As far as an actor’s life goes, Antonio Banderas is having an interesting, if not bipolar, month. On some movie screens, you will be able to see him in The Skin I Live In as the creepiest, most inexpressive character he’s ever played. On others, he will be the voice of the delightful animated cat in Puss in Boots, whom everyone loves from the Shrek movies. With one following the other, it’s as if the universe wants us to remember—Antonio Banderas is a nice guy, no need to be scared of him.
Banderas’s return to his roots—that is, his highly successful filmmaking partnership with Spain’s premier director, Pedro Almodóvar—has taken 21 years. The last time the actor and director worked together, Banderas became a star playing a mental patient in the movie that opened the doors to his Hollywood career, the dark comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! In their new film together, The Skin I Live In, Banderas again plays crazy, but this time he’s the doctor and his insanity is all in the details. To look at Dr. Robert Ledgard, in fact, is to see a soft-spoken, handsome, dedicated plastic surgeon, the kind of family physician you wish were covered by your insurance. But inside he’s a seething sociopath with a tragic past that uses retaliation as justification for conducting an unorthodox genetic experiment. To reveal specifics of the horror that envelops Robert would be to completely ruin the movie, which is loosely based on the French novel, Mygale (published as Tarantula in English). But suffice it to say that Robert, an expert in facial transplants and growing new skin, has lost his wife and daughter and he lives with a housekeeper in a villa where he holds a petite, striking woman, played by Elena Anaya (Sex and Lucia), captive.
The role was one that grabbed Banderas from the first time his old friend, Almodóvar, mentioned that he had bought the rights and wanted the actor to play the doctor when they ran into each other at Cannes in 2002. But in an interview last week in Los Angeles, Banderas said he had no idea how the director known for breaking cinematic conventions in Spain would “Almodovarize” the novel until the actor read the script and found himself screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Dildos. Vaginoplasty. What is this?”
“Robert is a purely Almodovarian character, but he’s also a guy who might live in our neighborhood,” said Banderas, casually dressed in jeans and a blue Izod shirt, and speaking in Spanish, his preference. “I think many people think it’s a movie about revenge, but I think that’s simply an excuse to set him on a much darker path and reveal his truth—his megalomania, his fascist quest for perfectionism, and the fact that he’s completely oblivious to the pain of others. But at the same time, it’s all contained within a great metaphor about creation. He’s a disgraced man who is a villain, but he’s not a classic villain because people have a certain empathy for him because the entire first half of the movie exposes his misfortunes, a series of situations that turn him into a character that comes and goes in the hearts of the audience. But, finally, obviously, he’s a monster.”
In the '80s and '90s, Almodóvar regularly shook up Spanish cinema with bold glossy complex movies that touched on love, family, passion, desire, and gay and lesbian themes. He met Banderas after his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap, had amassed a cult following. Banderas, who was 21, was serving coffee at the National Madrid Theatre when Almodóvar, a stranger, approached him and said: “You should be in movies. You have a romantic face.”
Two years later, their first project together, the screwball comedy Labyrinth of Passions, cemented their partnership, even though Banderas was not the lead. By 1990, they had five movies to their credit—including the hits Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! (1990). Capitalizing on that success, Banderas moved to Los Angeles, speaking no English. He got by in his first U.S. film, The Mambo Kings, with the help of an interpreter and by speaking his lines phonetically without fully understanding them. In the last two decades, Banderas and Almodóvar tried to team up twice, but Banderas’s prior commitments to other movies kept them apart, the actor said. In 2009, after sitting on the project for seven years, Banderas said that his friend called and said, “The moment has arrived.”
“He honestly made me very happy,” Banderas said. “It made me very happy to return to my home, to work in my language, and to return to my family, the Almodóvars—Pedro and his brother Tinin, who is a great producer, and we love each other a lot. We go 30 years back, five movies we did together during nine years where we practically saw each other every single day. So much has happened in that time—all those festivals we went to with our films tucked under our arms. And then to suddenly win and to beat the Americans! Wow! It was beautiful. We broke all of the tenets of Spanish cinematography to generate and create something new and different.”
With The Skin I Live In, which premieres in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and across the country later in the month, the duo is at it again. As Robert transforms others, the audience sees a performer they’ve never seen before. At 51, Banderas is looking fit and distinguished, Latin-lover persona seemingly behind him. Robert’s restrained charm, and even glamour, looks good on the now matured actor. But getting there was not easy—and Banderas knew it when he signed up. He called the character “the most complex” of his career because the director wanted him to be austere in his performance—“very economical, full of tiny details constructed with a very thin thread because he didn’t want me to, and with good reason, communicate with the audience through a wink of an eye.” The result is a very controlled and pragmatic doctor that makes presenting sexual aids to a patient sound like he’s prescribing painkillers.
“When you work with Pedro, I believe you have to take a leap of faith,” Banderas said. “You have to believe deeply because the references are few. Basically, in every movie, Pedro reinvents himself. So there’s few references, despite having previously made five movies with him. He told me not to use any of the tools we’ve used before—the vitality of Ricky in Tie Me Up or the insanity of the character in Law of Desire. So he asked me to throw all my skills and tricks that I’ve picked up over the past few years out the window.”
In theory, it sounded reasonable to Banderas. But in practice he wondered if by coming across as so detached, if the audience would be able to connect to Robert and the larger story. It became his biggest challenge as an actor to date.
“I was constantly thinking, are they going to understand what’s happening?” Banderas said of moviegoers. “Isn’t it too flat? But Pedro would remind me that he was telling the story, too. Once we decided that, I compartmentalized the character into small parts and stitched him together on the operating table. I couldn’t carry the psychopath, his inbreeding, all his evils, in a backpack at once. So I didn’t make moral judgments on the character and what I tried to turn myself into was a wonderful family doctor who is doing his job.”
Production on the $10 million film lasted five months, including rehearsals. Known for his ability to shock and unnerve his audience, while also pleasing them, Almodóvar kept the set starkly quiet, Banderas said. Contrary to his experience working on the award-winning comedies Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, where there was always room for pranks, improvisation, and laughter, Banderas said nothing was ever out of place on The Skin I Live In, there was no time for chitchat, and solemnity prevailed. Even when Banderas discusses the movie now, he is serious and still. He is grateful for his friendship with his co-star, Anaya, who he said “lent a shoulder when I needed to cry and when I needed to laugh.”
“If it was hard to enter Robert, it was hard to leave him behind,” said Banderas, who immediately embarked on Black Gold, a period piece filmed in Tunisia, after The Skin I Live In wrapped to try to shed his eerie plastic surgeon. “It wasn’t just the character but that universe that Pedro created. It was half a year, so after you leave there, whew, it’s like you’ve lived a dream. I couldn’t stop thinking about the operating room, the scrubs, the lights, the microscope, and to see that lovely woman, Elena, with that mask on her face for hours and hours. There’s a price to be paid, for sure, because Pedro’s movies must be metabolized. They’re not mainstream. It’s not some fast food they bring you and you eat it and that’s it. No, Pedro is a much more complex dish with a different dynamic. But I really wanted to get in the mud with him, and it’s been very beautiful.”
There also was no hesitation to get down and dirty again with Puss in Boots. When asked whether he would like to discuss his feline’s first feature film, Banderas lit up and replied: “Yes. Meow.” The prequel to the Shrek series, Puss in Boots premieres Oct. 28 and tells the story of the swashbuckling Casanova’s life before he met the green ogre.
“It’s so beautiful,” Banderas said, with complete joy registering on his face. “It’s so the opposite of [The Skin I Live In]. “At this moment, in my life, two movies have come together that are a metaphor for my life. This is a movie to have a great time with your family, your kids, and leave the theater with a big smile and go home and sleep well with your legs stretched. He’s a hoot, this cat. He’s so funny. He’s a cad, and I love this character very much.”
Banderas voices the movie in English, Italian, and two Spanish versions—one for Spain and one for Latin America. The Castilian Spanish version for his homeland clearly is the dearest to his heart. Without warning, he reenacts a love scene from the beginning of the movie, using Puss's Castilian Spanish accent, and cracks up.
“He’s like an alter ego of the most festive part of me, the part of me that is more boyish and that I hope to never lose,” Banderas said, his smile as wily as his famous cat’s.