Just prior to the release of upcoming family comedies Puss in Boots and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Antonio Banderas creeps us out in Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In. Rather than a debonair kitty or secret agent dad, the suave Spaniard plays a deranged plastic surgeon with an affinity for mutilation. He sat down with Buzzine to talk about how he got under the skin of such a sadistic character, the new Lifetime comedy he's working on with his wife, Melanie Griffith, and what it's like to be computer illiterate...
Izumi Hasegawa: How did you approach this film and your role?
Antonio Banderas: It was Pedro (Almodovar) who approached me first, and it happened, actually, almost ten years ago in the Cannes Film Festival. He told me, at the time, that he bought the rights for a Thierry Jonquet novel, Tarantula. But then for all this time, he got involved with other projects and it didn't happen. But then I knew he was working all this time just trying to adapt it in his own personal way. Then, when I received the script, I was in New York. I was doing some workshop at the time for Zorba that I had to interrupt because of Pedro. When I read the script, I was very surprised already, from the fundamental premise of the movie and the story.
But it surprised me that he wasn't going to shoot in a linear way, that he established a very strong game with time in the movie with flashbacks, making basically the first part of the movie a question without an answer, which you start positioning the people because you start knowing a little bit about the story of my character. And then, when the flashback starts to develop very late in the movie, he takes the whole entire audience and repositions them in terms of morality again. That game and those u-turns take us through the movie practically to the end.
So he surprised me, and I had the same reaction as the audience all around the world ... Working with Almodovar is not an easy task. He's unbelievably precise in the things he wants from you. He doesn't like you to come in with a bag full of experiences that you've have been accumulating over the years as an actor. He loved to take that bag of experiences and throw them out the window and tell you, "We're going to start from zero, and that's the way we always work, Antonio, and we're going to work like we did in the '80s. I didn't call you because of the things you did with me in those years. I want a new you, and we're going to attack the character from a different perspective." From that time, he started describing the character and his psychology and how we were going to research him, and also not just the superficiality of the movie, but the form he wanted to present the character too. He gave two main points that made me reflect very much on what we were going to do.
One thing was the fact that it was almost like a white screen on which the audience can actually write their own fears -- to do a character that was very limitless with no parameters so you can expect practically anything from him. He's very unexpected in his behavior, and very laid back. Very economical. Because the natural tendency of me, at this particular time...when you read a particular character that's bigger than life on paper, you're tendency is to go big with him. As an actor, you want to show some skills, but he cut all that. He says, "No, no, no. We have to play it like this."
The second thing he was working on was psychology -- the mental state of the character. These people and this character is somebody who could eventually meld perfectly with the society he's living in. He wouldn't be suspicious of anything. It's the characters we have seen sometimes in the news. When they just arrest a serial killer and John Elyse Diggle -- the area where this guy was interviewing neighbors and the people who knew him -- people used to say, "No, he was a very charming guy. Well-dressed, well-mannered, educated, polite, went to church on Sundays..." But then he got a horrendous story behind him. So that's the character we have to do. And from the moment on, we started working in that direction.
IH: Of course you had to live in the character's skin and see through his eyes. How do you come to terms with his obsession? Is it something to admire, or is it something to be frightened by?
AB: To be frightened, but the way I approach it in the work, once we finished the period of rehearsal, which was enormously big -- we were rehearsing for almost two months. What I did is number one, I said to myself, "You shouldn't establish a morality judgment over him." I didn't want to play the character like I was carrying a backpack of everything that he is. So what I did is just to establish compartments in the days we have to shoot, and I got the premise in my mind that I have to play him like a family doctor trying to make natural of what was unnatural. Nothing from his point of view and what he was doing was horrendous. He is actually doing something extraordinary for science and for the future. I don't know if you remember the scene where he's telling the guy how to use the dildos. I remember thinking, when I was playing the scene, that I was almost prescribing pills. I never thought about the character in the overall because I knew that, in the narrative, Pedro was going to take to that position. So I didn't have to replay the character again. I just went to very specific situations, and for me, it was just like that. It was, "You take two in the morning, two in the afternoon, three at night, and in a few months, you're going to be perfect." And then you have the contrast of what you were really doing in the scene, and that is unavoidable because it was there. Actually, the reaction to that particular scene that people had was the same one I had when I first read the script. They were laughing. "It's not possible and I can't believe the guy is doing this." But he does, and that is absolutely based on reality. That's what happens to people when they get these types of operations.
IH: I felt a slight bit of compassion for him because he's so sick.
AB: Well, it's human. Pedro didn't want to make a monster that completely separated from an audience. In a way, he's almost telling you the monster may be around you -- it may be you too. And the guy is carrying a backpack of big, big tragedies, with his wife and his daughter later on. So that creates a certain kind of sympathy. Because of the first part of the movie doesn't allow you to know what happened, you start establishing a relationship with him. And it's very difficult to get away from that. In the overall, the movie almost always flows for me. That's how it happened when I saw it. I didn't know, at the time I was shooting, that that was going to come out. It flows -- the metaphor about creation and about art, in a way. This is my own opinion -- Pedro may disagree with me -- but I think Pedro was reflecting very much on himself and about how being a movie director gives you the power to create universes and create identities and create people, and how you as a monster or an actor can be attached to those creations.
There's a part at the end where many people say to me that it seems as though the character is actually falling in love with this woman. I always thought he wasn't falling in love with the woman, he was falling in love with himself -- with the creation that he has done. And because of the timing of the movie, it's so strange. If you remember, there's a scene that plays at the beginning of the movie and actually happens in real time at the end, in that she's the one that takes the initiative. She's the one that's saying, "I am yours." And the guy is totally stunned. He can't take it. He can't believe it. He can't believe that his own monster is just proposing things to him. So the guy doesn't know how to deal with that, and he says, "Get away." From there, he's totally confused at that particular moment because that's not supposed to happen in his world. That's the big reflection that flows through the entire movie.
And then there are references that are not very graphic. I could have had, in my bedroom, a little television set just to watch. No, he got a big movie screen. And Pedro photographed me from the back. When I'm looking at her, it's almost as though he's photographing himself looking at movies and jumping on the other side of the movie and becoming an actor of his own creation. It's the type of game that Pedro was playing at the particular time in his life. I suppose it makes a lot of sense for him as a creator, but those are things I discover later on. Because at the time, we were working in very specific compartments. "This is what I have to do now, and I don't want to play this as if he was a bad guy." I got to naturalize because that's what Pedro asked me to do. You have to naturalize to the point where nobody has seen that done before. There's always a wink of the eye when you play a villain. There's always a comment that you do to the audience sooner or later. But in this case, we tried as much as possible to never do that -- to just be very natural. I'm a family doctor; I am doing good things.
IH: As a father, how could you have imagined he could ever, at any circumstance, love this creature knowing that he's done something horrible to his daughter?
AB: I have a daughter, and if somebody just damaged her, in the heat of the moment, I may just have a reaction that is very violent. What I would never do is methodically, for six years, preform this kind of revenge. That's a different deal. That doesn't have anything to do with revenge; it has to do with something a little bit bigger and a little bit darker. And I always thought, in this movie, that that revenge issue has to do with an excuse that he's gonna use in order to open something that is in his guts. That intent there was probably sleeping, and that something awakes.
From the moment she dies, I don't remember that time. She dies, and in the next scene, I am shedding him already because I am planning to operate on him and do that haunted thing that happens to him. It's almost like he takes a suicidal path. He probably knows, at the end of his path, there is no way out. Of course, I played with an advantage because I knew the ending of the movie, but it's almost like I felt the thing: "Now I'm going to perform everything I had in mind, regardless of what the scientist community is going to think. Regardless of anything, I'm going to do it." So he just unplugs completely from the normal world and gets into a universe that's completely different and very sick. He can't link with the doctor he used to work with; he doesn't want to take any of it. He just dedicates his whole entire life to this particular purpose.
IH: In this part of your career, do you still feel more comfortable with the dialogue in Spanish or English? Or have you gotten to the point where you're not translating it when you do an English language film?
AB: Yes, I got to that point, but I must tell you that it was very refreshing for me to go back home, to go back to my family.
IH: How was it to be working again with a European style and with your own people?
AB: I think movies and art in general serve many different purposes. I think all of them are valid and legitimate, if they're done with honesty and dignity -- from the most frivolous, light comedy to the movies that actually reflect the complexity of the human soul and everything in the middle. As an actor, I have played them all, regardless of the choices I make in my life and the mistakes, highs and lows, just like everyone else. Sometimes I picture myself as those actors in the 19th century who would go in chariot from village to village and they would play comedy at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and Shakespeare at night. And I love that because it's my turf.
It's what I do as an actor. As an actor, I probably need to experiment more; I'm still a rookie. I have to find my personality, so I'm searching for that. I hope to find that soon so I don't get thrown out of the business. But as an actor, I do believe that there are people out there. I cannot ask a guy working on a road the whole entire week under the sun to go watch 8 ½ on a weekend because maybe that's not what he needs. He probably needs to sit with a girlfriend and a huge bag of popcorn and just watch and entrust in a movie that's going to make him laugh.
But then there are people who are searching for movies like this -- they just want to go there and propose something different. And moreover, that's what he is. He never played mainstream because he's not made for that. His movies are going to make people have radical opinions about him, whether they want to put him in an order or just crucify him. That's what he is -- he's an investigator. He takes references from many different actors and many different styles, but at the end, he became his own genre. Pedro is his own genre in himself. In this particular time in my life as an actor, I really needed to get in the mud with him. I really needed to get my hands dirty, and we started doing what we used to do in the '80s. The satisfaction that comes with the end of the work has been really difficult at this point. It's enormous because the first time I saw the movie, I said, "Oh my god, he made me play a note that I didn't even know I had." You have to have 21 years to go back to Pedro Almodovar -- my great friend and my great film-maker -- to realize it just opened other doors for me, so it made me refer to my profession about acting, about being in front of a camera, about my young age, about being more mature. All those things came together with this movie again, so I am tremendously thankful. I love him because I admire him too.
IH: We miss Melanie (Griffith) in movies and TV. Is she going to come back?
AB: She just did a movie with Nick Cassavetes in Oklahoma, and she got another offer. We got approved for a pilot for a TV series that she may do for Lifetime. We're now in conversations with Sony studios and it's my own idea. We did it with a scriptwriter from San Francisco called Erik Jendresen, so she definitely wants to do it and she's very fine with herself.
IH: Would you be in a series with her?
AB: I would. In fact, I have a kind of little character in this, but she would be the star of the movie.
IH: Is it a comedy?
AB: It's a comedy, but it's about a dysfunctional family and a woman that actually is operating in many different ways because she has a voice inside her which is telling her to do the exact opposite of what she's doing. At the same time, it's very critical with many different aspects of the American society, with sex, politics, religion...a number of things -- engulfing a woman of her age with a large family with grown kids already, with a husband who wants to be a politician. All of this involving this kind of family. It's funny, it's fast-paced; studios are loving it. We're hopefully going to record the pilot by the end of November and then we'll see if it's approved or not.
IH: I want to take a bit of a right turn here. Steve Jobs died recently. Are you an Apple guy? And what do you think his legacy is?
AB: In a personal way, I hated computers until Mac got in my hands. I was the kind of idiot that got in front of a computer and didn't know how to operate it and was desperate all the time, and suddenly someone came by and gave me a Mac, and it was my friend. It was almost immediately like, "Oh, I understand this." If I was having problems, there the computer was telling me I was an idiot. It made the world very accessible, and in a way, it has to do with the fashion of it. It's not only because of the sort of technology involved in that, but there's something that attaches you to those computers, and I don't know what it is. This is an object that you like. The first mac I had was in 2003, and that's pretty historic for the people in the world of computers. But I don't want to get rid of it. I have that in my house in a drawer, and eventually I open it back up again and play with it a little bit and I say, "Oh, you are so slow!" But I keep going in that world of Mac.
IH: Was it possible that you as an actor, halfway through the shot, looked at Elena (Anaya) in a different way -- as more than a character, as an actress?
AB: No, I never played that game in my mind. I have to take a certain distance sometimes for the roles I'm doing, especially when they are this disturbing. Otherwise you get so taken by what you're doing that you don't have the capacity to see it from the outside. You need a little bit of that. I would lose completely the objectivity. I don't know, in her case, because she was a more passive character than me. I don't know if she, at some point, felt that way about me like that -- scenes where I use the fire and just manipulating the body, feeling my hands on her -- I don't know how she felt with that. But in my case, no. On the other hand, she was an unbelievable partner because of the difficulty with the work sometimes. We laughed a lot too. Don't think that we were there in a cocoon of suffering. We laughed because Pedro is still a very witty, sharp, funny, ingenious guy. But sometimes we also used each other's shoulders to cry a little bit.
IH: Would you like to do another project with her again?
AB: Oh, I would love to. If life brought us together again. She's an adorable human being.
IH: How did you feel when you had to do all that stuff to her? Some of it's really like, "Oh my God. What are you doing?" How do you deal with it in your own mind?
AB: I have to tell you the truth, that seeing the reactions, especially in the boy -- in Jan Cornet, who played the other side of the character -- I start measuring the power of the story. He felt it in the story, when I am with the hose. We did that scene several times with grotto -- pushing him with that scene with the water, again and again and again, almost naked. That was not a fun thing to do. And with Cornet, who is actually playing very deeply -- he's a method actor. He came very charged. I have to be very careful with that. I remember going to him at the end of every take and just saying, "Are you all right? Just hold on, hold on. Just get through it." Things like that. You just try to make him as comfortable as you can. And Pedro did too. He was very careful with those things. Pedro, believe it or not, has done a number of sex scenes through the years in movies. He gets really uncomfortable with that. Really uncomfortable. He's unbelievably shy to direct those scenes. We actually have to help him sometimes to do those scenes because he gets nervous and disturbed by those scenes when he's got to shoot them.
Sony Pictures Classics' 'The Skin I Live In' is released on October 14, 2011.