what he wants.” Gone are the days, of course, when Banderas, who had appeared in over 30 Spanish films before Hollywood beckoned, was an unknown quantity. A man passionate about his craft, the star admits “not giving a fuck about my career” which is perhaps what makes him feel so grounded. “At the end of my days, I don’t want to have to say: This is the body of work that I did and I did it consequently.”

Banderas pauses, before defining himself as a “worker of acting. I love to jump from one style to another and I love taking risks, and the risks you fail and fail big, but at least I have the pleasure inside me of doing everything that I want to do, which not everyone can say.” Banderas thrives on risk, exemplified by an eclectic body of work as diverse as Spy Kids and his upcoming Broadway debut in Nine.” It’s not the body of work that Banderas cares about but the work itself. No wonder the prolific actor has a further five films due out in the next 12 months, from the Frida biopic, to the action thriller Ecks vs. Sever, Femme Fatale, Once upon a Time in Mexico and Imagining Argentina. It’s what keeps me young”, he says laughingly.

“It’s pretty random as to how I go about selecting my movies, which drives my agents crazy. In the case of Ecks vs. Sever, this kid, Wych Kaosayananda, came to my house and I began to believe in his vision. It was not so much the script, but the director, I really liked.” Femme Fatale, which is due to premiere during September’s Toronto Film Festival, is a new thriller from Brian de Palma. “He has always been a hero of mine and I saw in his script a return to the kinds of movies he did at the beginning of his career like Blow Out, Sisters, etc. He was tired of Hollywood, went to Paris and wrote this ‘film noir’. It’s pretty risky.”

While Banderas may not quite give a damn about his career as such, what he DOES give a damn about, first and foremost, is his family. “Not only my family and kids here, but my family in Spain” which includes his parents. “I also give a damn about politics, my country and America. I’m interested in many things in my life, which makes me a very curious person.”

Banderas also hopes to direct again, but that;’s something I hope to be able to do in Spain. I think I owe my country a bit of that after spending 12 years in America. I have a lot of stories that are very much in my soul that should be told there with Spanish actors. The industry there is in bad shape and I want to give something back.” With that in mind, he will return to Spain to work as an actor, alongside fellow Spaniard Penelope Cruz, in a new Pedro Almodovar film Tarantula. As for working with his wife, “only as a director, never as a co-star because it’s too predictable, and too much like a movie National Enquirer. If we did anything as actors, it would be a comedy, something that would give us a chance to laugh at ourselves.”