When Pedro Almodóvar broke down during a pivotal scene in his autobiographical drama “Pain and Glory,” Antonio Banderas ran with the emotion. “I have it,” he said. Banderas has earned kudos for this role modeled on the director, winning Best Actor from the Cannes competition jury, the European Film Awards, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
After struggling with his return to acting with his mentor after 22 years with 2011 psychothriller “The Skin I Live In,” Banderas eagerly took on “Pain and Glory,” playing a version of 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 our video interview above, the 59-year-old actor describes the delicate, step by step embroidery of building the character of Salvador Mallo, which could score Banderas his first Oscar nomination. Mallo 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, his coming of age as a gay youth in Spain, his mother (Penelope Cruz), his old lovers, and the actors he has treated harshly over the years. Banderas has never given a performance like this: intimate, subtle, emotional, sensitive, responsive.
The actor was surprised that Almodóvar revealed so much of his personal life that 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.”
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Almodóvar and the actor came to terms over how to play this role, abandoning old tricks in favor of a new vulnerability and openness, a lack of control. Banderas had to be willing to stay in a state of vertigo in order to achieve his director’s goals. And he could never lie. “We never pushed,” Banderas told me. “We were never pushing for emotion. Things were starting to come to you in a different way.”
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. 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. Banderas was unprepared for the rush of feelings that hit him “like a tsunami” during the scene, which he tried to hold back as the camera stayed on him.
From the start the director encouraged the actor to stay in touch with his emotions, which became more accessible after a mild heart attack two years ago. So when it came to portraying a character based on his own mentor, “I knew where to find it,” Banderas said.