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Antonio Banderas: “I wasn’t comfortable with the label ‘Almodóvar boy’”

Ahead of the release of ‘Pain & Glory,’ the Hollywood star reflects on his career and his work with the most celebrated modern Spanish film director

Antonio Banderas in the offices of Almodóvar’s El Deseo production company.
Antonio Banderas in the offices of Almodóvar’s El Deseo production company.

Antonio Banderas is multitasking today, combining his first interview of the morning with a breakfast of two fried eggs and bacon. “I was at the gym running and time got away from me,” says the 58-year-old actor and director from Málaga. Banderas is sitting in filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s office in the El Deseo film production company in Madrid to talk about his new role in the movie Dolor y gloria (or, Pain & Glory) which premieres in Spain on March 22.

I’ve done eight movies with Pedro. He’s one of the most important men in my life

Banderas plays Almodóvar’s physical, albeit not spiritual, alter ego Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker who is having both a creative and existential crisis. It is a challenging character to play because Almodóvar is known for his meticulousness while shooting, and his habit of acting out the parts to convey the nuance of his characters to the cast. So, how does one give life to Almodóvar without imitating or becoming him? “From inside out,” Banderas answers. “And in spite of the physical features and the costumes Pedro had me wear, such as his hair and clothes, which surprised me at the beginning. Once we shaped the exterior and the pain of his illnesses, I no longer thought about imitating him. It was more a state of mind... and about understanding Pedro.”

The actor explains that he did not use this method as a strategy to heal the wounds between the two – they came to blows several times during the production of The Skin I Live In –but instead as “a real exercise to know what he wanted me to express, not only using the things he told me, but also those he told others.”

Until I met him I was a repertoire actor. Pedro helped me create the personality of an artist and mentally opened me up to the world

The actor believes that beneath the plot of Dolor y gloria is some kind of relief for the filmmaker. “He had things he wanted to confess about his relationships with actors, family and in general with life. He needed to expel them,” says Banderas. “Maybe they were things that needed to be said and that were never said. This is why it is not an autobiography.” And for this reason, he says, Almodóvar felt more freedom. “I think that when he realized I was creating the character from humility, in a very receptive way, he started to let me go. Pedro is a creator who dominates the actors during a shoot. This time I felt he was letting me do my own thing – he probably thought I had created the character and that it was better not to touch it. It happened to me before, in ¡Átame! [or, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!] and in La ley del deseo [or, Law of Desire]. In short, all of this made me feel very connected to him while shooting because we had very powerful moments. For example, the balcony sequence my character has with his mother, which [Pedro] was unable to get through at a table read before the script was picked up. I went to hug him and he transmitted his deep pain to me – all that had happened to him in his youth, because of his sexuality, in a small town in the 1960s.”

Now Banderas understands Almodóvar better. “After many years, we still have things to discover, layers of the onion to peel. Pedro keeps his personal life very closed off and some details are only expressed in his movies. This situation has allowed us to recover our youth because we still surprise ourselves... and I hope we’ll also surprise the public, because it will mean that we are not dead.”

It’s been a long journey for the pair, as Banderas explains. “I met Pedro in 1981, on the terrace of [Madrid’s] Café Gijón an hour before a performance of La hija del aire [or, The daughter of the air] by Calderón de la Barca, surrounded by other actors. And a guy with a red briefcase arrived, and he told us about some funny adventures, which today I no longer remember. When he was leaving, he looked at – I had a very Baroque look for the play, with long hair and a goatee – and he said, ‘You have a very romantic face, you should do movies. Goodbye.’ When he left, I asked who he was and they replied, ‘He’s a kid who made a movie, but he’s not going to make any more.’ Spain is full of prophets,” says Banderas, laughing. “I’ve made eight movies with Pedro. He’s one of the most important men in my life. When he called me to read the script [for Dolor y gloria] he said to me, ‘You’ll read things that we did together in the 1980s.’ Until I met him I was a repertoire actor. Pedro helped me create my personality as an artist, and mentally opened me up to the world.”

When I work with Pedro I think that life placed me in front of one of these great artists who will go down in the Spanish history as a man who knew how to relate to his era

When Banderas arrived in Los Angeles, he recalls feeling “like a Rolling Stone.” “Hollywood is very conservative, and because of the education I received from Pedro, I felt like a rock star. The kiss I gave Tom Hanks when arriving at the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t there in the script. And it really wasn’t a big deal. It seemed like anathema at the time. But Jonathan accepted my proposal and Tom always thanked me for it.”

And on that trip to a new life in the United States, was there an escape from Almodóvar’s world, a sort of self-vindication? “Probably. I didn’t like the label ‘Almodóvar boy,’ it was something I didn’t feel comfortable wearing, even though back then I admired him just as much as I do today. When I work with Pedro I think that life placed me in front of one of these great artists who will go down in the Spanish history as a man who knew how to relate to his era. As an artist he is pure, he has never betrayed himself,” he says laughing and remembering a moment during the recent shoot when the filmmaker called him “Antoñito.” “He does that at times, and I love it, because I’m almost 60 years old.”

And how is the “Almodóvar boy” doing now? “Today I laugh a lot. Being in the United States has allowed me to do a lot of very different things. Now everything has changed. Other [Spanish actors], like Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who have won Oscars, have fared even better than me. But I was the first one who said, ‘this can be done’.”

Banderas remembers the exact moment the estrangement between him and Almodóvar ended. “I had just left a work session at the musical Zorba the Greek in New York, and I was just about to accept it. All of a sudden I got a phone call. It was Pedro, and he said to me, ‘The time has come.’ ‘For what?’ ‘For us to work together again. It’s been 22 years.’ He sent me the script for The Skin I Live In and it was like finding a Coca-Cola in the desert.”

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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