Antonio Banderas: ‘The heart attack was the best thing to happen to me’
The Spanish actor on his health scare, new film and bond with Pedro Almódovar
Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory plays a filmmaker, Salvador Mallo, languishing in semi-retirement after emotional and literal wounds following surgery for fused vertebrae.
At 69, Pedro Almódovar is in elegiac and self-reflexive form with Pain and Glory, a wistful variation on Federico Fellini’s 8½ that centres on a filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who is languishing in semi-retirement nursing both emotional and literal wounds following surgery for fused vertebrae. The Spanish auteur’s best film in many years opens with a shot of Banderas in a swimming pool and surgical scars that could belong to either the director, who has struggled with chronic back pain and migraines for many years, or his star, who had a heart attack in 2017.
Today he’s in London – less than an hour’s commute from his Surrey home (more on that later) – where a cheerful, charming Banderas couldn’t look less like a man who had life-saving heart surgery not too long ago.
“The heart attack was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says emphatically. “Because it opened my eyes to many things that I hadn’t seen. I didn’t understand what was really important. Sometimes we just get caught up and stupid, thinking I want a new car or I need new shoes. You surround yourself, not just with material things, but other things that aren’t important. What’s important? My daughter and my family, my friends, my work is an actor. It’s funny because once you understand, something in your aura changes so that even if you don’t do anything about it, there are certain doors that open. This happened to me. Ron Howard came to me with Picasso and then Pedro called me and then Steven Soderbergh called me. So I was very lucky because something in my disposition changed and they could see that. I was very lucky that I had the right person with me at the right time and the right doctors. It happened at the right moment because the damage to my heart was zero. So I stopped smoking. I started making a healthier life. I started eating better. That’s why I am thankful for it.”
He may be right about his aura. Later this year, he co-stars with Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman in The Laudromat; next year, he partners up with Robert Downey jnr in The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle, he’ll make his Marvelverse debut in The New Mutants, and he’ll play the title role in Lamborghini – The Legend. The brightening career isn’t the only thing that has changed for Banderas. In 2015, The Legend of Zorro star split from his two-decades-long marriage to Melanie Griffith and left his Hollywood home for Cobham in Surrey, where he now lives with his Dutch girlfriend of four years, Nicole Kimpel. He loves “the more real world” of life there even if Brexit has left a question mark over his future residency.
“We had talked about the possibility of living in Switzerland but I couldn’t go there because everyone speaks French or German and she didn't want to go to Spain because everyone speaks Spanish,” he says. “So London was the best thing for both of us and it’s the closest thing to Hollywood in Europe. Where I live people are very respectful. The other day in the market an older man came up and said: Oh, are you living here now? I said yes. And he said: oh, lucky us. I thought that was beautiful.
“What Brexit means for us foreigners, we don’t know. But I have to be respectful about the decisions of people. I believe in democracy. If that’s what they choose, then that’s what they should do.”
He and his famous ex-wife remain good chums. Not long after a divorce the tabloids were hoping would be acrimonious, Griffith posted a birthday greeting on her Instagram account: “Happy Birthday to my ruggedly handsome ex husband. I will always love you.” The feeling is mutual. He has said that he will love her until the day he dies.
“I have a fantastic relationship with my ex-wife,” says Banderas. “She’s one of my best friends. We see each other whenever I go to California. I have a totally open and fantastic relationship with my kids that are living there. So no door was closed. I do miss certain things when I go to California: the family life that we had, the food that we used to eat, places we used to go, walks on the beach in Santa Monica. Little things like that.”
His relationship with Pedro Almódovar has been more complicated. Banderas first met the writer-director in Madrid in 1980. Within months they were shooting Labyrinth of Passion, the first of six film collaborations.
“I remember everything about our first meeting,” smiles Banderas. “I was working at the National Theatre in Spain. It was an hour before a performance of La hija del aire (The daughter of the air) by Calderón de la Barca, and myself and the other actors, we’re outside of the theatre in a coffee shop. And up comes this guy with a red briefcase. He knows some of the actors. I didn’t know who he was but he was very funny, very fast, very ingenious, brilliant guy. And when he was leaving, he said: you should do movies because you have a very romantic face. I said thank you. And he left. And I asked: who was that? And the others said: that’s Pedro; he made a movie but he will never get to do another one.”
Banderas laughs: “Spain is not a country for prophets. But a couple of weeks after, he came to the dressing room and offered me Labyrinth of Passions. And that was the beginning.”
They would work together on Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down before Banderas left Spain for Hollywood, where he initially had to learn his lines phonetically.
“I learned English very late in life,” he says. “I was the age of 32 when I did Mambo Kings in America and before that I practically couldn’t speak anything. It’s very difficult to learn a language when you start learning so late. So I will always have an accent, But, you know, it’s funny because I remember many years ago at the beginning of my career in America, I was making Philadelphia with Tom Hanks, and he said to me: don’t try to lose your accent; your accent is going to get you some work; it’s one of your features like your nose or your eyes. And it was true. Because many years after I got Puss in Boots because of my accent. And Puss in Boots is one of the characters I enjoy the most.”
Banderas’ lack of fluency never seemed to matter in Hollywood. Everyone wanted to work with him. Madonna made a very public play for him in the 1991 documentary In Bed With Madonna; the pair would later star in Evita together. He was immediately embraced by the cooler kids, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, for Desperado, Four Rooms and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The tough guys like him: he has worked alongside Sylvester Stallone in Assassins, The Expendables and Spy Kids 3. It took 22 years for the actor to circle back to Pedro Almodóvar for The Skin I Live In. It was not an easy shoot.
“I came with to the rehearsal thinking I have all these tools now that I have developed over the last 22 years and I’m so much more comfortable in front of the camera,” recalls Banderas. “I’m thinking: Papi, look what I have learned. And Pedro was not interested. After days of rehearsals he said: ‘The things that you doing, the things that you bring to this character, these things might be useful for the American directors but not for me. Where are you?’ And I got angry instead of just answering the question. It was very tense shoot.”
Pain and Glory incorporates some of those tensions – and some of things that were said between actor and director – into a deeply personal “auto-fiction” as one onscreen character puts it. Cutting between the director’s rural childhood and his present-day afflictions, the film recounts a version of Pedro Almódovar’s first experience of sexual longing, his great lost love, the death of his mother, and his fractured relationship with the star of one of his earlier films. It’s the director’s most moving film and, arguably, Banderas’s most moving performance.
“To create this character I had to kill Antonio Banderas,” the actor said at Cannes earlier this year. He won best actor award at the film festival some days later.
“There was a certain amount of panic about it,” he says. “I had to do some homework with myself to open the door for this character. In order to do that I had to dig deep and review everything that happened between us.”
Pain and Glory feels like a summation of Pedro’s career. Should we be worried? Is retirement imminent?
“There is a scene – not one of the most brilliant scenes – in the movie but it’s hopeful,” smiles Banderas. “He’s about to be operated on. And the doctor comes and says: Salvador, how are you? And he says ‘Oh, doctor, I am writing.’ As long as Pedro has the capacity to get behind the camera and tell stories about life, that will keep Pedro going.”
Pain and Glory is released on August 23rd