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Antonio Banderas owes his life to a drag queen. “It was 1976,” says the 59-year-old Spanish star. “And the front wheel of my motorbike went into a ditch and, boom! I hit a car and my head hit the tank. Bam! Then this person” – he poofs up an imaginary wig, smoothes down an imaginary dress – “who was working a corner for clients, came from nowhere, got in the middle of the road and stopped a car to take me to hospital.” He rolls up his trousers to reveal a scar on his calf. “The kick stand got me here. Blood everywhere. You could see the bone.”
Banderas is telling me this because I’ve entered the room on crutches, thanks to a scooter accident of my own. His accent is mellifluous and full of rhythm, syllables rolling around his mouth and off his tongue. Dressed in a pale denim jacket, his hair thick and threaded with grey, he’s animated, moving as he talks. But there’s also a pensiveness that offsets his natural enthusiasm.
We’re meeting in London to discuss his brilliant new film Pain and Glory. Written and directed by his old auteur pal Pedro Almodóvar, it’s an exercise in self-reflexive nostalgia, balancing melancholy with humour. Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker beset by physical difficulties and chronic solipsism. By turns tender and honest, it’s a career-best performance, quite rightly winning Banderas Best Actor at Cannes in May.
A heart attack almost three years ago was the catalyst. “It’s one of the best things to ever happen to me,” explains the Mask of Zorro star, who now lives in Surrey with his girlfriend. “I thought I was going to die, and it made me understand life in a deeper, more complex way. I detached from things that are not important any more – the car, and this and that – and then I just put my attention in family, friends and in recovering... well, the essence of why I became an actor, and choosing to do more movies like this.”
Pain and Glory is about the vicissitudes of ageing, illness and dying. It’s also about regret and rapprochement, requiring Salvador, in the throes of writer’s block, to apologise to a leading man – Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia) – he fell out with 30 years earlier. Parallels to Banderas and Almodóvar’s own relationship are more than obvious; they are ingrained. Having made his name starring in such early Almodóvar pictures as Matador (1986) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), Banderas moved from Spain to Hollywood, married Melanie Griffith (they divorced in 2015) and appeared in everything from Desperado (1995) and Evita (1996) to Spy Kids (2001) and Puss in Boots (2011). Almodóvar was upset with his favourite male star. “I felt like a mother who has lost her son,” he told The Guardian. “It was like he’d left home.”
When they reconciled to collaborate on the 2011 thriller The Skin I Live In, it wasn’t entirely harmonious. “I think I brought too much of my experiences in America to the table,” says Banderas. “All my tricks, my box of tools to just to do things in a secure way. I confronted him because I didn’t know why he wasn’t buying what I was telling him. But then I saw the movie and I realised how good he is, you know, how he’s capable of bringing things out of me that I didn’t even know I had.”
Pain and Glory, by comparison, was “one of the most beautiful experiences of my life”, he says. “[It was] an exercise in being humble and saying, ‘OK, I will understand what you wanna do and I am gonna detach from every tool that I had before.’ That meant a lot to him, the amount of confidence and trust I put in him.”
If making the film was easy, watching it certainly isn’t. Salvador, for example, smokes a lot of heroin after he’s introduced to it by Alberto, who, according to Banderas, is a “Frankenstein monster” assembled from parts of all Almodóvar’s leading men. Given the autobiographical nature of Pain and Glory, I ask what the pair’s relationship with drugs is like. “Pedro didn’t do heroin,” he says. “I did this and that but I didn’t do too much in my life. But there was a lot around us in Madrid in the 1980s.”
Salvador is the latest in a long line of gay roles Banderas has played, from the dashing boyfriend in Law of Desire (1987) to Tom Hanks’s lover in Philadelphia (1993). What does he think about the growing consensus that LGBT+ parts are too often given to straight actors? “I don’t really know,” he says. “I’ve played gay characters for a long time and have always tried to be very respectful to the gay community. I’m an actor. I just play the character and try to believe them completely when I’m doing them. I try not to perform them; I try to live them. But, you know, I’m not Zorro, either. I have never been heroic. I run away!”
Recently, Banderas starred as his lifelong hero Pablo Picasso – both men were born in Malaga – in the National Geographic anthology drama Genius, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. While reviews were generally middling, the series was praised for the fact it addressed the artist’s misogyny as much as his art. (Picasso notoriously said that “women are machines for suffering”.) Does Banderas think people are too quick to defend someone like Picasso or, say, Kevin Spacey, because of their genius? “Or the opposite,” he replies. “If you are a celebrity you may be on trial several times.”
He elaborates. “There’s the normal trial in front of a judge, and then there is public opinion, and you can be condemned a thousand times and some people may come over on the street and hit you because they hate you.” He becomes serious. “You know, in Franco’s Spain, everyone was guilty until you proved the opposite. Well, we’re living in a society where you can be guilty in a second. Cary Grant said something very interesting once. He said that when somebody accuses you of something, whether it’s true or not, it’s like taking a pillow with feathers onto a terrace on a windy day and letting the feathers fly away, but then trying to pick up every one. It’s impossible. The sting stays and, as a public person, you have to be very careful all the time.”
And what about Quentin Tarantino, who co-starred with Banderas in Desperado? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has once again put the director in the dock over whether his films exculpate abusive male behaviour. “I think an artist should be free,” he muses. “Then people should be free to agree or disagree. You have the freedom to continue watching his movies or not.” If you don’t like the way that Tarantino expresses himself on this particular issue, he notes, “[you can say] ‘I will never go and see a movie from Tarantino again’. Or ‘I love his movies and I’m gonna go and see them again’. I think we should respect that freedom.”
He clasps his hands and pushes them into his chest. “There are sometimes things in art that, I have to tell you, they bother me... but I will never, never, never censor them.”
Pain and Glory is out in UK cinemas on Friday 23 August