'The Mask of Zorro' turns 20: Antonio Banderas explains how the film flipped the Hollywood script

Will Lerner
Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

In 1992, Antonio Banderas was an established star of Spanish cinema. He had worked with countryman Pedro Almodóvar on five films and was a two-time Goya nominee, Spain’s Oscar. With a decade’s worth of work under his belt combined with critical and commercial success, he finally received his first opportunity to star in an American production at the age of 32. Banderas got to the set of his first Hollywood movie and… was told he was going to be pigeonholed.

“When I came to America, the first movie I did here was The Mambo Kings. I remember someone on the crew telling me, ‘Get ready to be the villain,'” Banderas told Yahoo Entertainment. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Villains are always played by Spanish guys or black people.”

Banderas took it as a challenge, determined to defy expectations. His post-Mambo Kings credits featured diverse roles that weren’t limited to mustache-twirling antagonists — in fact, his follow-up film was as the 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia, playing the sensitive and caring lover to Tom Hanks. And then came the role that made Banderas a star: the legendary pulp fiction hero Zorro in The Mask of Zorro, which was released on July 17, 1998.

Antonio Banderas as the titular swordsman in The Mask of Zorro. (Photo: Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

Banderas couldn’t help but notice that not only was a man of Spanish ancestry playing the swashbuckling hero of a mainstream Hollywood production, but that his villainous counterpart, Capt. Love (Matt Letscher), was neither Spanish nor African-American.

“I was with my cape and my mask and I was looking at the bad guy, Capt. Love,” Banderas noted with a smile. “He was blond and had blue eyes and spoke perfect English. I thought, ‘Hmm something is changing here!'”

For Banderas, who received an Emmy nomination last week for playing Pablo Picasso in Genius, he’s thrilled to have played a heroic role in a movie seen by countless children of Spanish-speaking ancestry. “It’s a fantasy, but there is data and information that goes into the brain of those kids,” he pointed out. “They retain that.”

Watch Antonio Banderas discuss playing the role of his childhood hero, Pablo Picasso:

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