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By Iain Blair

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Handsome leading man Antonio Banderas has starred in major Hollywood films such as "Shrek" and "Zorro," but the Spanish actor's most enduring collaborations have been with fellow countryman Pedro Almodovar.

The Oscar-winning writer and director cast Banderas in his first film, 1982's "Labyrinth of Passion," and since then the actor has starred in Almodovar's "Matador," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"

In the director's latest movie, "The Skin I Live In," which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and expands around the U.S. later this month, the 51-year-old Banderas portrays an amoral plastic surgeon who takes terrifying revenge on the young man who rapes his daughter.

Banderas recently spoke with Reuters about making the film, working with Almodovar, his upcoming movie "Puss in Boots" and the secret of his long marriage to actress Melanie Griffith.

Q: On the surface, "The Skin I Live In" is like a crazy modern opera -- there's sex, murder, rape, revenge -- and plastic surgery. But there are also serious themes at work.

A: "Yes, it reflects Pedro's interest in the nature of identity. It's about creation, and ultimately about survival. It's a claustrophobic story about this doctor who tries this very disturbing experiment, and the subject of this experiment is a human being. And it takes you on a very, very rocky path of different emotions in a world and universe that belongs to a guy called Pedro Almodovar, who's a genre to himself."

Q: You usually play warm, humorous characters, close to your own personality, but you're as cold as ice in this. Was that a challenge?

A: "It was one of the main comments that came up in rehearsals with Pedro. He said, 'Forget about all the fun characters you've played for years, even the ones you played for me. In this, we start from zero. I want you to be almost soulless, with a total disaffection for anyone's pain. You're playing a semi-god, a creator.' Which basically makes him a monster. But at the same time he's an artist."

Q: You got your start with Pedro and worked with him on many of his best-known films. But you hadn't worked with him since 1990 and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down." What happened? Didn't he want to use you anymore?

A: (Laughs) "No, nothing like that. In fact he called me twice about being in a film with him, but I was under contract in Hollywood to shoot other projects and I couldn't get out of them. But we've always stayed in touch and are great friends."

Q: Has Pedro changed much since you first worked with him back in 1982?

A: "Yes, of course. We're older and he's matured as a director and as a person. He's become more austere -- almost Japanese. He's become more profound, more complex."

Q: You have some very energetic sex scenes with your co-star, Elena Anaya. How awkward is that for an actor?

A: (Laughs) "For me it's no problem at all! And they're actually both very frustrated in the film, as they never actually get to finish making love. It's always just sex interrupted. As I was doing the scenes, I was thinking, 'What would Leonardo da Vinci have thought if he could have gone to bed with the Mona Lisa!'"

Q: Your next film, "Puss in Boots," couldn't be more different. It's animated, fun, a spin-off from "Shrek."

A: "It's the complete opposite of "Skin." They're further apart than L.A. and Moscow. This is the fourth film I've done as Puss in Boots and I love him. It's got a great cast. Salma Hayek plays Kitty Softpaws and Zach Galifinakis is Humpty Dumpty, and in such a violent world, it's great to be able to make kids and families laugh."

Q: Speaking of kids and families. You and Melanie have been married for 15 years now. What's your secret?

A: "It's very complex and also very simple -- we love each other. That's the secret. Michael Caine very funnily once said the secret to a happy marriage is separate bathrooms, but we're still in the same bathroom and the same bedroom."

Q: And you have two children, stepdaughter, Dakota, and your biological daughter, Stella. Are they following in their parents' footsteps and trying acting?

A: "Dakota, who's 22 now, is doing quite a bit. She was in 'The Social Network' and she's done a couple of independent movies. She's a good actress."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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