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‘Genius: Picasso’: Antonio Banderas Ran Away from Playing the Painter, Takes on Almodovar Next

The Spanish star was born in Picasso's home town, and could land an Emmy nod for playing the older Picasso from his 40s to his death. Next up he plays his mentor Almodovar.

Budapest, Hungary - Antonio Banderas stars as Pablo Picasso in Season 2 of National Geographic’s Genius (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso

National Geographic/Dusan Martincek

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Fair to say, Antonio Banderas is the best thing about National Geographic’s second “Genius” series, “Picasso.” Born in Picasso’s home town in Malaga, Spain, 57 years ago, Banderas has turned down many offers to play Picasso since his 20s. But he finally stopped running away from the bigger-than-life abstract painter, and agreed to play the older Picasso from his 40s through his death at age 91 in Mougins, France in 1973, surrounded by loved ones. “He realizes… ‘this is my best painting’,” said Banderas.

The 11-part series was filmed in Hungary over five months, with Banderas arriving on set in the wee hours to endure five hours of prosthetic makeup. “It was exhausting,” said Banderas, who enjoyed creating Picasso with showrunner Ken Biller, makeup designer Davina Lamont, and costume designer Sonu Mishra. Banderas refused to see dailies, and said he only watched the first episode. It made him feel too self-conscious.

National Geographic/Dusan Martincek

“I’m very happy with what we achieved,” he said in an April interview, four weeks after the completion of production. “I miss Picasso, he’s still there somewhere.” He loved getting into a zen state over a long series to play the old painter, and said he still wakes up some mornings to find himself shuffling to the bathroom like an old man.  ‘We’re finished with Picasso! It’s still in my bones.”

The series chronology jumps among different decades, so Banderas had to pay careful attention to what came before and after each scene — even if it was his younger self (Alex Rich). In the last two episodes, Banderas ranged between his youngest (46) and his oldest (91) incarnations.

He sings the praises of his collaborators Lamont and Mishra, who talked through every detail of his makeup and costume. “We three created the character together,” he said, “drawing and talking, putting together pieces. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Mishra dressed Banderas “bigger than normal to make me look shorter,” he said. “In footage Picasso walks weird, with his feet open and his body language. She designed the pants in a way that favors that kind of movement.”

Budapest, Hungary - Antonio Banderas stars as Pablo Picasso in Season 2 of National Geographic’s Genius (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

“Genius: Picasso”

National Geographic/Dusan Martincek

The makeup “is a mask, but I had to be able to move it,” he said. “I shaved my eyebrows and my head, but I have to be able to know my own feelings, express with my face. We experimented with mirrors for a long time until we found Picasso — not too long before shooting, which was scary.”

The role allows him to speak his native Spanish, and he makes a sexy, mature, powerful, and complex artist-seducer, as Picasso juggles multiple women and children. Picasso’s daughter Maya and grandson Olivier helped Banderas, especially, to find the warm human being behind the myth. “There is a certain weight I wanted to achieve with the character,” he said, “which is very important to me, especially to balance the light and darkness in his personal life.”

For Picasso, “genius is a pathology that he couldn’t avoid,” said Banderas. In one scene, he’s having a lovely, comfortable time with mistress Marie-Therese Walter and their daughter, but still feels compelled to leave. “I love you, but I have to get out of here,” he tells her. Said Banderas, as Picasso “there is this vertigo I need in order to keep creating and breaking rules of behavior in art and life. I am surfing a wave, I am not in this lake that is very pleasant.”

Picasso gets caught during the war when he’s dealing with repressive forces in politics in France and Spain, trying to preserve his paintings. “During one moment of crisis in 1935 until he meets Francoise Gilot, he abandoned painting,” said Banderas. “He didn’t paint for a year and a half, he was lost, had problems with his women, there was the civil war in Spain, horror was happening Malaga and Barcelona. He was feeling guilty, but not saying anything.”

Picasso is “Don Giovanni and he interprets himself in his paintings as the minotaur,” said Banderas, lowering his voice. “He pursues women, he knows how to play the game of seduction. He talks about love and making love as an art, he was very good at it … I don’t want to defend him,” he said. “It’s dotty to want to judge him in terms of morality.”

Budapest, Hungary - Antonio Banderas stars as Pablo Picasso in Season 2 of National Geographic’s Genius (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

“Genius: Picasso”

National Geographic/Dusan Martincek

There’s some footage of Picasso (painting on glass in “The Mysteries of Picasso”), but he didn’t give many interviews, and fought against the publication of Gilot’s memoir, losing in court. (She’s 96 and still lives in New York.) “He never had the opportunity to justify some of his acts,” said Banderas.  “All we know is from the people around him. The judge said, ‘If you painted her, she can make a book about you.'”

Banderas now lives with his girlfriend Nicole Kempel outside London in Surrey, and hangs with his ex, Melanie Griffith, whenever he’s in L.A. “We’re good friends,” he said.

Pedro Almodovar, Penelope Cruz Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, left, and director Pedro Almodovar pose in front of the Trevi fountain during a photo call for the presentation of the movie "Broken Embraces" in Rome, ItalyItaly Pedro Almodovar, Rome, Italy

Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz

ANDREW MEDICHINI/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Next up: He’s working with and portraying his favorite director, the auteur who broke him out in his 20s in Spain, Pedro Almodovar in “Dolor y Gloria,” co-starring Penelope Cruz. The movie will mark Banderas’ first Almodóvar feature since 2011’s “The Skin I Live In.” The actor was a staple of the director’s early career, having starred in “Labyrinth of Passion” (1982) and, most famously, in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989).

For her part, Cruz last worked with Almodóvar in 2009 on “Broken Embraces.” She won best actress at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for her work in “Volver” (2006), considered to be one of Almodóvar’s best films, and stars with husband Javier Bardem in Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” in Competition at Cannes. “Dolor y Gloria” is set to begin production in July.

In the film, Almodovar looks back on the story of his life in film, starting in the ’60s. “Pedro doesn’t want me to imitate him,” said Banderas. “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 were in the ’60s.”

Banderas describes the script as “minimalist, not rock-and-roll, just very simple strokes,” he said. “It seems like nothing is happening but a lot is, it’s very good. He’s close to 70, he reflects about everything that happened, it reflects cinema and life.”

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