A heart attack. A legacy with a question mark.
Now Mr. Banderas has a dream role he’s wanted
since childhood: Picasso, in NatGeo’s “Genius.”
ETYEK, Hungary — By the time Antonio Banderas shaved off his eyebrows and hair to play Pablo Picasso — his lifelong hero, his towering standard of greatness — he had already been asked to portray Picasso twice. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Twice before.”
He sat in a director’s chair, his face contorted into [thoughtful emoji], complete with chin strokes. On his nose, cheeks and chin, he wore silicone prosthetics for the ways he did not resemble Picasso: to thin out his featherbed lips, to make his nose fleshier and his jowls jowlier, to mask his beautiful face. It didn’t work. The minute you looked at him, his chocolate pudding swimming pool eyeballs gave him away.
It was his last day here before heading to Malta for the final leg of shooting for National Geographic’s “Genius,” an anthology series that focuses on Picasso in its second season and has its premiere on April 24. The Picasso he was playing today was 67. When he was shooting, he assumed the posture of a 67-year-old, but when he wasn’t, he was Antonio Banderas, a human exclamation point, his face an orchestra of intense expressions: [extremely happy emoji], [crying-laughing emoji], [despondent emoji]. (A better way to put it: His friend Salma Hayek told me that out of all the characters he’s ever played, he most resembles Puss in Boots in real life.)
Oh yes, by the time he shaved off all vestiges of hair above his neck, he already had a long, full career. He already was a star of great renown in Spain, where he had served as a muse to Pedro Almodóvar for seven movies. He already received accolades for his performance in 1992’s “The Mambo Kings,” a performance so openhearted and passionate that few noticed that his only English at the time was in the form of phonetic imitation. He had already wooed American audiences with his intimate portrayal of Tom Hanks’s lover in “Philadelphia.” He had helped Robert Rodriguez, another director who loved him, achieve American acclaim via “Desperado” and the “Spy Kids” movies. He’d swashbuckled his way into children’s hearts as a sultry, shod cat in the “Shrek” spinoff, “Puss in Boots.” He had directed two movies. He had serenaded in “Evita;” simulated French-kissing with Catherine Zeta-Jones through two of the most alive iterations of “Zorro” we’d ever seen. He’d seduced his way to a Tony nomination for an energetic “Nine.” He had Angelina Jolie’ed with Angelina Jolie in “Original Sin.”
He was a beloved fixture in American cinema — a masked avenger, a Latin lover, a mariachi, a matador, an assassin posing as, oh yes, a mariachi. He bided his time in masks, with guns, with swords, and as he grew older, he was rewarded with the chance to play (or almost play, in projects that got killed) historical figures: Dalí, Mussolini, Pancho Villa, and Picasso — and Picasso.
And now it was finally happening. He was going to play his boyhood hero and bring pride to Málaga, Spain — both his and Picasso’s hometown. When Mr. Banderas was growing up, his mother would stop in front of the house the artist was born in every time they passed it and say, “Look, Antonio.” Now, in the home he owns in Málaga, he can see that house from his terrace.
All this, and still, when Mr. Banderas sat down in a director’s chair next to me, after I congratulated him on what must be a significant lifetime achievement, he shook his head and said I had it wrong. Sure, it’s great, this work is great. But it’s not the ultimate. Not yet. “Oh no,” he said, leaning in close. “I still don’t think I have done the thing I will be remembered for.”
IN BETWEEN dropping existential depth bombs, Mr. Banderas told stories. He stood with his legs spread apart, his head thrown back and his arms raised to the side and said that Salvador Dalí liked to put honey on his lips after a meal so that flies would gather and crawl all over his face. “He found it to be an erotic experience,” Mr. Banderas said, as he closed his eyes and played piano fingers over his lips to imitate the flies. Did you know that Dalí (allegedly) hated blind people? He thought they were faking. “He would cross the street to yell at a man walking around like …” He felt around with an imaginary cane and laughed. “Ay, was he crazy.”
He was dressed for the day’s scenes in a tank top under a silk button down shirt and trousers hiked up to around his fourth rib, a particular kind of European old-man fashion. He wore over his bald head a sparse, netted, gray wig, since Picasso had Dr. Phil-pattern baldness and Mr. Banderas still has a full head of hair. He could have worn one of those rubber caps, but if you think he would, you don’t know Mr. Banderas. He would never do that. He would never not take the opportunity to become even closer to the character.
He considered Picasso, really considered him. They started out so similar, but it’s easy to confuse details of birth with the way a man turns out. Take their treatment of women, for example. Ms. Hayek said that Mr. Banderas is such a good friend that when he read her essay in The New York Timesabout being harassed by Harvey Weinstein, he was among the first to call her. He wanted to know why she didn’t tell him what Mr. Weinstein was doing back when Mr. Banderas was making a cameo in her movie “Frida.” He was the first person to call the minute she was nominated for an Oscar for the role.
Picasso, on the other hand, said that “Women are machines for suffering” and that to him, they were either “goddesses or doormats.” “Genius: Picasso” addresses Picasso’s misogyny as much as his art. In the first episode a woman is home with his offspring while he makes out with another lover on the beach, and both women get in a fistfight in front of him while he is painting “Guernica.”
Honestly, I told him, the lionization of a man who treated women this way is gross to me.
Mr. Banderas beseeched me to be more generous. “The problem with Picasso from my point of view, I don’t think he abused women, as we understand that now,” he said. “The problem is that he wanted everything, everything, all the time.”
He enters a project with maximum dedication, maximum research. The more you know about a character, the more you can fill the white spaces with something rich. He asks: Do you know that Picasso’s grandson Pablito apparently stood on a street near his home in France with a sandwich board when his grandfather wouldn’t allow him to visit him in the final days? Go ahead, ask him anything.
If you know your subject down to his soul, then the subject is there when you need him. “I’ve been with him now for months every day and I can just actually say, ‘O.K., come over here.’ The ghost comes and just gets in your body and you’re ‘boom.’”
On the days it doesn’t come so easily, you can fill the white space with you. Who is to say where Picasso ends and Mr. Banderas begins? Who can give that information now that he’s prepared for this role three separate times?
Kenneth Biller, a creator of the show, and Ron Howard, an executive producer, immediately thought of Mr. Banderas for the role. They worried that they’d have to convince him to play the part, but he jumped up (pop!) and agreed to do it. He had recently happened upon the first season of “Genius,” with Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein, while cruising on his Apple TV. He watched the whole thing in two days.
“Genius: Picasso,” which takes place over 10 episodes, is shot during two eras: Picasso’s youth, and his old age. In his younger days, he is played by Alex Rich, who does a Picasso impression that is actually an Antonio Banderas impression. The camera follows Mr. Rich to show the freneticism of youth. But during the old age scenes, the camera stays still, like a portrait with Mr. Banderas entering and leaving it. In those scenes, it’s Mr. Banderas who supplies the energy.
How wonderful. How wonderful to find in your late 50s a character that’s been so meaningful. You can maybe understand that after all the years of masks and tangos and needing to drip with Andalusian lust, it’s nice to play someone who is considered a genius. Oh yes, it is nice to finally play someone who has touched greatness.
HAD MR. BANDERAS stayed in Spain, this would have been an entirely different story. He would have continued on the path Mr. Almodóvar had set for him, playing men with depth and inner lives. But he didn’t — he couldn’t.
He grew up going to the theater with his parents: plays by Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca. He marveled at theater as an act of civilization. “It was so beautiful,” he said. “We are all here and we have an agreement. We’re going to sit down here and you’re going to tell me a story and you have to make me believe it. And I thought, ‘This is [expletive] magical.’” He wanted to be on the other side of the theater. He wanted to be onstage.
But his parents had seen how artists were treated under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. Many were exiled. His mother was distraught. “Don’t be an actor,” she pleaded. “Be something dignified.” He thought maybe he’d be a soccer player instead.
Then in 1976, the year after Franco died, an American theater company came through Málaga with “Hair” and it was just over for Mr. Banderas. “Oh, my God. What is this? What is this beard and this long hair and this freedom?,” he remembered thinking. He told his parents, “I have to do this. I have to do this type of theater. This is theater that is revolutionary.”
In 1981, while sitting at Café Gijón in Madrid, a man with a red briefcase held court telling funny stories. Mr. Banderas had long hair and a mustache for a role in a play. The man looked at him and said: “You should do film cinema. You are very romantic and you have a romantic face.” Mr. Banderas said, “O.K. Cool.” Afterward, he asked other patrons if anyone knew who the man was. “They said to me: ‘He’s called Pedro Almodóvar. He made one movie’” — he had, in fact, already made two feature films and several shorts — “‘but he’s not going to make any more.’”
Two days later, Mr. Almodóvar came to see Mr. Banderas in the play. In the dressing room afterward, he asked Mr. Banderas if he wanted to do a movie with him. “Sure,” Mr. Banderas said. Their first movie was the 1982 comedy “Labyrinth of Passion,” in which he plays a terrorist.
They made six more movies together. He played complex, brooding men — people with souls. In Spain, for Mr. Almodóvar, the soul was inherent in the character. Later, in the United States, working for American directors, Mr. Banderas had to create his characters’ souls.
He had a choice. He could go back to Spain and work with great directors — the star system there revolves around auteurs, not actors — and there was no shortage of deep, complex roles for him.
His fellow Hispanic actors asked him, “So, are you going to stay in America?” He told them, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah.” They told him, “Well, if you stay here you’re going to be the bad guy, number one.” They told him he would only ever get cast as a member of a cartel or a gang.
But it was too late. By 1996, he was married to Melanie Griffith. They had a daughter, Stella. He had grown attached to his stepchildren. The question became one not of artistic fulfillment but of practicality. “How can I keep my career here? I’m married here. I live here. I have to play here.”
And he loved America. “The culture here.” He shimmered with delight. “There is something very beautiful about America, very innocent. Oh, yes. It’s still new. It’s innocent.”
I expressed some surprise. Over the course of my time in Hungary with him, we’d gotten word of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla. America had become horrifying to me. “Yes,” he said. “But you guys believe. You believe everything — even in this moment you believe.” In Europe, he said, people are skeptical. There’s the weight of history. But America, man. “I love NASA. I love those institutions. And I remember visiting Houston and going there and me doing my eyes like this.” He made his eyes big and full of disbelief.
And the innovation! “These people that invent Googles and Apples and all these companies, they put heart in the skies. Elon Musk doing this thing is unbelievable to me.”
So he played what he called the “exotic guy.” His agent told him he’d become more powerful the more he said no. “But,” he would say. “I have a problem here because I have to build a career almost handicapped.” He knew he was offered jobs that weren’t quite the best, jobs that had been offered to five or 10 actors before him.
“I cannot play in the same league as certain American actors because my accent didn’t allow me just to play a banker from New York or an astronaut,” he said. “So I have to be balancing. And it’s almost like the guy in the circus that tried to keep all the plates going. And if he stops they fall. And so I did have to do in my career things that I wouldn’t have done, yes.” What could he do? “It was a desert for Spanish actors.”
But lately, a strange thing started happening. He’s not being asked to wear matador outfits anymore. At the ripe (but still extremely handsome) age of 57, the roles got better. “They have more weight, they are more complex, they are more profound and I enjoy more to play them because you can just actually find many different ways to play,” he said. “It’s almost like a pot and you can’t stop putting things in. Before it was a uniform almost. They wanted the heroic, the epic, the guy.”
Maybe it’s the Hispanic population coming of age, he wondered. Great numbers with advanced degrees and a real presence in cinema. “Now it’s normal to see at the Academy Awards Mexican directors taking Oscars, Spanish actors, actors from Puerto Rico.”
But it could also be him. It could also be that there’s something about transforming small caricatures into great, big, memorable characters. All that time working to stay in business — as opposed to working to keep up an image — paid off. He subverted America’s attempts to objectify him. He took artistic risks. He became adept at infusing soul into one-note characters (I’m talking what could have been a throwaway role in “Miami Rhapsody;” I’m talking the Nasonex bee.)
That’s the thing about Picasso: He was considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and he was also prolific. He wasn’t cheap with his talents. He didn’t think that to practice his art would be to drain the supply of his artistry. He knew that was not how greatness works.
AT THE END of the day, Mr. Banderas sat in the makeup trailer as a woman applied glue remover to his head with a paintbrush, then pulled at the netting that hosted the white hair he’d been wearing. She did the same for his eyebrows, where there was a shadow of stubble. They began to work their fingers at the silicone that covered his face. He liked to help free himself from it.
Mr. Banderas lives in England now, in Surrey, about an hour southwest of London. He lives there with his girlfriend, Nicole Kimpel, an investment adviser he met at Cannes a few years ago.
The truth is, he doesn’t need to be in America anymore. So many movie shoots are done in Europe now for tax reasons. And Ms. Kimpel has an identical twin sister who lives in Switzerland whom she can’t bear to be too far away from.
What did he need to stay in the United States for anyway? His days of co-parenting are over. Stella is off at the University of Southern California, studying cinema. Of his divorce from Ms. Griffith in 2015 he says: “Melanie is a very generous woman and an excellent mother and a great lover for many years. But there is a moment that things were not working and before we started damaging each other we just decided to take that option.”
Here’s the truth about why Antonio Banderas stayed in the States for so long. Yes, he got married. Yes, he loved NASA and the Googles. Yes, he loved our innocence. But you know what else? He won’t say it, almost out of fealty to the country he was born in, but Ms. Hayek and Mr. Rodriguez will. In Spain, Ms. Hayek said, “He could not do some of the action movies. He’d never been on Broadway.”
In Spain he could do a lot of interesting work. But in the U.S., he can be an action star, a comedy hero, a Nasonex bee, a spy dad. In Spain he could be in the theater, yes, but in America, he can be on Broadway. That year he was in “Nine?” Mr. Banderas said it was his happiest time in America.
That’s who Antonio Banderas is. “He’s someone who wants to eat the world,” Mr. Rodriguez told me.
You can’t just eat the world from Europe, though. That’s the thing about being an actor in America. When you’re famous here, you’re famous everywhere. Mr. Banderas stayed here because Spain simply wasn’t big enough for him.
In Hungary, sitting in his makeup chair in the set of “Picasso,” Mr. Banderas said, “It’s hard to look into the mirror and see a doddering old man.” He didn’t take his eyes off himself when he spoke. “Picasso is 67 here. I’m two-and-a-half years away from 60. It’s not so far away.” He tilted his head, evaluating his cheek. “It’s scary to visit an age before you get there. But it’s somehow even scarier when it’s not that far away.”
About a year ago, Mr. Banderas was preparing breakfast in his home when his arm began to hurt. He’d had an arrhythmia issue for years, and one of his doctors in Los Angeles had told him he had a blockage in one of his arteries. He’d been under a lot of stress recently — the divorce, the move. He filmed seven movies that year. He was smoking. The pain in his arm was faint, but suddenly he felt it in his jaw. That’s when he knew: He was having a heart attack.
He was in the hospital for just a day. As the nurse, who was a fan, said goodbye to him, she said: “Antonio, you’re going to be very sad. For like a month or two months you’ll be very sad because the hearts hold feelings. And you’re going to feel like the world is crumbling around you. Don’t worry because you can put it back where it was and be the happy person that you are and continue doing your work.”
He didn’t think much of it, but as he recuperated, he found that he couldn’t shake his sadness. It engulfed him. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before. “Suddenly, you discover at your root level that it can be like in a second you can say goodbye.”
But he’s Antonio Banderas, so eventually the sadness made way for a different feeling: inspiration. He was still here. He was still here and he had so much left to do.
The first script he read after his heart attack was “Life Itself,” written and directed by Dan Fogelman (“This Is Us”). Mr. Banderas read to the last page and he knew he’d found his next project, a drama about intersecting lives in Spain and America. He was offered the role of a “normal” character — not a historical figure, not a masked avenger, not a slutty cat. Just a real man.
During filming, he was different than usual. “I was not so anxious about what is going to be the result of this, what is going to be their opinions. No, it was about me. It was — well, it’s very genuine because actually I love this profession. What about that? I love this profession.”
After that, “things magically start happening. Picasso came walking into my life.”
The silicone was now gone from his face. The hair was, too. He looked like a beautiful egg. Every day when the makeup came off, he was relieved to see that he was still there underneath. It’s scary to get old. Maybe it’s even scarier because you still have all the energy in the world, I suggested, and you feel like you haven’t done the thing you’ll be remembered for yet.
He smiled. I took him too literally, he said. It’s not that he doesn’t think he’ll be remembered for what he’s already done. It’s just that … Did he tell me the story yet about what Dalí supposedly used to say? “He used to say, ‘I am a very mediocre painter for the reason that I don’t want to die. In fact, I am the best painter in the world but I don’t paint a good painting because if I paint a good painting I will die the next day. So I prefer to be mediocre.’”
He gave me a combination [laughing with mouth open emoji] and [eyerolling emoji]. Ay, was Dalí crazy. Didn’t he know? Dignity comes when it’s required. Didn’t he know? Greatness only gets greater the more it’s practiced. Oh yes. That’s how greatness works.