NEW YORK – Antonio Banderas has some big shoes to fill in his Broadway debut.
The Spanish heartthrob's latest starring role is in Nine, a musical based on legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, which is intimidating enough. Add to that the fact that the original 1982 production by Tommy Tune (search) won five Tony Awards and starred the beloved actor Raul Julia in the role of genius filmmaker Guido Contini.
The character of Contini — a director struggling without a script for his next movie — fades in and out of reality along with 16 powerful women who inspire, confuse, arouse and mother him all at the same time.
Despite the high expectations, it's hard to feel sorry for the movie star in his Broadway debut.
Among the women sharing the stage with Banderas are Chita Rivera, Jane Krakowski and Mary Stuart Masterson — all wanting a piece of his supposed genius.
"I'm nervous," Banderas (search) told Fox News last month before the musical opened at The Eugene O'Neill Theater in Manhattan. "I have challenges to overcome. I've never done a play in English. Movies yes, but not a play."
But Banderas is up for the challenge. "The feeling I have more than panic is just wanting to share this magnificent piece we have in our hands with other people," he said.
Guido Contini is a magnanimous character, one who many say is based on Fellini himself. A man north of 40, he has seen his share of successes and failures. He has not, however, seen his maturity surpass that of a nine-year-old boy. He is therefore in a constant struggle between what Freud called the id — his own immediate gratification — and the lives of those around him. Even though his id always wins out, Contini is seen as a genius.
"Genius doesn't mean comfortability," Banderas said, describing his take on the role. "Geniuses suffer a lot. They are more conscious and aware. That raw quality makes them hurt very much."
"I'm not talking from experience," he added, laughing.
While Banderas may not consider himself a genius, there is a quality in his work that can be compared to the character he plays. Like an uninhibited child, Banderas is known to throw himself into a character with blind abandon. To him, it's all about the work.
"I am a comedian, in the old sense of the word," he said, citing his wide-ranging roles. He played a vampire in Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire, a gun-slinging guitar player in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, the masked Mexican hero Zorro, and a singing Argentine in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita.
He said choosing a role with career goals in mind is a contradiction in his business.
"It is narcissistic to think, 'I can't play this part because of career.' I don't care," he said. "I love the challenge of not being put in a box."
In a box, however, is exactly where some of his fans would like to see him.
"I wish he would come home with me," gushed one ticket-holder, who said she drove from Canada just to see Banderas in the flesh.
Masterson, who plays Contini's wife, can understand the excitement.
"We don't mind sharing," she said. "There's enough Antonio to go around. ... He's just so generous of heart, he can literally interact with 16 characters at once. Not too many actors can pull that off."
Tony-winner Chita Rivera (search) plays Contini's demanding French producer. Her presence on the stage is the definition of diva — in a good sense — but the stage isn't too small for the living legend to share with the relative newcomer.
"I'm just happy to be able to do it at my age," she said. "I do a waltz with Antonio Banderas, and my daughter asked, 'What does he feel like?' And I said, 'just what you'd imagine Antonio Banderas would feel like.'"
And just as forceful a presence is former Ally McBeal star Jane Krakowski (search), whose saucy rendition of "A Call From the Vatican" has audiences blushing night after night.
Nine, directed by David Levaux, has been extended to play through Aug. 10.