I rarely play favorites while covering the Oscar race, but when it comes to this year’s best-actor contender Antonio Banderas… Well, who wouldn’t love to see his well-deserved comeback come to a glittery conclusion?
At 59, Banderas is a first-time Oscar nominee, the latest twist in a career that’s been full of reinventions. After rising to fame in the 1980s as Pedro Almodóvar’s muse in sexy Spanish films like “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “Law of Desire,” Banderas moved to Hollywood to try his luck as an action hero (“The Mask of Zorro”), a big-screen singer (“Evita”) and a fairy-tale cat (“Puss in Boots”).
Still, it wasn’t until he moved back to Spain and teamed up again with Almodóvar that Banderas found himself nominated for Hollywood’s highest honor. In “Pain and Glory,” he plays Salvador Mallo, an aging director tormented by physical and psychological maladies. Although Almodóvar based the character on himself and even dressed Banderas in his own clothes, the performance is not a caricature. Instead, the usually ebullient Banderas digs deeply within himself to deliver the most intimate and moving work of his career.
Last week, Banderas called me from his hometown, Málaga, where he has spent months directing and starring in a Spanish-language production of “A Chorus Line” that he hopes to bring to New York next summer. In that passionate phone call, Banderas discussed the heart attack that changed his life and, in its own way, set him on the path to Oscar. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Where were you when the Oscar nominations were announced?
A: I was having lunch with the mayor of Málaga. I looked at the phone and I saw the movie was nominated for best foreign film, and I thought, “Oh, my God, they just passed my category. OK, I didn’t get it.” And then the phone started beeping like crazy, like “ding ding ding ding ding.”
Q: And you found out you were nominated for best actor. How did you react?
A: I had to behave just because I was in front of the mayor, so I didn’t scream on the outside, but I screamed on the inside. And in about 15 minutes – this is not an exaggeration – I had a hundred paparazzi out in front of the restaurant. From my restaurant to my home I have no more than 50 meters, but it took me half an hour just to get home.
Q: What do you remember about your very first trip to the Oscars, when “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was nominated in 1989?
A: Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda – it was like a wax museum to meet these people who you saw only in the movies. And then there was this beautiful girl on the red carpet in a white dress with pearls, and I asked Pedro, “What is the name of that actress?” He said to me, “She’s called Melanie Griffith.” She was nominated that night, too, and six years after, we were married. [They divorced in 2015.]
Q: And now, over three decades after that Oscar night, you’ll be returning to the ceremony as a first-time nominee.
A: It feels unbelievable, it really does. It has been a year of reconciliation, in a way – with myself, with life. It’s true that this heart attack that I had three years ago took me to places that I didn’t expect. It established a new order of priorities, and I could see clearly what I had to do. You realize, for example, that the anxiety you have about success is the worst enemy, and that there are other things that are more important than money.
Q: How would you describe your life before the heart attack?
A: I thought that my career was… well, not over, but slowing down. But since my heart attack, it’s almost like windows and doors started opening, and I started discovering other aspects of myself that I didn’t even know I had. I know that this may sound very stupid, but that cardiac event is probably one of the most beautiful things that happened in my life.
Q: Mallo is inspired by Almodóvar, but the character is still filtered through your own emotional experiences.
A: It’s funny because Almodóvar has called me a couple of times already to say to me, “Oh, my God, Antonio. Now I am imitating you playing me in my personal life.”
Q: Did it feel unusual to draw inspiration from him, rather than the other way around?
A: There was a lot of complexity in playing this kind of emotional ping-pong. I remember one day he was directing me in a scene and he was going to read the lines, and it was very difficult for him to even talk because he was almost in tears. Believe me, Almodóvar is a tough cookie. He’s not a crier. So when I saw this man breaking, it’s emotional information that any actor would love to have, because it’s really raw and pure. There are no lies in there, and I think all of those little things passed through to the work and are actually on the screen.
Q: Having inhabited a version of Almodóvar, do you feel as if you now understand him differently?
A: Absolutely. There are many aspects of his life that I didn’t understand before, like his isolation. He wasn’t going out with us like he used to, and all our close friends were saying to me: “Oh, no, nobody sees Pedro. We only see him when we go to shoot with him.” I always respected his privacy, and there were certain aspects of his life I didn’t touch.
And now it’s different. I could feel it as we were in the process of making the movie, that there was some weight coming off his shoulders. He finished the movie smiling, and everybody was surprised to see a new Pedro Almodóvar – not so picky, but relaxed and happy. Even the way that he writes to me is more personal. There is something there that wasn’t before.
Q: How different does this moment feel from when you first arrived in Hollywood?
A: When I think about those 20-something years that I spent in Hollywood, I feel like everything happened at an incredible speed. When I got there, I couldn’t speak the language, and I didn’t have all the tools to compete for equal opportunities, so I had to build a career with elements that were very precarious sometimes. I thought, “I have to do whatever they offer me; otherwise I cannot survive here in this jungle.” For that period of my life, I felt really lost, actually. I was just going in circles, with no solution.
It’s very interesting, too, that Hollywood started making sense to me once I went away from there. I realized that Hollywood is not a place anymore – it’s a brand. And it doesn’t matter where you live, you have to go where you are going to obtain the best work. Right now, that is here in my country, but when I was living in Hollywood, I couldn’t see that. It was almost like if I went back to Europe, I was surrendering.
Q: And now?
A: I feel very satisfied, very fulfilled. I’m not in a hurry to demonstrate anything. Twenty years ago, I was more anxious: I wanted to have this, I wanted to have that. I had my tongue out all the time. But now I feel very good with myself, so I am content.