05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Some actors find themselves cast in roles that require brutal stunt work, physical pounding, bodily abuse. This spring Antonio Banderas, 42, is not that guy. "Antonio's not having a hard time, let me tell you," says former Ally McBeal
star Jane Krakowski, now playing one of the 16 beauties who drape themselves over Banderas in Broadway's revival of the '82 musical Nine
. "We do this one number where we all touch him somewhere and every day [during rehearsal] he has to stop the number and yell, 'This is the best!' "
Sounds like everyone's happy, and yes, that would include Banderas's wife of seven years, Melanie Griffith, 45. Shaking off rumors of marital problems and Griffith's well-publicized 2000 stay at L.A.'s Daniel Freeman Hospital for an addiction to painkillers, Banderas, who sang in the 1996 Madonna
, is enjoying warm reviews in his Broadway debut as a womanizing Italian film director (the musical is based on Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8½). Newsweek praised his "hilarious yet vulnerable performance." On Broadway for the first time, the movie veteran is in fact returning to his theatrical roots. "The first time I decided to be an actor was when I saw Hair in Spain in 1973," says Banderas. He began his career on the stage in 1974 after an injury cut short his dreams of playing professional soccer in Malaga, Spain, where his father, Jose, worked for the secret police and mother Ana was a teacher. He was performing onstage for $5 a night in Madrid when director Pedro Almodóvar showed up to ask him if he wanted to do a film. His response? "Just tell me where to sign," he said. But he put off doing Broadway, he says, because "I was afraid of doing theater in English."
His current role isn't that much of a stretch for him; he's a charmer offstage as well as on. "On Valentine's Day he gave us all bouquets and on opening night he gave us beautiful necklaces," says costar Mary Stuart Masterson. And like the character, Banderas cops to a "love for the primitive and at the same time more sophisticated pleasures of life—to eat, drink, sleep and your relationships with women."
For the past eight years, the only woman in his life has been Griffith, whom he wed in 1996; while he's committed to working on Broadway until August, he and Griffith (who has seen Nine more than half a dozen times) usually reside in a Tuscan-style villa in L.A. with their daughter Stella, 6, and Dakota, 13, Griffith's daughter with Don Johnson. "My little girls," he says proudly. "I can see them sometimes in the wings when I am playing." Griffith can be prickly about their marriage. When a reporter recently asked her what it was like seeing her husband act in a crowd of beautiful women every night, she replied, "We're middle-aged people in our 40s, you know. We've gone through all that stuff and we're very happy together. There is no jealousy." For his part Banderas acknowledges the ups and downs of marriage. "Passion...may disappear once in a while," he says, quickly adding that lately things have been great: "Suddenly...you fall in love with your own wife again."
The pair are so tight, in fact, that Griffith is going to work across the street from her husband: In the summer she will star as Roxie Hart in Broadway's Chicago
(the film version, starring Renée Zellweger in the role, won the Best Picture Oscar this year). "I don't like to compete with my wife," he jokes, but "Melanie is going to have a blast."
The production they're proudest of, though, is daughter Stella (Griffith also has son Alexander, 17, by Steven Bauer). "I have learned more from my daughter than she has from me," Banderas says. Yes, like how to live up to your own screen image. "I saw Spy Kids 2
with my baby when I came off the plane last night," he says, referring to the 2002 smash in which he played a secret-agent dad (he will star in Spy Kids 3
, coming July 25). "Stella loved it. She put in the tape, as soon as I got home. She didn't even kiss me when I walked through the door."
Stella has lots more of Daddy's movies to look forward to. He recently spent time recording the voice of Puss 'n Boots for next year's Shrek 2
. He has also agreed to star in a sequel to The Mask of Zorro. Like Guido Contini, the hero of Nine
, he'll be doing it all for the ladies. "In my own life, I'm also surrounded by women," he said recently. "My wife, our daughter, my stepdaughter, secretaries, the cook, the maids. Like an airport of women." Reflecting for a moment, he added, "There really is something special about girls."
Liza Hamm and Amy Longsdorf in New York City