Antonio Banderas on 'Pain and Glory,' Death and Taxes

Antonio Banderas in 'Pain and Glory' | Photo by Manolo Pavón/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Antonio Banderas in 'Pain and Glory' | Photo by Manolo Pavón/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Soon after I enter the midtown hotel room to interview Antonio Banderas, he strikes a pose. I mention that I have been loving his Instagram posts promoting the production of A Chorus Line he's starring in and directing in Málaga. In response, he did a subtle dance move. "I'm right now right there," he says. "Every day." 

Of course, we weren't there to talk about musicals. Banderas was in town in advance of the New York Film Festival premiere of Pain and Glory, his latest collaboration with Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar, the man who essentially gave Banderas his career when he cast him Labyrinth of Passion in 1982. For Almodóvar, Pain and Glory is personal testimonial cloaked lightly in fiction. Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a film director with Almodóvar's familiar spiky haircut, suffering from immense physical ailments and attempting to make amends in his life. Banderas brings a stillness to the role, embodying the stiffness of a wrecked body and the yearning of an artist unable to create. It's a reminder of just how versatile Banderas is, far more than Zorro or El Mariachi, the roles that made him a Hollywood star when he came to the U.S.

Another good example -- aside from the brief dance move he put on display -- is his work in Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, currently in theaters and hitting Netflix this month. He breaks the fourth wall in hammy fashion as Ramón Fonseca, one of the lawyers exposed for facilitating tax evasion and money laundering in the leak of the Panama Papers. (That project is how we eventually got on the subject of taxes, but I promise you: Banderas is never boring.) In person, Banderas is simultaneously theatrical and soft-spoken. He's prone to acting out scenes mid-conversation, but talks almost in a whisper. He leans in close when he wants to communicate a point.

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Thrillist: How did Pedro Almodóvar approach you with this project? Was it any different than he normally would because of how personal it is?
Antonio Banderas:
He called me on the phone and he said, "Listen, I'm going to send you the script and you're going to be very familiar with the material. There are a lot of references that you are going to see immediately. Let me see what you think and they we'll talk." I read it and it was surprising in many ways. I've known Pedro for four decades. But our friendship always was in a universe that is very specific and it has certain boundaries that I never trespass. Pedro is a very, very, very private person. I always respected those boundaries. I never went in that area so we were just in our space for friendship. It surprised me to see in the script that I didn't even know about him. It was shocking the way he talked to his mother. I met his mother. I know how much he worshipped her. For me, seeing that he has to come terms with her even after she has been dead for a number of years, to say to her things he probably had never said. It was surprising for me. Surprising to see how he wanted to apologize to actors, somehow.

Did you feel anything personal about that?
Yeah. [Laughs] That character he created, Alberto, in reality is a kind of a Frankenstein. I recognize myself sometimes in him. But all of those things are very interesting for me because in reality I realize very soon that the movie was actually more Almodóvar than Almodóvar.

What do you mean by that?
I mean that we are not only the things that we do and the things that we say. We are the things that we wanted to do that we never did. We are also the things that we want to say but we never said. In this movie Almodóvar took that step and he closed those circles. He says to his mother what he never said and he says to actors what he never said and he says to his ex-boyfriend what he never said. So he's closing the circle and he's reconciling his past with certain people, with himself, with cinema, with life.

Did you feel like you had to ask him more questions than were in the script?
No. He gave me information. Mainly based on things that were very external. Movement of what is a pain in the back, what is photophobia, what are migraines. A number of things like that. He wanted me to know exactly and then to not play it too much. He wanted for me to create this character out of economy. He wanted me to also use my own personal situation at the time.

With the heart attack?
Yes. He was very very precise about that. It was something that you are carrying that I don't know how to describe that is very close to what I want in a character. Don't hide that. Put it on the line. It's going to take us to some place. Then I had my own things too: I didn't want to do a character that manipulated audiences. I didn't want to drive them to anywhere specifically. [The character] is almost witnessing his own story. It's a very rare thing I know, very abstract. But I saw it and I wanted to practice that. I realize very soon in the process that the character describes himself better in silence than when he was verbalizing. It's the way that he looks and the way that he moves and the way that he establishes a physical relationship with the screen with the camera with this story. We were looking for that from the beginning. That's what I asked from Pedro to help with because he has the objectivity that I didn't have. We were going to do things that were very, very little.

Banderas in 'Pain and Glory' | Sony Pictures Classics

You've spoken about your return to working with Almodóvar with The Skin I Live In and that it was a challenging shoot. Here, given that you were doing something so personal, were you and he on the same wavelength?
At the beginning I was not in fear but I knew that we could have problems potentially because I was playing him. Nobody knows more about Pedro than him. I couldn't go against that. But at the same time I said to him, "There is a bible that you wrote that is here that is putting on the table certain parameters for my character that you created and I'm going to follow that. I cannot think 'you' in abstract with things that are not in the script. Let's just be specific. We just went for what was written." Then in the process he came with new scenes. But at the time that these things start happening we were very much into the process. We already found an agreement. We were going to the same place we knew that we were just rowing in the same direction. So that thing was very welcome to me. That scene with my [character's] mother on the balcony was not in the original script. Funny enough that's a scene that I love because the way that scene was directed is the result of an accident that has to do with emotions. Because Pedro Almodóvar loves to go to the set always and read your character. He came the morning we were in the balcony and I knew when I read it this is a little tsunami in between the lines for him emotionally. So he read my mother's part. Then he took my character and he was going to read and he couldn't. He started it was like, "Alright..." [Makes sighing sound] He couldn't. I stood up and looked at Julieta [Serrano]. I hug him and I said, I got all the information. I know what I have to do, Pedro. Just go over there and say action. You don't have to explain.

Those things in this movie were much more present than in other shootings I have ever been. Because you have the person there and those things mean very specific things for him. You see that clearly. You need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate that. When you see that emotion you say, "I got charged my battery with that, just say action. I got it." I know how I can say now, "Mother. I'm sorry I'm not the son that you wanted to have." [Makes an explosion sound] You can invite the people to come with you because everybody in the world we all travel with these miseries and greatnesses. We all travel with pains and glories. We all do. So I identify with that.

Was there a surreal element to the experience? Your hair was styled like his. It was an exact replica of his apartment.
It was more surprising than anything else. Not so much surreal, though it is true that sometimes we finished shooting and you are leaving this space that I know very well. I've visited Pedro in his house many times. You go to the elevator thinking that you are going to go home. You don't go to the street but you are in a set. Things like that happened to us especially in the beginning. It was like, oh my god, this was crazy. It was surprising to me. I thought that he wanted to take the character away from him physically when I read it the first time. And what indicated that to me was that he called the character Salvador Mallo, not Pedro. The day we had a camera test and then he went to makeup and gave very precise indications of the hair and the beard in this way. And then costumes. I used some of his costumes. And because he's a little bit bigger than me some of the costumes were a replica for me.

But some of them were his actual clothes?
Yeah. We have the same shoe [size]. The other ones there were some Prada suits. There was a Prada suit that is a reddish terra cotta color. It was big for me so he did a replica on my size. It was crazy.

Gary Oldman and Banderas in 'The Laundromat.' | Netflix

I saw The Laundromat yesterday. Did these projects come up around the same time?
I finished with Almodóvar. I think it was three or four weeks and then I traveled to Los Angeles and we started filming there. The feeling with Steven [Soderbergh] is also very cool. These two guys both have a very strong personalities. In the case of Almodóvar, this is a guy who never betrays himself. Never. He had a lot of opportunities, they offered him so much money. He never bent. He has been absolutely loyal to his style. You like it or you don't like it that's clear. But he never stopped being himself. In the case of Steven, he's a man that loves experimentation. He just jumps in there with an incredible grace. That's what we did. I never did a movie in my life in which I am talking with the camera the whole time, the camera which reflects you, you are looking at yourself the whole time when you are talking to the camera. We are in this kind of satire approach to this Machiavellian artifact created by governments and lawyers called taxes. It should be very easy but it's not. It's not because it's actually used as a political instrument.

Almodóvar's last film was affected by the release of the Panama Papers. [Editor's note: He was named in the documents, right around the time his movie Julieta was being released internationally.]
He didn't even have an idea he had a company there.

Did you talk to him about doing The Laundromat?
No. I said to him, I'm going to do this with Steven. He said, "You'll love Steven." He said have fun. He was not worried. The realization that movie comes with at the end is that it's legal. And if it's legal who is guilty? Well, the ones who made the laws. They would never recognize that, because they do the laws, subject to interpretation. Do you think it's normal that the tax section code of the United States of America is 86,000 pages? [Editor's note: While that section is still very long, that number is an exaggeration.] It should be as long as one page that says citizens pay 20 percent and that's it. People who make less than $25,000 a year -- zero, they don't pay taxes. And companies pay 25 percent, for everybody all around the world. Well, it's not like that. Well, because the left wings are going to tell you: left are going to increase taxes because the state is going to give you better schools, they are going to give you better roads and bridges, and they are going to give you better social security and they are going to give you a lot of things. The right says we are going to lower taxes because then we will have more investment, more business, more employment, more wealth. This is the point. Now, I love to pay taxes, but if I have to pay taxes and the public schools are still dangerous and they are not at the same level as private school, I am not happy. If I'm going to be paying taxes and Social Security is not for all Americans, I'm not going to be happy. If I'm going to continue paying taxes and all the taxes are going just to empower the military, maybe I'm not going to be happy. If I pay taxes and you are going to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, I'm not going to be happy about that. And the whole thing comes to the conclusion that somebody may say to you that you have a very powerful weapon that is called voting, and you say, yeah, but if I give you money and on top of that you are going to use the money to do a campaign to vote you back again, what is this trick of taxes? It's very complicated. There are certain levels. There are people in those Panama Papers that were criminal organizations that were laundering money. But there were other ones that said if you are going to work outside your country it's good you have a company so you actually can pay less taxes by the law. If somebody asked you right now you are going to pay more or less taxes? What are you going to say?

Less, probably.
Everybody's going to say that. So they said, "Is it legal?" And the lawyer's going to say to you, "Absolutely." You say, "OK, then do it." And you know what the final trick of it all is? If it's not legal and he lied to you, you are responsible. Not him. He's not accountable for anything.

I have a very silly question I want to conclude with.
I will give you a smart answer.

There's a GIF of you looking at a computer in the movie Assassins that has gone viral. Do you remember that scene?
Banderas: That moment is a moment of pleasure of a guy that is actually a maniac and he thinks he's just found a way to obtain his objective. He points at his target and he sees this and he says, I got you. That's how I remember how I did at the time.

Have you seen it online at all?
No, I didn't see it.

Do you have any reactions to going viral?
It's fine. It's fine with me. No problem. I'm used to being exposed and all of those images can be used. It's part of the game. It's part of the agreement, it's an invisible agreement you establish with the public and yourself.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.