In Conversation: Antonio Banderas on Becoming Almodóvar for “Pain and Glory”

The actor talks the power of language, his addiction to performing, and redefining his primary creative partnership after forty long years.

Submerged in a pool of memories, an acclaimed and aging director named Salvador battles ailments, both the physical and the intangible kind, in Pedro Almodóvar’s exuberant and unprecedentedly personal feature Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria). Embodied by Spanish star Antonio Banderas, fragile Salvador acts as the Oscar-winning auteur’s avatar in a vivid tragicomedy dissecting obsession, resentment, innocent desires, and the passage of time through the life of an artist who’s lost his inherent drive to create—and thus, himself.  

In his eighth collaboration with Almodóvar, Banderas trades in agonizing introspection more than in melodrama. Soft-spoken and withdrawn, Salvador is far from the sensual vigor of his parts in Labyrinth of Passion or Matador, though the role still allows for Banderas to sink into dramatic depths carved out specifically for his talents. The two sensitive men have aged well into each other’s lives, and now, with the actor portraying a fictionalized and vulnerable iteration of the storyteller, their amorous cinematic synchronization has come full circle. 

Over the phone from New York City, Banderas shared his thoughts on the power of language, his career between Hollywood and Spain, his addiction to performing, and redefining his relationship with Almodóvar after forty years of creative friendship. 

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English.

In the process of preparing for and shooting Pain and Glory, did you learn anything new about Almodóvar that you didn’t know about him prior, as a person or as an artist?

Yes. We have been friends for approximately forty years, but the friendship that I’ve maintained with Pedro has always had certain parameters and borders. I’ve never tried to cross those borders, meaning I’ve been very respectful of his private life. Our friendship had unfolded in a very specific and unique universe. So when I read the screenplay for the first time, there were things that really surprised me and that I didn’t know he needed to express, open wounds he had to close with his mother, with actors, with friends, with ex-lovers. There was a series of things that were unknown to me, and that surprised me. But what surprised me most was the capacity that he had to take a step forward and use the love of his life, which is cinema, to come to terms with and close all those wounds. 

With all that in mind, was the creative process distinct from those in your previous collaborations with him?

It was different because we were making a movie about a person who’s alive, but it wasn’t only that. That alone would have been complicated, as it is every time you work on something based on a person that has actually existed—but in this case that person was behind the camera and he was the one telling me “action” and “cut.” The implication was totally direct. That, of course, provided a certain emotional character to the shooting; many times the information wasn’t so much verbal, but emotional information that came directly from the character I was playing. That changed the rules of the game and my performance entirely. 

There’s a scene where Salvador reconnects with a lover from his past, and seems to suggest he is unable to express his emotions if it’s not through film. How did you interpret this particular psychological trait? 

He needs cinema to survive. In truth, the drug that he needs is not really the heroin he uses. The heroin is a metaphor for the real drug, which is the ravaging need to create cinema. He tries to substitute not being able to make movies because of the physical problems that he suffers, and there’s a moment in which he has to take a leap of faith and say, “No, I have to solve these physical problems because otherwise I’m going to die.” It’s a metaphor about the inability to communicate things if it’s not through the cinematic medium. 

That moment rings uniquely powerful, maybe because it’s the perfect manifestation of a bittersweet ending.

“If I had only made those eight films with Almodóvar in my life as an actor, I would be satisfied. Everything else has just been a bonus.”

It’s powerful because at some point it produces a lot of emotion, seeing how two people who ended a relationship thirty years ago are able to close it in a beautiful way—everyone can understand that.  We as people—all of us—travel through life with suitcases full of triumphs and miseries, and that’s what I think allows the movie to communicate with the audience in a direct and special way. In that scene, both of those elements are seen together at once, the pain and the glory: the pain of what was lost and the glory of having been able to close a love story that occurred many years ago with a smile on the lips, with a hug, and with a kiss. 

Do you share that addiction to cinema with Salvador? 

[Laughs.] I believe so! For cinema and for performance in general, I’d include theater too. But yes, I share that with him, I don’t know if it’s in the same compulsive manner, because that corresponds to how Almodóvar understands his artistic life, but we have forty years as friends, and we not only share that friendship, but also the love for what we do, for cinema, without a doubt. 

In your career, did you ever feel you were sort of living a double life between the work you’ve done in Hollywood and going back to Spain to work with Almodóvar? 

Yes, I’ve felt that occasionally, not so much because of me, but more because of what some people would tell me looking in from the outside. I like the word “repertory,” meaning those repertory actors who would travel with the caravans. Those who would perform in small towns: in the morning they would perform a comedy, in the afternoon they’d put on a play for children, and at night they would do Shakespeare. That’s what I’ve always liked. I don’t try to fancy myself an intellectual, I try to recognize myself as a thespian, as an actor. That’s what I am. This means I’m susceptible to interpreting different characters, in different genres, with different people, and in different countries. 

The case of Almodóvar is something absolutely distinct from everything else I’ve done. The relationship I have with him, through the eight movies I’ve made with him, justify on their own my life as an actor. Meaning that if I had only made those eight films with Almodóvar in my life as an actor, I would be satisfied. Everything else has just been a bonus. 

Does it bring you a sense of comfort each time he calls you to work with him again? 

Working with him invites me to return home to the people I know, but at the same time it’s very complicated and difficult to work with Almodóvar as a director. It’s not easy. He puts you on the edge of a cliff continuously and makes you ponder things that are often painful. Working with Almodóvar is not easy, but the results he obtains are magnificent. I don’t know if it’s because of his own methods or because he opens doors in your personality and in your way of understanding life that wouldn’t open any other way. Almodóvar is very demanding and very meticulous. He’s a complex person, but in that complexity you force yourself to be better, to demonstrate that you really can reach the places he’s taking you to and the objectives that have been set. He doesn’t allow you to become complacent, and forces you to be consistently crisp with your ears and eyes open, trying to understand his world and where he wants to take you. It’s intricate and hard, but at the same time wonderful. I’m not in the acting life because it’s easy, pleasant, or because I’m in my comfort zone, but because you really learn things about the complexities of human beings and the profundity of life. 

So maybe being an actor is a bit masochistic? 

[Laughs.] Maybe. That probably isn’t the word to describe it, but it does require certain abilities. 

What differences do you find between working in Spanish and English? Is there a language that provides you with more freedom to perform? 

It’s curious, because people may think, “He works better in Spanish,” but what happens is that in Spanish, words have a very specific emotional weight and in English, that weight disappears. It’s much easier for me to say, “I love you,” than to say, “Te quiero.” Because the emotional charge of “Te quiero” has been concentrating in me since I was born. It’s the language of my mother, my father, my people, and that has an emotional resonance that travels with you. What happens is similar to when you learn bad words in a new language—you are not aware of the emotional weight that those words have for native speakers. You may drop those words in a scene without knowing the impact they are going to have, because for you that word doesn’t mean anything. Working in English, sometimes—but not always—you feel more freedom and are not so tied to the world of words. 

Aside from Salvador, which one of the characters you’ve played for Almodóvar has had the most impact on you as a performer, for the challenge it presented or the emotions it awoke? 

There are two. Probably the character of Ricky in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which is the character that has been with me for many years and that I love, and the character in The Skin I Live In, because it marked my return to working with Almodóvar and it taught me a lot about myself, about my way of tackling characters, about returning to European cinema, and about going back to my home. When I say “home” I’m talking about the Almodóvar universe. 

“In Spanish, words have a very specific emotional weight and in English, that weight disappears. It’s much easier for me to say, ‘I love you,’ than to say, ‘Te quiero.’ Because the emotional charge of ‘Te quiero’ has been concentrating in me since I was born.”

What was it about Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! that made it so significant for you? 

It marked the finale of the five movies we made during the ’80s. That was the movie that concluded an era in our lives, mine and Almodóvar’s, and it closed out the era of  La Movida Madrileña that in turn ended with the Spanish political transition. In a way, the character of Ricky contained pieces of other characters I had played. He became a bit of a Frankenstein creation of everything I had done with Almodóvar up to that point. It was a character that summarized the works we had done in the ’80s and culminated them.

Penélope Cruz has also been present in Almodóvar’s career for many years now. What are the qualities you and her share that you think have inspired him repeatedly? 

I believe Pedro finds in her, like he probably finds in himself, a vessel in which to deposit his way of telling stories. We are both more than just actors—we can translate and interpret what’s in his head, those complex worlds, and do so in a way that’s relatively easy.  Maybe easy is not the right word, but in a way that’s simple. I believe that’s what pushes him to use us. 

Having played a master director in this film, and with your track record of working with some outstanding filmmakers, is directing something you’d like to venture into further, beyond what you’ve done thus far? 

I’ve directed films on two occasions, and I’d love to do it again, but the next time I do I would like to be the owner of the story and the screenplay. The two times I’ve done it they were based on novels, and the novelists themselves wrote the screenplays. I would like to be the one that creates the story and discovers the things that make it intriguing. 

Right now I’m immersed in theater. I bought a theater in my hometown, in Málaga, and we open on November 16 with hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line. I’m also involved in a school that has six hundred students where they teach them acting and singing, and also with a second theater that we will open in a year. As you see, I’m now deep in theater, which prevents me from writing and thinking about when I’m going to direct—but I’m definitely going to do it at some point soon. 

There’s a moment in Pain and Glory when Salvador is asked whether what he’s writing is a comedy or a drama, and he doesn’t know. He seems to be speaking about both cinema and life itself. How does that phrase speak to you? 

What that scene, specifically, tells me is that our character—who has been dealing with self-destruction, suicidal thoughts, and who’s wandered through those dark airs—all of a sudden wants to live. The first thing he tells the doctor when he greets him is, “Doctor, I’m writing again,” which means, “I want to get out of this operating room. Don’t you kill me during the process of the operation!” The doctor then asks, “What are you writing, a comedy or a tragedy?”  To which Salvador says, “I’m writing about life.” Life is just that, comedy and tragedy, pain and glory. FL

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