As masked avenger Zorro and Desperado’s gun-toting outlaw El Mariachi, he is a Hollywood action hero of distinguished clout. Meanwhile, as the voice of Shrek’s feline sidekick ‘Cat in Boots’, Antonio Banderas’s gravelly tones are imitated by youngsters across the globe. Now, the 51-year-old Spaniard’s latest move sees him play the lead in the first big-budget movie to be partly shot in nearby Qatar. Set in the turbulent ’30s at the dawn of the oil boom, Black Gold documents the fight for resources between rival Arab states. Banderas plays an emir who is torn between allegiance to his conservative father and liberal father-in-law. Released in the UAE this week, supported by billboard ads along Sheikh Zayed Road, the film is likely to strike a chord for many here in Dubai.
What was it like being involved in Black Gold? It was unforgettable on so many levels. I’ve done more than 80 movies in my career, including big productions like Zorro and Evita, but never in my life have I been on a set like the one we had in Tunisia. It’s so impressive. It’s going to be a knockout on screen. People are going to want to visit this country. It helps enormously when you are able to become oblivious to the cameras because everything seems so real. As an actor, you really do feel you have become that person at that particular time in history. Also, with the recent revolution in Tunisia, it was unbelievable to see the events that happened here, how fast it all went. The first thing we felt was the courage of the Tunisian people taking to the streets to fight for a better future, even when they knew they were going to be repressed.
You play an emir in the film. Was it difficult getting into the role? It’s not so much that it’s hard or challenging. You have to try to be very honest with what you’re doing – it is important to be very precise without betraying the community you’re representing. From the little details, such as showing the rituals that are used in prayer, to the bigger aspects of the character and the context that surrounds the whole entire project, all of those details have to be right there, perfect.
Tell us a bit about the emir… My character, Nessib, the Emir of Hobeika, is ‘new’ rich, and he does things that are sometimes funny. He wants to buy everything, to put his name everywhere. He’s going to do what he couldn’t ever do before thanks to the oil money and his new-found power, so it does make you laugh sometimes. He tries to buy off the chiefs of tribes with Rolex watches. But what does the chief of a tribe in the middle of the desert want with a Rolex? So that’s the big metaphor of the movie. But that’s actually what happened, and not such a long time ago.
What was it like playing an Arab character? Ever since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, there has been a bipolarisation of the world, and certain aspects of Arab culture have been misrepresented. It’s important for me that, while the film is an epic with a romantic element, it also provides the opportunity to show a little bit more of this culture that I consider, in part, my own. As an Andalucian, I’ve always felt a certain connection with the Arab world. It’s almost in my subconscious, an abstract mix of colours, sounds and music. You feel it when you walk in the lands of Andalucia, Malaga, Granada and Seville. All of that has been going through different filters through history, through the last five-and-a-half centuries, but there is something in there when I visit Arab countries that I know belongs to me.
Let’s back up a step. How did you first become an actor? It’s in my soul. I first started working as an actor as a teenager, when Spanish dictator General Franco was still alive. I remember playing German playwright Bertolt Brecht. I was 14 years old, in a theatre, looking to the wings where I could see the shiny helmets of the police. And when the curtain came down and we took a bow, we were arrested. We spent the whole night in the police station. That happened three or four times. We didn’t have anything. Nothing. Just the money in our pockets in order to put together our play.
What drew you to Black Gold? America has given me a lot, but it tends to do movies in patterns. You do things that are edible for the masses and if you say the words ‘experimental’ in any studio in Hollywood, you’re going to get kicked out. I needed to go back to my roots, to refresh myself. Working with Jean-Jacques Annaud on Black Gold was a great adventure.
It must be a change from playing an animated cat in Cat In Boots… Cat in Boots is a paradox. When I first came to America I couldn’t even speak the language. So the fact that I’ve been called upon 20 years later to use my voice is unbelievable. I’m just making fun of my own career, and that’s cool. I think I’m going to start travelling with that cat. Women love him, even more than me, so at the end of the night if I’m not successful with them I can just tell them to play with my cat. Black Gold is in UAE cinemas now. Cat in Boots is set for UAE release on November 24.