You've heard of the Atkins diet and the Weight Watchers diet. Here, for the first time, is the Antonio Banderas diet. It starts every morning with fried eggs and bacon, cooked by Banderas himself. "I have to do the right amount of oil," he says. "That greasy thing allows you to start singing in the morning." Grease is a food group in the Banderas diet, what with his April 10 Broadway debut in the musical "Nine." He eats potato chips--preferably Ruffles--by the bagful. On the other hand, cheese and milk are out. "You cannot eat dairy," says Banderas, whose English is sometimes charmingly fractured. "There is a lot of phlegms." Does all this help? Not really. To save his voice for the show, Banderas doesn't talk at all during the day. Recently, he felt a twinge in his neck and costar Chita Rivera immediately sent him to her chiropractor. "You have to become a monastic for the theater," he says, "otherwise the play is going to eat you alive."
Not that Banderas is complaining. For one thing, he's surrounded by so many gorgeous women in "Nine" that it's a wonder his wife, Melanie Griffith, let him take the job. "Nine" is the musical adaptation of Fellini's film "8i," about an egocentric, infantile, womanizing movie director having a midlife crisis. (The 1982 original, with Raul Julia, won a Tony Award.) For Banderas, giving up cheese has been the easy part. "I had to overcome psychologically the fact that it was going to be in front of 1,300 people every night, talking in a language that's not mine and doing something I've never done before. You don't want to fraud the people," he says. In fact, Banderas is wonderful in "Nine." He sings beautifully, and his hilarious yet vulnerable performance reminds us of what a nuanced actor he can be when he's not forced to play the smoldering hunk. He isn't frauding anyone.
Banderas may surprise even those who remember him administering life support to Madonna in "Evita," but he shouldn't. Unlike the oodles of Hollywood stars who hit Broadway in hopes of goosing stalled careers (Hilary Swank, Helen Hunt--should we go on?), he started in the theater. "I went to Madrid in 1980 thinking I was going to be holding a sword in the fifth row of the National Theater for years," says Banderas, 42. And he did--until Spanish director Pedro Almodovar discovered him. Banderas is still amazed by the journey that took him from Spanish indie artiste to big-screen Latin lover to "Spy Kids" dad. He's made 70 movies, working with more past and future Oscar winners (Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie) than anyone this side of Harvey Weinstein. Though that's not to say he's proud of every "Original Sin" he's committed. "There have been times when I didn't want to do something they pushed me to do," he says. "I wouldn't say which ones, but two or three."
To do "Nine," Banderas pushed back. "Antonio has five or six movies coming his way every week--he has to literally fight to do the projects he really wants," says David Leveaux, director of "Nine." "This is what he wanted to do. He is ready to be here, to be stretched. How many people have the guts to do that?" Speaking of guts, Banderas is expecting 30 friends and relatives from Spain for his "Nine" opening night, including his parents. "They know how special this is," Banderas says. "And they are theater freaks. They know what they are watching. They know." Banderas is already talking about extending his run in "Nine" into the fall. To really bring him all the comforts of home, he says that Griffith is considering taking over as Roxie in the Broadway production of "Chicago." It just so happens that "Chicago" plays across the street from "Nine." "The theater is right there!" he says. Griffith has never done Broadway either, but that's probably not the point. If you were married to Antonio Banderas, would you let him out of your sight?