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Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda in The 33, based on the true story of the Chilean mine collapse in 2010.Beatrice Aguirre Zúñiga

It was as close to the real thing as Antonio Banderas ever wanted to be. For his new film The 33 – based on the true story of the Chilean mine collapse that riveted the world in 2010, with 33 men trapped 200 storeys below the earth for 69 days – the underground scenes were shot in two active Colombian salt mines.

"It was miserable," says Banderas, who plays "Super" Mario Sepulveda, the miners' de facto leader, who persuaded them to ration their food and never give up hope. "The conditions were the most far away that you can imagine from the glamour of Hollywood."

In one mine, the location was a 10-minute walk in, 400 metres down; in the other, the crew had to drive down for more than a kilometre. The environment in the deep mine was "way more aggressive" than Banderas imagined. The air was toxic with methane gas. The crew had to take extra precautions with electrical power. The heavy machinery kicked up grit, which coated the actors' skin and clogged their mouths and noses. Because the tunnels were narrow, only one car could go in or out at a time. As a result, the cast and crew stayed below for much of the 14-hour shooting days.

As well, the actors were on strict diets, to replicate the miners' state of near-starvation. And though the salt mines were freezing cold, the cast had to act hot – to strip down and slick themselves with "sweat" – because in the actual collapse temperatures were in the 30s.

"Eventually, someone would get dizzy and have to go out to breathe clean air," Banderas says. "After a while we were all sick, but we had to continue working. As I said, miserable." He laughs. "But it added an immense amount of realism. If we would have shot this in a studio, where you could finish a scene, go to your trailer, put on the television and drink a Coca-Cola, the movie wouldn't have felt the same."

Talking by phone to Banderas, 55, is like having a jungle cat purring in your ear. So insinuating is his voice that when he appeared on Stephen Colbert's show last week, Colbert made him cold-read phrases to prove that Banderas could make even the most banal sentence sound sexy. "Do you have these khakis with pleats?" Banderas murmured seductively. "A lot of people need pleats in their khakis after that," Colbert cracked.

It's been almost 25 years since Banderas was the beautiful young muse to Pedro Almodovar, little known outside his native Spain, whom Madonna tried to woo in her documentary Truth or Dare. He made a smooth transition to American films, playing, among many other roles, a beautiful monster in Interview with the Vampire, the beautiful lover of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and a beautiful swashbuckler in The Mask of Zorro. Wisely, he sent up his sexiness in the Spy Kids and Shrek franchises (purring as an actual cat, Puss in Boots, in the latter). He did a Tony-nominated spin on Broadway in the musical Nine, and directed two films: Crazy in Alabama, with his then-wife, the actress Melanie Griffith; and the Spanish-language film Summer Rain.

Griffith and Banderas divorced in 2014 after 19 years together. He's still processing it – "One step at a time," he says. "I'm a bit more analytic, analyzing myself. But I have contact with my ex-wife and our daughter [Stella, 19]. Things are pretty normal. I'm content. Happy is too strong of a word. But confronting life with joy and curiosity."

He splits his time between London and New York, and his current goal is to work less as an actor, "but to work better," he says. "Be more selective. I'm thinking that the thing for which I will be remembered has not been done yet." He's writing two scripts that he wants to direct, "which have to do with my perception of the time in which I am living, and my vision of that," he says.

"We are living in a very confusing time," he goes on. "We've all become suspicious of what 'the other' is doing, though we don't know what exactly it is. We're living in an almost post-democratic era, in which we don't know if the people we voted for are the ones ruling the world, or we are ruled by corporations who are not accountable. I want my work as an artist to reflect some of this."

In one of his scripts, an African boy seeking refuge in Europe washes up on a beach in Spain, and an American woman who owns a holiday home there takes him in. "So it's a love story between two people who don't have anything to do with each other – age, religion, culture, politics, country, language," Banderas says. "But still they need each other. I think it could be interesting. Immigration is the huge issue of our day. What we are seeing these days in Europe is horrendous – 350,000 people trying to escape conflict, and suffering, because of the incapacity that well-developed countries have to deal with the problem. It's disgusting."

That's partly why the message of The 33 seems so relevant to Banderas. Before and during filming, he became close to Sepulveda, who consulted on the production and worked with extras at the recreated Camp Hope, the impromptu tent city where the miners' families kept vigil. (Many of the extras had lived in the real camp.) "I am no Zorro," Sepulveda told him. "I travel through life with my miseries and my graces, and I want to be portrayed like that."

Sepulveda's example drove home for Banderas why the miners' story so riveted the world. "We take life for granted," he says. "It's not until we confront face-to-face the only certainty we have in life, which is death, that we appreciate life for what it is. The simplest things are the most important ones: the food you need to survive, and the love of the people around you. If you have the heart of the people you love, everything else disappears."