Only space for the truth

We spoke to Antonio Banderas about “playing” his old friend Almodóvar in the Spanish auteur’s new film Pain & Glory.

It has been nearly a decade since Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas worked together in The Skin I Live In; before that, the pair didn’t work together for 22 years, yet their run of films together in the ’80s parallels great director-actor partnerships like Scorsese-DeNiro or Fellini-Mastroianni. The two have remained associated in cinephile brains even as their paths diverged, but as it turns out, they were never too far from each other anyway. This seems particularly crystal-clear with Pain & Glory, Almodóvar ’s latest film which sees the Spanish director reflect on his own career in much the same way as we’ve seen Bob Fosse or the aforementioned Fellini do in the past.

Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a Spanish film director with an Almodóvar-like career who has seen his work take a sharp turn downhill at about the same time as he became beset with various chronic pain problems. Living his life as a quasi shut-in, Mallo reflects on his impoverished youth with his mother (played in flashbacks by Pénélope Cruz) and rekindles his friendship with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the lead of one of his ’80s films, when a retrospective of his work is presented at a local cinémathèque. Mallo is explicitly drawn as an Almodóvar parallel; they have very similar careers and styles (the apartment that Mallo lives in is, in fact, Almodóvar’s own), which offers Almodóvar the chance to look inward at his own life and career. In the press notes given to us before interviews at TIFF, Almodóvar called Banderas’s performance the best of his career.

“I really don’t have the objectivity to say whether this is my best performance or not,” says Banderas. “I can tell what were my feelings on the set, I can tell you about my satisfaction level and what I got out of what we were trying to share with audiences, but best? Second best? Third best? I was satisfied with the work for many different reasons. One of them was because he got me in a moment of my life that was important — a moment of change. We actors, we basically just use our personal experiences as a tool to work.”

Though the film is very much about Almodóvar, the two old friends also found that — without even talking about it — there was much common ground between them. 

“I had a heart attack two-and-a-half years ago that, I think, determined not only how I’m behaving in my relationships with art but in my personal life, too,” Banderas continues. “When you see death so close, it changes something in you. Only the important things come up to the surface. All of the things that you thought at some point were important? They just vanish — disappear. They’re not important anymore. Pedro saw that in me, and he said “I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s something that is different, and I don’t want you to hide it.” He wanted to actually use it in this character because of the pain and solitude and reflection that he has inside of him. It was good for the character. I knew exactly what he was talking about, so I used it.”

Nevertheless, Banderas doesn’t necessarily think that he is “playing” his old friend — or that Mallo is a pure 1:1 depiction of Almodóvar.

“What are we really?” he says. “Are we the things that we said and we did in our lives, or are we the things that we dreamt? The things that we wanted to do but never did? The things that we wanted to say but never said? I think Pedro does what he calls ‘self-fiction’ in a way where the movie is more Pedro than Pedro. There are things there that he confesses or expresses that he never did in that moment. But he owed those things to many people in his life: his mother, actors…” 

“I think, in fact, that the character of Alberto is made as a Frankenstein composed of many of us,” he says. “There are lines in there that are mine, some that I know are from other actors. (…) My relationship with Pedro for the last 40 years has been one of friendship, but that relationship has moved in a very specific universe that has boundaries. I never tried to trespass them. I have been very respectful to all those sides of Almodóvar that he did not want to share with me. I love to respect that. Did it surprise me when I received this script? Yes. There were things there that I didn’t know, that he hadn’t said but wanted to express. Yeah, there is something confessional about.”

Though Almodóvar is, tellingly, a little less hard on himself than other filmmakers who have made similar films, the film does delve into some hard truths – especially when it comes to Mallo’s relationship with his mother.

“It’s very beautiful to see a man who, for four decades, never betrayed himself,” says Banderas. “He has a very strong personality as a director. You may like some of his movies and others not, of course. I like some dishes — I like paella, and other people do not like paella. There is nothing written about taste. But he has a very strong personality, no one can deny that. You see two photographs from an Almodóvar movie and you know that it’s him, but he never betrayed that. He was offered a lot of money, sometimes, to go to Hollywood and do a number of things. He never bent to anything. That loyalty to himself is enormous. I wanted to express that in the movie in a way.

“When you approach death — and that’s the only thing that is certain in life — there’s only space for the truth,” he continues. “There is no space for games anymore. Pedro is saying that, and I really understand that. I have to really, really close off circles that I’ve left open in my life. I have to take that weight off my shoulders. I have to tell my mother that I am sorry for not being the son that she expected me to be. I have to tell actors that I apologize. All of those things for him were important, so I went along with him, but I totally agree.” 

Banderas is also honest in laying out that he can’t exactly be impartial about the movie, and that, in fact, he does not plan to watch it for years.

“We tried to do a movie that was very emotional — and apparently, from what people say, it is — but for me it’s totally a mystery. I will not see clean and clearly until many years from now, but it seems that people feel the emotion in this movie. But we never tried once to manipulate the audience or drive them places. We tried to make a character that expressed himself more in silence rather than by verbalizing feelings — to be more transparent, in a way. It becomes, almost, an invitation for the audience to come with me on a trip that’s very minimalist and very simple, and I love that.” ■

Pain & Glory opens in theatres on Friday, October 18. Watch the trailer here: