Drawing on his recent experience of a heart attack, as well as his decades-long friendship with director Pedro Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas has produced what may be his finest performance in Pain and Glory. “We hadn’t worked together in eight or nine years, but suddenly he calls me and says, ‘Hey, I’m gonna send you something. You’re going to find a lot of references to people that you and I know.’ And I received Pain and Glory. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it because he was there, it was such an opportunity. So, I went to him as a soldier, as a very, very plain soldier, ready to listen. Really listen.” By Andy Hazel.

An audience with Antonio Banderas

Antonio Banderas in a scene from Pain and Glory.
Antonio Banderas in a scene from Pain and Glory.
Credit: Manolo Pavón

“To create this character, I had to kill Antonio Banderas,” he says, very clearly, without any sense of importance. “The Antonio Banderas that I have been portraying for a number of years, I had to create something completely different, and not be afraid to do it.”

We’re sitting at a small table in a richly decorated bar. It’s the sort of place it feels strange to be in before 9pm – thick dark carpets, a low textured ceiling and couches with seats so wide that using them renders the sitter almost horizontal. The sound of the world outside seems to be sucked into the furnishings, which is just as well because, whether by design or necessity, Antonio Banderas is speaking extremely quietly.

“Think of Spain in 1964,” he says, his gaze so intense it distracts from his instruction. “In a Catholic dictatorship, in a village in the middle of nowhere with a father who’s a peasant, and you’re a guy that is homosexual in a village where everybody knows everybody.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “This was Pedro’s life.”

Banderas’s turn as the introspective director Salvador Mallo in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, has been heralded as the best performance of the actor’s career. It’s a role so specifically informed by his longtime friendship with Almodóvar, and by his own experience, that he is yet to be able to talk about it without being overcome with emotion. Some are already suggesting it may earn the Spaniard his first Academy Award for best actor.

He says of Almodóvar: “We hadn’t worked together in eight or nine years, but suddenly he calls me and says, ‘Hey, I’m gonna send you something. You’re going to find a lot of references to people that you and I know.’ And I received Pain and Glory. I couldn’t believe it.” His eyes widen and he leans back. “I couldn’t believe it because he was there, it was such an opportunity. So, I went to him as a soldier, as a very, very plain soldier, ready to listen. Really listen.”

Although his turn of phrase may verge on the melodramatic, Banderas – who experienced a heart attack in 2017 – has a renewed understanding of death, and his profession. A veteran of more than 100 movies, television series and theatre productions, he says acting was the addiction that led to three stents being inserted into his coronary arteries.

“Now I’m addicted to… it sounds weird, but to finding myself. To a new me. Not the one I was before the heart attack,” he says. “Of course, there is fear when you feel that life escaping out of your body. You say, ‘Oh my God…’ and you feel this is it. I am a year or something from 60, and when you get to that age you realise that there is only space for the truth.” There is a flash in his brown eyes that leaves me in no doubt he is serious. “You reach an acceptance of yourself as a human being and, as an actor, you just go to different places,” he says. “I have this suspicion that these places are way more interesting than the places I went when I was younger.”

Banderas credits Almodóvar for noticing a new quality in him after his heart attack. “When we were talking about working together, he said to me, ‘Don’t hide that. Part of the character is there in that sadness that is with you now. Show it.’”

In Pain and Glory, Banderas plays a famed director who has been asked to present a restoration of a film he made 30 years ago. During the process, he visits the movie’s star – an actor with whom he fell out during the making – and as they spend time together he is empowered to look at the parts of his life that most troubled him, specifically his relationship with his mother and his former lover. All the while, he is attempting to manage his chronic pain, turning to smoking heroin to dull his condition.

The film marks the eighth time Almodóvar has called on Banderas. Their partnership began in 1982 when the director cast Banderas as a gay Muslim terrorist in his 1982 film Labyrinth of Passion. Its early peak was followed five years later with Law of Desire, a film notable at the time for its sensitive depiction of a relationship between two gay men and a trans woman. It also featured Spain’s first on-screen kiss between two men – Banderas and actor Eusebio Poncela.

Similarly, Pain and Glory explores the deepening of the relationship between Banderas’s Mallo and a lover from his youth. He tells me that a scene in which he and actor Leonardo Sbaraglia share a passionate kiss drew a reaction of surprise from the audience at a screening he attended a night earlier.

“Still, the people get a little bit…” He winces. “I mean, when I did Law of Desire in 1987, I killed a guy in that movie. I bit him on the neck, and I threw him off a cliff, and nobody paid attention to that. People are so hypocritical in terms of morality. For Pain and Glory, so many people ask me, ‘Was it difficult to do the [kissing] scene?’ I say, ‘No, no it was not.’” Banderas pauses long enough to accept an espresso from his publicist, whom he thanks with a nod.

“Many years ago,” he continues, “when I was studying at the School of Dramatic Art in Málaga, I had a professor who said, ‘If you’re going to be an actor or an artist of any kind, every time you step into this room, you must take all these prejudged things that you have about life and morality and all this shit, and take it off like a jacket.’” Banderas mimes removing a jacket and throwing it on the floor. “‘You leave it outside of the room. Here we work in absolute freedom to understand the character.’ I took that very seriously. So, I don’t have a problem playing gay characters or any other type of character.”

Here, rather than casting Banderas for the brio and vitality he brought to the psychological thriller The Skin I Live In – where he played a vengeful plastic surgeon – or his sexually frustrated bullfighter in Matador, Almodóvar asked for a degree of physical restraint and emotional depth that few would have thought the Mask of Zorro star capable of.

“I’m going to say something that’s going to make you laugh, but it’s true. I made a huge mistake,” he says, furrowing his brow. He sips his espresso, pausing just long enough for uncertainty to taint my expression. “I bought a theatre in Málaga and I am reconstructing it at the moment, so if you see me doing bad movies it’s because I need to pay for it.”

I laugh, but he shakes his head: “I’m serious. I’m going to try to do as much honest work as I can, but I have to pay for this, otherwise they’re going to fucking throw me out of my house.” He looks at me sternly again. “This is not a laughing matter to me anymore because it’s true.

“But I have done it in a very altruistic way. I don’t want any money from the theatre. It is something I have wanted to do for my town for a long time. It’s actually two theatres and one of them, called Teatro del Soho CaixaBank, is attached to a school with 600 students. If there are dividends at the end of the year, we will reinvest them.”

I try to take him back to his statement about “bad” and “honest” films. He answers with a sigh that suggests we’re broaching a topic he – the star of The Expendables 3 and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water – is reluctant to discuss.

“I’m not going to criticise a world in which I spend a lot of time,” Banderas says, carefully. “Hollywood has given me a lot of satisfaction, a lot. But…” He leans forward and holds his palms up. “I’m going to generalise and then we’ll do the differentiations. Hollywood – not all American cinema – Hollywood, is a factory. It’s a factory that does a product very well. It’s been very well organised for a very long time. They do a beautiful Coca-Cola. And everybody loves Coca-Cola. You know, you just…” He mimes guzzling a bottle and throwing it away.

“Europe doesn’t have that industry. Europe does good wines. Not everybody loves good wines, but it’s special. Now, there are people in America who make good wines, and there are people in Europe that want to make products, but in general that’s how this thing moves.” He drains his espresso and returns his gaze to me.

“In Hollywood, you feel that you’re working in a formula, and lately even more. Television is more interesting to me than what is on movie screens. Movie screens are more interested in showing repeats. I mean, how many Spider-Men can you do?” I remind him that shortly he’ll feature in the superhero franchise X-Men: The New Mutants and a reboot of Dr Dolittle. He denies he is in either and insists the internet is wrong. “No, I just work with [Steven] Soderberg,” he says. Given he features in the trailer for Dolittle, I can only assume this is his polite way of refusing to talk about either blockbuster. Soderberg’s crime caper The Laundromat, in which Banderas plays financier Ramón Fonseca, whose misdeeds were exposed in the Panama Papers, is clearly work of which the actor is proud.

“What I cannot do is make the mistake of trying to reproduce this,” he says, gesturing to indicate Pain and Glory, “because then I will be again in the boat that I was before, ‘Oh, this worked for me. So, I’ll do five movies like that.’

“No. What opened my eyes making Pain and Glory was finding a new way to attack characters. There are magnificent actors that go their whole life doing the same character. They are approved by the audience, but they are not doing creations.

“And that’s more and more what Pedro was asking from me. When we started working, we started with no tools, no Hollywood tricks, nothing. When you are like that you feel very naked, believe me. It’s a very painful place to be, but that’s a place where creation is. And, as the title of the movie shows you, there is no glory if there is no pain. Truly. For a real artist you have to go to that empty canvas, and an empty canvas hurts. Because if you start just reproducing things that you have done before, you are not doing art, you’re doing something else. And so, I said to Pedro, ‘Okay. Let’s go for the pain of it.’ We jumped into the process of making this movie and it was the most beautiful experience that I had in my life. Literally.” Banderas lingers over the words with a muted sincerity. For all his explanations, it is his eyes that most clearly communicate the impact of making the film and the sense of rebirth that accompanied it.

“Last summer, when we were shooting this movie, the environment on the set was so raw.” He stops to swallow, as if reliving the experience. “Because I was searching, because I was fearful. Thanks to Pedro now, I am aware. I’m aware and fearless.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 9, 2019 as "Pain threshold".

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Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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