Antonio Banderas Had to “Kill” Himself to Play the Gay Man Who Made Him a Star

With his Cannes-winning performance in "Pain and Glory," the actor pays tribute to his mentor, director Pedro Almodóvar.

Pedro Almodóvar helped turn Antonio Banderas into a star, so it seems fitting that Banderas has now come full circle to portray the gay Spanish auteur—or at least a version of him—for the semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory.

In the film, Spain’s official Oscars entry for Best International Feature, director Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is no longer living his best life. He’s wracked with physical ailments, pain, panic attacks, and a creative block. He’s also haunted by his past.
 

When a revival screening of his pivotal 1980s film, Sabor, affords him the chance to reconnect with its star Alberto (Asier Exteandia), the pair, who’ve been estranged for years, bond over heroin, air long-held grievances, and eventually collaborate again when Salvador allows Alberto to stage a memoir text as a one-man monologue… which leads to the sudden reappearance of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Salvador’s ex-lover. All the while, Salvador flashes back to his years as a child, his fraught relationship with his mother (played by Penélope Cruz and Julieta Serrano, as a young and elderly woman, respectively), and his first pang of same-sex attraction to an artistic handyman (César Vicente). Will any of these events, past or present, hold the key to unleashing his visionary spirit and will to live?

To play the 70-year-old Almodóvar’s thinly veiled—actually, fuck it, not veiled at all—alter ego, Banderas wore replicas of clothing yanked from the filmmaker’s own wardrobe, sported his signature spiky hairstyle, and even inhabited a precise reconstruction of Almodóvar’s sleek Madrid apartment (which you will want to move into).

“It’s exactly like his!” Banderas exclaims, sitting in a midtown hotel room in Manhattan. “And when I say exactly, even the books that are there are in his apartment. The painting is the same, the balcony, the reflection of the light at specific times of day. When I read the script and thought, Salvador is Pedro, I figured the character’s look would go in another direction. I asked, ’Should we go with a beard, no beard, hair back?’ He never gave me a yes or no answer, and then on the day of the screen test he talked to the hairdresser and they started pulling my hair up like his! Then he brought in practically all of his wardrobe. There were some Prada suits, for example, and if he liked the color, he said, ’Okay, let’s do a replica.'”

Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics
Antonio Banderas as Salvador in Pain and Glory.

But Banderas’ own life—specifically his recent heart attack—also proved valuable in his depiction of the broken, weakened Salvador. “I’m going to be 60 next year—it’s not like I’m a boy anymore,” says Banderas, who snagged the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award for the performance in May. “Two and a half years ago I had a heart attack, and that’s something that helped me a lot. It’s one of the best things that happened. It opened my eyes to understand myself better, my role in life—to forget the stupidities and realize the things that are really important. Something changed in me, and Pedro saw that. He said, ’After you had that heart attack there is something in you I don’t know how to describe, but I don’t want you to hide it. I want you to use that for the character.'”

The actor, who also stars in Steven Soderbergh’s new Panama Papers dramedy, The Laundromat, goes on to explain that he metaphorically “had to kill Antonio Banderas” to play the beaten-down, artistically stagnant Salvador. “I had to kill that guy who is more romantic and athletic, and not use the same tools I was for creating characters in Hollywood. We had to clean the slate and start from scratch.”

Banderas left his first mark on international audiences thanks to Almodóvar, co-starring in the director’s punky, campy, very queer 1980s films. The pair met when Banderas was 19, and his second film credit was Almodóvar’s 1982 feature, Labyrinth of Passion, in which he played Sadec, a gay Islamic terrorist. Other highlights in their repertoire (eight movies and counting) include 1986’s Matador, 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and 1987’s Law of Desire, in which Banderas played the sociopathic (but hot!) stalker of another Almodóvar stand-in: a famous gay filmmaker named Pablo (Eusebio Poncela).

“Since the beginning, when I was very young and Pedro gave me gay roles, it was just a feature of the character,” Banderas says. Still, he acknowledges that few actors were quick to take on LGBTQ roles in the 1980s and 1990s, when he also made Hollywood breakthroughs playing the queer vampire Armand in Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire and Miguel Álvarez, the devoted gay lover of Tom Hanks’ AIDS-stricken Andy Beckett, in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. (Fun fact: At Elton John’s Oscars party the night Hanks won for Best Actor for the film, Steven Spielberg told Banderas to come by his Amblin offices to discuss playing Zorro the next morning.)

“I know [others hesitated], but I don’t care about other actors,” he continues. “I remember when we did Philadelphia there was a scene where I go running to the hospital because there’s a crisis, and it was written in the script that we embrace. I think on the second or third take I said to Tom, ’Man, this is fucked up. We have to kiss. We’re a couple.’ And Tom said, ’You’re goddamned fucking right, we have to fucking kiss.’ So we did! It was just a little kiss, but it was so important! What the fuck? People kiss!”

He continues, “When we did Law of Desire my character was gay, but also a criminal, and people totally accepted he was a criminal—that was fine. You can kill anybody on the screen and it’s totally fine, but if you kiss a person of the same sex it’s like the whole world will dissolve. It’s stupid!”

Almodóvar has admitted that he felt Banderas betrayed him when he flew the coop for Hollywood, but the pair made nice and worked together again on 2011’s creepy psychodrama The Skin I Live In. Banderas considers playing Spain’s greatest living gay filmmaker an honor, and a role he could bring a whole lot of firsthand tea to as well.

Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar stop by AT&T ON LOCATION during Toronto International Film Festival 2019 at Hotel Le Germain on September 06, 2019 in Toronto, Canada.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for AT&T
Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar.

“It was complex,” Banderas says, “because it’s slightly more difficult to play somebody who existed and is still alive producing, and that person is your friend, and it’s extremely difficult if that person is directing you. But at the same time, you have right there the source of all the data needed to put together the character.”

Still, if the two have been chummy for decades, Almodóvar was a tough muse to crack—he has always been a really private person. “Our friendship has very specific parameters, certain boundaries that I never tried to trespass,” Banderas says. “I’m very respectful of his privacy. But I knew many of the events reflected in the movie, and the timing when they happened in the 1980s, so I was very familiar with all the material he put together.”

He explains, “The actor in the movie, Alberto, he has nothing to do with me. That character is like a Frankenstein representing different actors and actresses, but the guy [Alberto is mostly based on] didn’t go away—he didn’t go to Hollywood—so he’s not me. But I know who he is. I can’t reveal who it is!”

Banderas will, however, divulge that one of the most personal, raw moments during production arrived when they were rehearsing a scene in which Salvador tells his mother, in her final days, that he’s sorry he disappointed her by never becoming the son she wanted. Despite his being a world-renowned filmmaker, Almodóvar’s mother wanted him to stay in his small town, work for a bank, and raise a family, he recently told The Guardian. Almodóvar likes to read lines with each actor, but in a rehearsal for this key scene he actually froze up.

Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics
Banderas as Salvador and Julieta Serrano as Jacinta in Pain and Glory.

“I saw that he couldn’t say the line, ’Mother, I’m sorry I’m not the son you expected me to be,'” Banderas recalls. “People ask me, ’How autobiographical is this?’ As far as I know there are certain events that are truth and others that he calls ‘auto-fiction.’ He probably never said that to her in real life, but he wanted to, so he used this movie.”

He continues, “He couldn’t say that line, but I had it right in front of me. I said, ‘Go. You don’t have to say or verbalize anything. I can see it in your eyes and chest what is happening.’ So Pedro went away, and we worked with that material.”

Pain and Glory hits theaters October 4.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber