‘Half naked and breathing methane’: Antonio Banderas on Chile mine disaster film

The 55-year-old Spanish heart-throb stars in The 33 as leader of miners who survived 69 days trapped 700 metres below ground

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 January, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 10:22am

Late-night host Stephen Colbert joked with his guest Antonio Banderas recently that the Spanish actor’s latest movie, The 33, was Magic Mike set in a mine.

“Well, we were half-naked the whole movie,” Banderas said with a hearty laugh at a North Hollywood production facility. “But it was no fun. It was cold, and we had to fake it was hot.”

Based on Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark and directed by Patricia Riggen, The 33 chronicles real-life events five years ago when 33 miners were trapped inside the San Jose Mine in Chile for more than two months as the world hoped and prayed the men would be rescued.

Sixty-nine days later, some 1 billion people watched as the men emerged one by one from the mine into the arms of their families, who had camped outside the facility. Still, the mining company escaped charges of negligence and the miners were never compensated.

Banderas, youthful and fit at 55, plays Mario Sepulveda, nicknamed “Super Mario,” who was the public face of the miners and sent video reports to let their families and the world know how they were doing.

Banderas and Sepulveda became friends during the production.

“Mario is bigger than life,” says Banderas, a real charmer with an infectious purr to his voice that will be familiar to fans of his animated film Puss in Boots. “If I was portraying Mario as he actually is, I would be killed by the critics. He is an enormous character. He speaks very loud. He’s a charismatic personalty. He learned to survive very early in his life. His mother died giving birth to him. He had 22 brothers. He always had to struggle and fight.”

Without him, Banderas believes, not all of the miners would have made it out alive.

Just as Sepulveda became the leader of the miners, so did Banderas with his fellow actors. “He is very much like the real Mario Sepulveda,” says Riggen. “He’s a natural leader. He’s full of energy. He brought a unity to the group.”

And Riggen laughingly admits everyone was thrilled: “We could have him with his shirt off the whole movie.”

Banderas must be used to this by now; he’s been a cinematic sex symbol since he came to fame in Pedro Almodovar’s films, such as 1986’s Matador and 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

He made his American film debut in 1992’s The Mambo Kings and made a deep impression playing the lover of Tom Hanks’ character in 1993’s Philadelphia. Over the years, Banderas has appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 hit Desperado and as the father in the Spy Kids franchise and played Che in the 1996 film version of Evita. In 2003, he went to Broadway in the revival of the musical Nine, for which he earned a Tony nomination.

Though he reunited with Almodovar for 2011’s The Skin I Live In, a lot of the films he’s made this decade, including 2014’s The Expendables 3, have been less successful or ambitious. The reviews for his performance in The 33 have been strong.

The 33 was shot in two actual mines in Colombia, with exterior scenes filmed in Chile, near the location of the real mine.

“We worked under very difficult conditions,” recalls Riggen. “They [cast members] had to be, every single day, covered in oil, dirt and sprayed down with water.”

A nutritionist was brought in to create a low-calorie diet so the actors could lose weight safely. But that wasn’t the only reason they got thinner. Practically all the members of the crew, says Banderas, as well as the actors became ill because they were breathing methane gas in the mines.

“You had the feeling you had the flu continuously,” says Banderas. “It was bad for us, but we shouldn’t complain, really. We actually embraced the difficulties because in the back of our heads we knew that it was adding realism in a way. We have to make an homage to the guys.”

Some of the 33 now work in outside mines. “Many of them went in for treatment,” Banderas says. “Mario has put together a foundation. He works with motivating all the miners. He cannot go back (to the mine).”

Banderas relished having a woman director on the project. “Let me add my voice to all of these women who are complaining these days about the lack of confidence some studios have in women directors,” he says. “That’s something I’ve never understood.”

To be a good director, he adds, “you need the eye, the pulse and the narrative power of an interesting human being – that’s it.”

Banderas will next be seen in the Terrence Malick film Knight of Cups.

The actor, whom Riggen describes as a “renaissance man”, has recently gone back to school. Over the next four or five years, he will be taking intensive fashion design courses at Central Saint Martins in London between film roles.

“It is something that was always in my mind,” says Banderas, who has already signed with a company for a menswear line. “I have been working with a perfume company – I’ve had my own brand – for almost 20 years. We sell in 93 countries. That is a universe that is very close to fashion.”

The 33 opens on January 7

Tribune News Service