Antonio Banderas is a gifted Spanish actor, producer, and singer. He began his acting career with a series of films by director Pedro Almodóvar and then appeared in the high-profile Hollywood films The Mask of Zorro (1998), Desperado (1995), Philadelphia (1993), and Evita (1996). He received the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his 2019 film Pain and Glory. We met with the multitalented actor in Toronto for Skylife readers.
You play the alter ego of Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory. It is a huge responsibility to play an artist like him. I am wondering, would you like to see an actor playing you?
First of all, I don’t know if my story is a story to be told. I don’t think I have a life dramatic enough to be told. I hope that it stays like this, because if you have a story to be told, then some drama has to happen to make it interesting and I don’t want those dramas to continue in my life; they just have to keep happening, the things that I love to do.
And I am very concentrated these days in the theater -and also as a consequence of my heart attack- I bought in southern Spain because it’s a dream that I had before, since I left my hometown. I bought a theater there and I found it perfect and a most romantic way to ruin myself. I am losing a lot of money and energy and time, but it’s going to open in November. I got attached to the school and we have 600 students there, they do singing and acting and dancing and we are going to build a second theater, a black box to use as a lab. Some of the students are already in the West End in London, in musicals in Madrid, and at the Bolshoi. And so it’s a very satisfactory thing to do, just to pass the experiences that I had in my career to young generations. That is one of the most beautiful things that ever happened in my life. So I am going to dedicate a lot of time to that. But at the same time, just coming out to do movies that are really interesting for me; if I am not interested, I am not going to do anything.
Buying a theater in your hometown I’m sure brought up a lot of things from your own childhood and youth. Can you talk a little bit about how you experience going home?
The friends that I have are the same friends I had when I was 15 and 16 years old. I kept my relationships with them, and so many of them are in my theater now, in different positions, and not always an artistic position but in administration. And the world is different, smaller now than when I left. When I left the distances were bigger and just to have this theater, I want to give the possibility to the actors that are going to come to the theater, I would like to take them to New York and I am going to do that actually. I am going to do that with the first production, put them in New York and I want the people to see the talent of these kids from Spain, to see them outside. So there’s a number of things I can do now for example. Hollywood -it’s a brand. If you are branded, it doesn’t matter where you do the movies.
Everything is changing so fast, all the platforms. Netflix, now Disney is coming out with Disney Plus. And so now is a good time for actors, especially young actors, since they have a lot of work to do, there is a lot of space now to develop your work. When I became an actor and I went to Madrid, there was one national TV channel and the families that were doing theater, were three or four, not more. People have never watched more movies than they are watching now and they are not watching them in the same format. So the problem that we have for the people who love movies is that we are probably losing the traditional way of going to a movie theater, seeing a story on the big screen with people that you don’t know, and you share the experience, the theatrical experience, in darkness watching something altogether. I consume movies practically daily. I would say I would watch a movie every day for sure, sometimes if I am not working. If I am working, I have to study and spend time preparing. But if I am not, I may just watch three movies. So I still enjoy being a spectator. You have now the opportunity to follow many different realities and to see movies in many different ways. I think it’s a good thing, but we have to just adjust to the experience. But that’s why I bought a theater, because a theater will never change, ever. You can record it, but then it’s not theater, you have to live it and experience it there. I am an actor; I know that every day is different.
That’s why theater is my goal now, it’s just going back to that passion that I had at the beginning for acting, in a place that is fearless.
How important was your childhood home to you? Can you describe it?
Actors, they have a tendency to dramatize their lives very much. My childhood was very good. There was no drama. I was living in a dictatorship, but I was very young, I did not know. The way that I would describe the Spain from those days when I was child, it was a country in anesthesia. It was not until I was 15 and Franco died that I started actually being conscious about what was happening and all the things that were suppressed in my country. And then I started growing up to become a man at the same time that my country was growing from a dictatorship to a democracy, literally in parallel lines. But I had a father and mother that were good and a brother that to this day is my best friend. And I didn’t have any structural problem that I could recognize now. My memories are memories of a very nice childhood.
When you reflect on those days, what conclusions do you draw and how much do you think those days influenced the person you are nowadays? Do you feel that you lived up to the expectations of your parents?
In many ways I think of the expectations of my father and my mother, my mother was a girl that was raised in a war. And she was very young, she was five years old in the Spanish Civil War. And she saw horrors, so she grew up with fear. And so what she wanted from me was something that gave me security, her dream. So the dream of my mother was that I work in a bank, and Saturday and Sunday I don’t work and I have a free month a year. And we travel to some holiday somewhere and we come back and this is it, that’s life. So I just confronted her, because there were two different dreams, hers and mine, but mine was mine. But I think, I remember when I opened Evita in London and I remember how happy they were. That’s the image that I have of my father and my mother, doing the red carpet with them and then they took them to the green room and I went there, and I saw my mother in a very animated conversation with John Major, who was the prime minister of the United Kingdom at the time. I saw them enjoying my success, so that is something that they took with them when they died.
You did an amazing job in the Emmy-nominated series Genius playing Pablo Picasso, one of the 20th century’s most influential and celebrated artists. Which was more challenging, playing Picasso or Almodóvar?
They have different complications. Maybe playing Picasso was a good training to play Pedro. Picasso was complicated because it was more biographical for real, you have to go step-by-step and I had the opportunity of doing so with producers that actually gave me the guarantees that all the information that we were going to have was true. With Pedro, not everything that you see in the movie happened. But the thing is, that makes the movie of Pedro more Pedro than Pedro. Because I think we are not only what we did and what we said in our lives. We are also what we never said but we wanted to say, or the things that we wanted to do but never did. And the movie had that, the movie is made of that material.
So it’s these impulses, it’s about closing circles that were left open in the past. It’s about coming to terms with your family, with your mom, with your actors. It’s about reconciliation. And everybody identifies with that because we travel through life with a backpack with miseries and greatness, pain and glories.
And that is very beautiful to see. Sometimes the directions of Pedro, they were not directions, they were verbalized. Pedro loves to come on the set, straight on the set when we are going to shoot a scene and he reads the characters with you, just to give you the latest indications. And I remember a moment when we were shooting a scene about me with Julieta Serrano, who plays my mom, and he came and he reads first the character of Julieta. And I was giving him the lines. And then he was going to start to read my character, and he couldn’t. And I saw the emotional component that the whole movie had for him. And I remember the line that he couldn’t read was “Mom, I’m sorry that I am not the son you want me to be.” And so what more emotional information from a director can you ask? I didn’t need anything more. It’s my eighth movie with Almodóvar, but I never lived an experience that was so complex and profound and emotional.
You won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor with this performance. How was the process?
We actors, we live off what we experience, that’s our food, and then we just try to understand the characters and what part of my life can I use in order to create this character? But it is always difficult to play somebody who exists. If that person is actually your friend, it’s a little more challenging and if that person is behind the camera, then it’s even more extraordinarily difficult.
Pedro, not working with him for 22 years, and working with the Americans, I have learned many things about acting, I feel more secure in front of the camera. I can do this, I can do that, I can trust my voice. And Pedro, after several rehearsals, said to me all of those things you have learned in America, are not very useful. And so at that time, I actually kind of, not confronted him, but in a way, I disagreed, and so it was a tense shooting. When I say tension, I am talking about creative tension. Then, I saw the movie for the first time and I realized that he was able to bring out of me a character that I didn’t even know I had inside.
Looking at your background, you started playing soccer and you were very unique and talented but you ended up being a very successful actor. Do you believe in destiny?
I don’t know about destiny but I believe that you can build your own destiny sometimes unconsciously. I do believe in what they call the law of attraction. If you want something very much and you are honest with yourself, you will get it.
I didn’t know that you had 22 fragrances on the market and I was wondering how much time this business takes up in your life and what it means to you. You have a fine nose for smelling I assume?
No. I have been doing that for 23 years. It was a business that some friends that I did theater with, 45 years ago, they stopped being actors, they became lawyers and businessmen and when I went back to Spain from Hollywood 23 years ago, they proposed it to me, and I said I don’t want to do this really. So I put my name and my image there. It was a friend thing in the beginning. And suddenly that thing took off in an unexpected way. And it just continued. It takes time, sometimes I travel to the countries, I don’t only put my image and my name, but I put my work, I go and I work for it. And they’ve been selling fantastically for all these years.
Do you have a favorite fragrance among them all?
I use all of them. Nobody would believe me, and I don’t say this just for publicity but since I started with this company, I’ve never used other perfumes. I only use my own.