“What are we really?” asks Pain & Glory‘s Antonio Banderas. “Are we the things that we said and did in our lives, or are we the things that we dreamt or wanted to do and never did? What we wanted to say and we never said?”
Banderas had a prophetic bent when speaking with That Shelf at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The actor, in town for the North American premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory, is on a path of reinvention playing Salvador, and aging film director who reflects upon his career, creative stagnation, and the rich life that inspired his passion for the cinema.
It’s the performance of his life, even if Banderas declines to comment on the critical appraisal of his work. (Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes for the film.) He’s never been so open and vulnerable as he is playing the aging film director. The effect of the performance on Banderas is obvious given how readily cuts through the usual festival junket banter to bare himself.
The film sees Banderas as a virtual stand-in for Almodóvar in the director’s most overtly biographical film to date. This confessional drama interprets Almodóvar/Salvador’s biography as he remembers his mother (a luminous Penélope Cruz), his first love, and the highs and lows of a prolific career. The film marks the peak of a second creative wind for Banderas, who has been favouring riskier roles after a decade in which he headlined several major franchises playing Zorro and the Zorro-esque Puss in Boots in the Shrek series and its subsequent spin-off. His work with in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids and El Mariachi trilogies are to Hollywood what his films with Almodóvar are to art cinema.
Heart Attack Comeback
These recent richer and fuller performances show a side of Pain & Glory’s Antonio Banderas we haven’t seen before. Just look at his zanily comedic turn in Steven Soderbergh’s recently released caper The Laundromat, his Emmy-nominated turn as Picasso in the miniseries Genius, or his supporting role in Dan Fogelman’s critically-maligned drama Life Itself. The latter performance was one of the film’s few highlights and showed Banderas’s acting chops could elevate a film.
The actor says that Almodóvar gifted him the role of Salvador during a period of serious self-reflection. “There was important moment of change for me,” says Banderas. “I had a heart attack two-and-a-half years ago. That, in a way, determined how I behave not only in my relationship with art, but it in my personal life too. When you see death so close, it changes something in you. Only the important things come to the surface. All the things that weren’t important, they just vanish and disappear.”
Banderas looks at his work pragmatically and understands that there’s a diverse spectrum of Antonio Banderaii with which to judge his career. “Art and cinema have many different purposes,” observes Banderas. “I think you can just entertain people. You can also take them by the hand and descend with them to the complications and the depths of the human spirit. You have to ask what material you have in front of you. Obviously, I cannot put that depth in Puss in Boots. I cannot just create a character in Zorro, which is a festive movie and a celebration of adventure. You have to adapt it.” It goes without saying that Banderas might not be able to take the creative risks he enjoys today without the films of yesterday. (And let’s not knock Puss in Boots, Mr. Banderas!) But the new phase is something of a late career renaissance worth noting.
Banderas and Almodóvar
Pain & Glory is the culmination of over 30 years of collaboration between the actor and director on films such as Matador (1986); Law of Desire (1987); Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), which won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), and The Skin I Live In (2011). While audiences might be keen to read into the relationship between Salvador and his long-time Banderas-esque collaborator Alberto Crispo, played by Asier Etxeandia, Banderas says there more to the character than any one Almodóvar film regular.
“He’s made as a Frankenstein composed of many of us,” says Banderas. “I can see lines that are mine, I can see the actresses [like Almodóvar regulars Penélope Cruz and Cecilia Roth, who appear in the film] and everybody who knows him. He has a certain [sense of] forgiveness with this film.”
Banderas’s relationship with Almodóvar is essential to the film’s cathartic, confessional power. “Pedro saw that change in me and he said, ‘I don’t know how to describe it, but there is something different [about you] and I want you to don’t hide it. I want you to actually use it. Because the other side of pain and reflection and solitude that you bring is good for the character,’” Banderas recalls. “I knew exactly what he was talking about so I used it.”
“Where are you?”
Pain & Glory’s Antonio Banderas says that the path to the film actually began at TIFF when The Skin I Live In premiered in 2011. “For 22 years, I didn’t work with Pedro. So when he called me to do The Skin I Live In, I got to my first rehearsal and tried to show my friend all the things that I learned in Hollywood over those 22 years,” explains Banderas, recalling the snazzy action work, feline voice projection, and tricky stunts he learned on Hollywood movies. “After a week, Pedro said to me, ‘All of those things that you bring in from Hollywood, I cannot use them at all.’”
The actor recalls that the pivotal moment in their collaboration came with Almodóvar’s next question. “He made a question that really upset me at the moment,” says Banderas. “He said, ‘Where are you?’’ Despite the lucrative success of his Hollywood years, Banderas’s new bag of tricks didn’t translate for the arthouse director’s sensibilities. The loaded question, coming from an auteur filmmaker who continually resisted the opportunities of Hollywood in favour of her personal work, struck a chord with Banderas.
“At that time, I confronted him,” says Banderas. “We went into shooting The Skin I Live In with certain tensions, but always respecting our friendship. When I saw the movie here in Toronto nine years ago, it was for the first time in front of an audience. I discovered that my friend got out of me a character I didn’t even know I had inside.”
Banderas has always had screen presence, charisma, and sex appeal in spades. But one sees how much he’s been under-utilized as a dramatic actor when one looks at his recent spate of work, particularly the two Almodóvar films.
The Plain Soldier
Upon seeing his performance in The Skin I Live In at Toronto, and revisiting his director’s query of where he’s at, Pain & Glory’s Antonio Banderas recalls thinking about his career and the path that lead to the film. “I reflected about being humble by listening and opening my ears and my eyes,” says Banderas. “I wondered if I was going to have a second or eighth opportunity to create another character with Pedro,” admits Banderas. “When he called me to do this film, I said, that I am a plain soldier. I am working to start from scratch. Everything that I had used for years, I decided to get rid of and to touch other things.”
Looking to Almodóvar’s loyalty to his own vision, Banderas says his admiration for his friend inspired performance. “When you see two photographs of an Almodóvar movie, you know that is him. He never betrays that,” observes Banderas. “He was offered a lot of money to go to Hollywood, but he never bended to anything. That loyalty to himself is enormous. I wanted to express that in the movie.”
Banderas calls the work a “self-fiction” for Almodóvar. The director makes amends to his friends and family in his own creatively confessional way. “You get to that space at a certain age. You approach the only thing that is certain in life, which is death,” reflects Banderas. “Everything else is relative. When your approach death, there is only space for the truth. There’s no space for games anymore.”
Pain & Glory opens in Toronto and Ottawa on Oct. 25 and expands in the following weeks.