Pedro Almodóvar can be an exacting taskmaster, but even he broke down during a pivotal scene in his autobiographical drama “Pain and Glory.” The Oscar-winning Spanish auteur likes to read with his actors on their close-ups. But when he tried to speak the lines of his mother, he couldn’t do it. For Antonio Banderas, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this role modeled on the director, that was red meat. “OK, you cannot give better information to an actor,” he said. “Fucking give me ‘action,’ because I have it.”
Banderas struggled with his return to acting with his mentor after 22 years with 2011 psychothriller “The Skin I Live In.” Nonetheless he eagerly took on “Pain and Glory,” playing the aging auteur who gave him a career launchpad with films like “Labyrinth of Passion” (1982) and, most famously, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989).
In “Pain and Glory,” which could score Banderas his first Oscar nomination, the 58-year-old actor plays filmmaker Salvador Mallo, who medicates his depression and an aching back with a potent cocktail of painkillers, alcohol, and heroin as he looks back on the story of his life in film. Banderas has never given a performance like this: intimate, subtle, emotional, sensitive, responsive.
“I started realizing that the whole thing was about reconciliation,” he said at Cannes, “coming to terms. When you have a movie about that, even though it’s personal, it becomes universal. We all have suitcases full of pain and glory, miseries and greatness.”
As Almodóvar wrote the script, he did not have anyone in mind to play himself. But when he was done, Banderas came to mind, and when he read the script, he leapt for it. “He came immediately for me,” Almodóvar said.
Even so, Almodóvar wasn’t immediately convinced that he could do the role: He prepared two backup actors. He feared he’d get “the bravura Antonio, which is great for the epic movies that he did, also the movies we made in the ’80s, his passionate way of looking,” he said. “But I needed the opposite … I wanted him to just show his fragility.”
Ultimately, Almodóvar said it was their nearly 40-year relationship that won him over. “He was more clever than I,” the director said. “He loved the part and told me he knew everything that happened to me; he’s known me since the beginning. He told me that he would put himself in my hands without advanced ideas. That was what I needed.”
Banderas said that at first read, Almodóvar’s script was “minimalist, not rock-and-roll, just very simple strokes. It seems like nothing is happening, but a lot is. It’s the story of a movie director, a reflection of our lives, of real physical pain. It’s not just about who he was, or who he is, but who we were in the ’60s. He’s close to 70, he reflects about everything that happened, it reflects cinema and life.”
The actor was surprised that Almodóvar revealed so much of his personal life he wouldn’t usually share, even with friends. “He said, ‘You will find references there to people we know,’” said Banderas. “I didn’t know I was going to find him. Pedro is a private person. We never crossed those lines.”
Banderas knew that shooting “Pain and Glory” likely would be just that. He remembered a rough production on “The Skin I Live In,” when “I arrived with all the new things I had learned over 22 years,” he said. “I was more secure in front of the camera, I had worked on my voice and my body. [ Almodóvar] said, ‘I am not interested in these things, I want Antonio Banderas, where are you? ’… He wants truth.
“Pedro is a meticulous, demanding director,” Banderas said. “He positions you in way that’s painful, it is naked, in a space very undermined. Vertigo is the word to describe that. He detects if you are lying to him immediately, you have to navigate in waters never swimming before … If you resist him, it’s going to be more painful. If you abandon yourself, it’s going to be fine.”
Banderas stayed away from imitating the director, but he’s there in the spiky hair, the ways he protects his back, the replica of his home in Madrid, and even some of his own clothes. “He writes as he talks,” Banderas said. “When he writes himself, the things he does with words and inflections are very much him. All I had to say was the lines.”
For one key scene, the director surprised Banderas and co-star Leonardo Sbaraglia — playing former lovers who have not seen each other for years — by telling them to go for a deep kiss so erotic that it arouses them both. “In this case, you should see that they were deep and intense lovers in the past even without having an erotic scene,” said Almodóvar. “So that depends on the way they look at each other. This kind of sequence depends completely on the generosity of the actors, they were fantastic.”
“Fine, no problem,” said Banderas. “The kiss has to be like that, we go for it, period. It’s not going to change me, I am what I am, my sexuality is clear to me, I’m not afraid of that. I have nothing against that. People can express love whatever they want.”
Banderas said he was unprepared for the rush of emotions he felt during the scene. “There was no plan or nothing,” he said. “It hit me so strong. Later on, when I analyzed it, it was so important to get into a state and don’t plan. It was almost feverish.”
Banderas said his emotions became more accessible after a mild heart attack two years ago; even an emotional movie or reading poetry can make him cry. “I eliminated things that were not important in my life,” he said, “and suddenly, magic things started happening, projects started coming in a different way. I started attacking them in a different way. ‘Picasso’ came. He was born in my hometown, I created a character from his 40s until the time he dies. So I think I did a decent job there.” (He scored an Emmy nomination for the NatGeo “Genius” series.)
So when it came to portraying a character based on his own mentor, “I knew where to find it,” Banderas said. “This was another stratosphere. He’s a character I never did before, more economical and simple. The truth is I never felt I was acting, I felt like I was living it. It was weird to play a character who is still alive and producing more information every day. It’s rare that he’s behind the camera saying ‘action’ to you. That’s complex. He’s your friend on top of that. Dealing with all those things was not easy, but it was unbelievably interesting and exciting.”
The movie opened three months ago in Spain to rave reviews and strong box office. Later this year, Banderas will portray Panamanian novelist and lawyer Ramón Fonseca in Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix drama “The Laundromat,” opposite Meryl Streep. He’s also running two non-profit theaters and a school for 600 students in Spain. “So if you see me doing bad movies,” he said, “I am paying for my theaters.”
Going forward, Banderas knows he can pursue more character roles, and Almodovar has urged him to be open to new doors. “I advise him to be in that place in the future,” he said. “There is a new possibility for Antonio that he created in this movie.”
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