Antonio Banderas: ‘I don’t want to live like I’m already dead’

Spanish actor talks politics, health scares and getting the chance to play his ‘idol’, Picasso

Antonio Banderas is having a hard day at the office: he has just died. He has wrapped one of the last days of shooting in Budapest for Genius: Picasso, the new series in which he plays the Spanish artist. Today, he shot Picasso's death in 1973 at his hilltop villa in Notre Dame de Vie; the house has been recreated on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital.

The wigs, makeup and prosthetics that transformed him into a 91-year-old have been removed. To become Picasso, his face had to be a blank canvas. His head was shaved, as were his eyebrows. “I’m very tired,” he says, looking like the world’s most glamorous Mr Potato Head. “But being tired is my natural state; I operate and do my life there, in that department.”

The project itself – a five-month shoot, mostly on location – has not helped his lethargy. “There are two types of tiredness: the ‘day tiredness’, because I came here at 4am to start a four-hour makeup process, and the ‘October-to-here tiredness’, which is a long-term thing. It’s more intellectual than anything.”

I don't consider myself a master of anything

Even at 57, tired intellectually or otherwise – and with no hair or eyebrows – he is still Banderas the movie star. The dark, brooding, yet boyish good looks that gave him his reductive “Latin lover” tag have turned into something more mature.


In the publicity for the National Geographic show (which follows another Genius series about Albert Einstein, starring Geoffrey Rush), producer Ron Howard talks about how Banderas was a natural choice. Both the actor and Picasso are from Málaga. "He was born two blocks away from where I was born," says Banderas. "I walked to school with my mother and she'd point out his house and say: 'Picasso was born here.'"

On set, about 100 extras mill around in vintage 70s outfits, and I am shown around the vast wardrobe marquees that had to span the nine decades of Picasso’s life. It is a huge operation and, for Banderas, it is clearly a project about which he is passionate.

“When I started seeing his paintings, the thing that fascinated me when I was very little – seven or eight years old – is the same thing that fascinates me now: the facility he had for different styles,” he says. “There are many painters who are very good: Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, but none of them had the capacity to go through so many styles and survive all of them successfully.”

Banderas has something in common with Picasso in that respect. He started in theatre in Málaga after an injury put paid to hopes of a football career, then he moved to Madrid and was spotted in the street by Pedro Almodóvar.

The pair worked together on five films. The projects established Almodóvar as Spain's most internationally respected film-maker and put Banderas on Hollywood's radar. Avant garde at the outset in Spain (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), he mixed prestigious (Philadelphia) and pulpy (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) when he first moved to the US, before breathing new life into Zorro. In recent years, he has carved out a lucrative meta niche by playing caricatured versions of his best-known characters – usually in animated form, in Shrek, its spin-off, Puss in Boots, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Mind-boggling goal

“I was never worried about a career,” he says of his roles. “I never thought I had to be very careful about my next choice because I had to preserve the type of actor that people perceive me to be – because then you are not free any more.”

In 2015, a year after his divorce from the actor Melanie Griffith, he enrolled on a bespoke short-course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design with a genuinely mind-boggling goal: to bring back capes for men. "I would like to experiment with the cape," he told the institution's magazine. "I think they have incredible possibilities . . . and it is, in a way, so logical coming from Zorro!"

When his fashion collection emerged in 2016 (a collaboration with Swedish brand Selected Homme, sold through Asos and Urban Outfitters) it was, sadly, capeless. “I wanted to do it properly,” he says of his time at CSM. “I have been a student my whole life, I don’t stop studying and I’m going to continue. I don’t consider myself a master of anything.”

Back in his trailer, he describes Picasso as his “idol” and an inspiration: someone whose mere existence was seen as a sign of defiance in a country that was still ruled by a fascist dictator when Banderas was a child. “I was born in Franco’s Spain,” he says. “We didn’t have international heroes in Spain, and particularly not in Málaga. But Picasso was difficult to hide for the regime. They could hide the fact he was in the Communist party, but they couldn’t hide this luminous sun who radiated so strongly.”

That star still shines bright. In the week we meet, a blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern opens and 13 of Picasso's works sell for £113m at Sotheby's and Christie's. His most famous work – Guernica – is still the gold standard for anti-war statements and he remains an essential influence for fashion houses such as Balenciaga. And Kanye West's last album – Life of Pablo – may or may not have been inspired by the artist.

When we talk about him, we're talking about a planet with tremendous gravity that you couldn't get out of

But while the work is consistently lauded, Picasso’s personal life and, in particular, his treatment of women, is being reassessed. The art world has “disregarded his personal tumult with women in favour of keeping the ‘art separate from the artist’,” wrote one critic. “His violence is often downplayed or indirectly excused,” said another. Picasso’s own comments that women were “machines for suffering” and either “goddesses or doormats” haven’t aged well. In the era of #MeToo, does Picasso’s treatment of women mean we should be wary of celebrating him?

"We have to be fair," says Banderas. "We cannot accuse people of things that they have not done. You can read about Pablo Picasso and about certain events by different people who have different opinions. If I made a film about my father and my brother made a film about my father, too, it's going to be different. So who should we listen to?"

Banderas spoke to the artist’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, while researching the role. She told him of a benevolent father whose sins were infidelity and a habit of abandoning women once he was done with them. His platonic and respectful relationships with Lee Miller and Gertrude Stein are considered a counternarrative to the story of Picasso, the wanton misogynist.

Banderas balks at the claims of physical abuse, saying there is no real reporting of them. “When we talk about him, we’re talking about a planet with tremendous gravity that you couldn’t get out of. And that is very painful,” he argues. “Especially when another satellite comes. And they become the favourite one and you’re not in the orbit any more. That upset a lot of people, but we don’t have more than that.”

‘Who do we believe?’

What about the well-documented claims of abuse from Picasso’s former lover, and fellow painter, Françoise Gilot?

“Think about it,” says Banderas. “She was 21 and got involved with a guy who was 64, who had a ring on his finger and was married and had a history. Then she published a book with a lot of confidences made not only about their relationship, but the things that he said about Dora Maar, and the things he said about Marie-Thérèse Walter. To me, that is a little bit suspicious. So who do you believe? Who do we believe now?”

Many would say we should believe the women who were there. Gilot, who is now 96, is not the only person to write about Picasso’s belligerence towards women. His former lover Fernande Olivier revealed a controlling, jealous man in her memoir and his granddaughter Marina Picasso went further, writing: “He submitted (women) to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them and crushed them on to his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

Picasso was so furious that details of his fiercely guarded personal life were made public by Gilot that he told every art dealer who would listen to him not to buy her work. But, says Banderas: “We’re not doing a glorification of Pablo Picasso. We’re doing a reflection of everything that happened in his life. You will see it. The cruelty – sometimes – his behaviour with women.”

Then there is a pause, followed by a warning.

“I was born in 1960 in Franco’s Spain. When I was born, I was guilty already. In Spain, everybody was guilty until proven innocent. Everybody,” he says. “I don’t want to become Franco. I don’t want to point my finger at anyone if I don’t have proof that that person did something. I don’t want to do that because I fought in the opposite direction. I have to be very careful when I throw around an opinion about someone. I need facts.”

He understands the shift in culture and overdue calls for accountability, but he urges caution.

“I totally approve of the #MeToo movement. Of course,” he continues. “Who the hell in his right mind can disapprove of that? A group of women who are fighting to not be abused and to denounce what’s been happening for many years. But at the same time we have to have a lot of care so that we don’t become the thing we’re criticising – and it’s very easy.”

But where is that line? How do you measure when the burden of proof has been met? Banderas came out in support of his friend and collaborator Salma Hayek when she wrote – in a New York Times comment piece – that Harvey Weinstein allegedly forced her to perform a gratuitous lesbian sex scene while filming the Frida Kahlo biopic, Frida. (In a rare public response, a spokesperson for Weinstein claimed "all of the sexual allegations as portrayed by Salma are not accurate and others who witnessed the events have a different account of what transpired.")

Banderas praised Hayek’s “integrity and honesty”. Couldn’t you make the same case for Gilot, Olivier and Marina Picasso? “Be careful,” he says, his brow furrowing. “I’m not saying Françoise was a bad girl and Picasso was very good. I’m saying, look what happens when you have the same story told by different people. If you asked Picasso, he might say it never happened. You have to be very careful when you try to establish what is fair and what is just.”

I understand the romanticism of many people, I understand the will

Justice and fairness are a big source of debate in Spain at the moment, with some Catalan politicians jailed or facing prison for their part in the unofficial independence referendum held in October last year. Where does Banderas think the artist would have stood on the issue of Catalan independence?

“I think Picasso would have stayed on the side of the law, of the constitution.” Really? A man who moved in independence circles while in Barcelona and who hated Franco’s Spain so much that he never returned?


“I do believe so. That’s the side that I am on,” he adds. “I understand the romanticism of many people, I understand the will, the political will of many people, but I understand the constitution also allows them the possibility of having a real referendum. But they have an obstacle in front of them called democracy.”

Forget Picasso, then. What does Banderas think of the recent violence where – reportedly – 900 were injured while trying to vote in the referendum? The clashes were a culmination of tensions after Madrid declared the referendum illegal and unconstitutional. Surely, neither he nor Picasso would condone that?

Sometimes I complain that I need to stop or need some rest, but after two days I want to eat myself alive

“This is way more complicated. I’m going to get in trouble,” he says. “But if you are the one who takes my kids as shields, my old people as shields, and you are going to break the law, you’re going to have to cross through my kids and my grandfather, it’s a little bit funny, no?”

"There were 900 people hurt – where are they?" he asks, echoing some, including the late former Guardian editor Peter Preston, who called into question the reporting around the violence.

Banderas promises his Picasso series will be no hagiography, that all sides of the artist will be shown. The genius, the father and the primal self-styled “minotaur”. Ultimately, he says, it will be up to the viewer to make a decision about Picasso.

It is an important project for Banderas, not only because of his closeness to the subject but because this is his first real stab at prestige TV – and a way back into more serious roles as he enters his third act. The Einstein series of Genius was nominated for 10 Emmys. Genius is also Banderas’s first big project since a heart attack that took place in Surrey in January last year. “It was scary, to tell you the truth,” he says. “It was something that I knew before, but then you see it very clearly in front of you – and that’s that the existence of death is very real.”

So has it changed him? “I stopped smoking,” he says. “I do a lot of sport. I take the drugs (doctors) recommended. I thought I was going to stop working a little bit more, but I decided not to because I missed my life and that’s it.

“Sometimes I complain that I need to stop or need some rest, but after two days I want to eat myself alive. This is what I do, this is my life,” he says. “I don’t want to live my life like I’m already dead. I’m just going to live it, and if I die, I die.” –Guardian