TORONTO—Even after a red-eye flight to Toronto, even with his close-cropped hair flecked through with grey, Antonio Banderas still looks like one of People magazine’s most beautiful people, and he’s clearly a world-class flirt. Dressed in jeans and a shirt unbuttoned enough to show off a serious tan and a mat of chest hair, Banderas treats the journalists gathered to talk about the North American premiere of The Skin I Live In like long-lost friends.
The half-hour roundtable interview in a small hotel meeting room at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival is less of a question-and-answer session than a fast-paced one-man show. Banderas delivers a series of charming monologues about his career, his lifelong friendship with Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother), and the twisted psychological thriller wherein he plays a crazed plastic surgeon with a mysterious, beautiful patient portrayed by Elena Anaya (Talk to Her, Van Helsing).
The Banderas show kicks off with his thoughts on Almodóvar—a director he last worked with 21 years ago in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! To get a sense of Banderas in action, read the following quickly, with a silky-smooth Spanish accent and imagine it punctuated by smiles, laughs, and virtually no pauses. “Pedro is a genre on himself, I think. And a symptom of that genre is eclecticism. Sometimes when you are on the set, you feel like you are in the altitudes of Shakespeare in a scene, and three minutes after, you are playing a soap opera from Mexico and everything in between…
“I remember talking with him about this and sometimes making some laughs about it. But it is what it is. He creates his own universe and you have to understand it—and to work with Pedro Almodóvar in a way it doesn’t matter about the skills that you have, that you carry with you as an actor, from other experiences with other directors. With Pedro, very specifically, you have to take a leap of faith. You have to really believe in him, because sometimes he just pushes you to the limits. You feel the vertigo of the creation. He basically doesn’t allow you to use the things that you’re travelling with in your life in terms of experiences. He doesn’t care about that. He takes the suitcase filled with tricks, the things that you know that may work for audiences, that are very easy, very edible. And he’ll take that and he throws that out of the window.”
Banderas says Almodóvar specializes in getting actors out of their comfort zone, and he compares working on his films to playing in the X Games. “It’s just to jump into the universe and surf, you know, I was going to say ‘a wave’, but Almodóvar is like to surf a tsunami. It’s like getting on a board and saying, ‘Oh, hey, man! Whoosh!’ ”
Banderas continues: “He always managed to take these huge leaps, a flip in the air, and he falls on his feet. It is unbelievable to me that he can go that far. Pedro Almodóvar never worked for masses. He worked for a number of individuals who get together in the movie theatre. It’s a totally different concept. He hates that kind of massive, mainstream thing. He pukes.”
Although Banderas loves Almodóvar’s work—and working with Almodóvar—he’s quick to defend the value of the popcorn movies that have been paying the bills for himself and actor wife Melanie Griffith. “As an actor, I recognize that movies may serve many different purposes. And, again, as an actor, I’ve visited many of those. I cannot ask a guy who has been working on the road under the sun for a whole entire week to go and see 8 ½ on the weekend. He just wants to take his girlfriend, a big bag of popcorn, and watch The Mask of Zorro or Puss in Boots. And that is legitimate, if what you are giving him is honest and is made with a certain dignity and you are presenting something that he knows he’s buying. But on the other hand, you have people like Pedro, like [Terrence] Malick, like [Lars] von Trier, a number of directors who love to go to different places and explore the intricate complexities of the human soul and spirit and different kinds of narratives.”
That said, Banderas was thrilled to be brought back out of his comfort zone. “After many years in Hollywood, I am content, truly, with some of the work that I’ve done there. It was a very difficult endeavour at the time that I went there. Going back to Pedro at this particular time in my life is like a Coca-Cola in the desert. It feels good.”
Almodóvar first approached Banderas about the idea for The Skin I Live In at Cannes in 2002. Almodóvar read the novel Tarantula and saw in it the idea for a movie. “I was in New York; I was doing a workshop for a musical there and he called me. I was in a car on my way home. He says, ‘About time.’ He didn’t even introduce himself. He just called me and the first thing I heard was: ‘It’s about time.’ And I said, ‘You have the script?’ ‘Yeah, I do. Where are you?’ ‘New York.’ ‘Okay, I’ll send it.’ So when he sent me the script, I’m very careful with this, because I know that the first time that I read a script is the only time that I’m going to be a spectator of my own work. From that moment on, I am contaminated.…It’s funny, because now when I see people coming out of the screenings, they have the same reaction that I had when I read the script. And mine was: I was astounded.”
What impressed Banderas most was being shocked despite the fact that he already knew the story’s key twists and turns. Asked about the early days with Almodóvar and defining modern Spanish cinema, Banderas launches into another story.
Here’s how the story (and the interview) ended: “I remember the height of the opening of [1982’s] Labyrinth of Passion, in the San Sebastian Film Festival. I was the most normal of them. I was like the normal of the group. I was there, sit down with my tuxedo, you know, rented. And everybody else in the balcony with the Spanish flag, with crests, and Pedro Almodóvar with earrings, and [actor] Fany McNamara with helmets on top of a big wig, and we were the ones laughing the most at our jokes. They’d
be on the screen and we were, ‘Ha-ha-ha,’
“And I remember watching my own gang and the audience and thinking: ‘What is going on here?’ Because sometimes people start insulting us. I remember a guy, I remember perfectly that moment there, he turned in the middle of the movie and said, ‘You dirty bastard!’ And he left with his wife, and another guy complaining against him, and people cheering, actually screaming. So there was this mess. And I remember that night precisely—it was the second movie with Pedro Almodóvar—and I said, “This is bigger than movies. What we are witnessing here tonight is beyond movies. Something is changing in my country and I am fucking witnessing that. Right in front of me. Now. This kind of readjusting completely, it was like the Titanic moving the machinery…And you could see a new thing coming that the people didn’t know how to metabolize, didn’t know how to digest. And there was, to tell you the truth: we felt like the Rolling Stones. It felt like we were breaking something, breaking the rules. It felt like a million dollars.”
Watch the trailer for The Skin I Live In.