Antonio Banderas calls from a car on his way to the airport, and by the time he has to hang up, he tells me the pilot of his plane is yelling at him to turn off his phone. For an actor who has often starred as relatively quiet characters — be it the passionate outsiders he’s played for Pedro Almodóvar, or the tough loners he’s played for Robert Rodriguez — it’s surprising to hear how chatty Banderas can be. The occasion of our talk is the fact that, all of a sudden, everything’s coming up Antonio: He stars in Almodóvar’s latest, the somewhat-autobiographical Pain and Glory, playing a variation on the director — a role for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor prize at Cannes in May. He’s also featured in Steven Soderbergh’s highly stylized romp-sposé, The Laundromat, a fourth-wall-breaking political comedy about the Panama Papers in which Banderas plays one half of a high-living, double-talking duo of lawyers helping to conceal their clients’ billions in offshore accounts (a German-accented Gary Oldman plays his counterpart). And starting tomorrow, New York’s Quad Cinema will be presenting a retrospective of the actor’s work, including many of his revolutionary (and controversial) early films with Almodóvar. Our plan was to go through as much of his career as we could. We got about halfway, because Antonio Banderas, it turns out, has a lot to say.
Pedro Almodóvar cast you in your first film, Labyrinth of Passion, when you were just a teenager. What do you think he saw in you?
I was 19 years old … I remember when he offered me the part, I said, “I have never done a movie. I don’t know how you are supposed to behave in front of the camera.” He said, “You know how to do theater. You will be fine in the cinema. Besides, I’m there. I’m just going to drive you.”
The film was made just a few years after the death of Franco. Spain was still a pretty conservative country. But in Labyrinth of Passion, we see this incredibly vibrant, diverse, wild community, with sex workers, punk singers, trans people, political revolutionaries, and relationships with all sorts of different sexual configurations. Was that a world you were familiar with at the time?
At that time, it was a very reduced community. It only had members in Madrid. So it was, in a way, a society that was being dreamt. We presented a tribe that was way more sweet, more colorful than what the regime permitted. That went to the mind of young people who wanted to break with the past and propose something new and fresh for the future … That night [the movie premiered], actually, I remember that I thought, Oh my God, this is bigger than movies. This is a guy who, if he continues doing movies, is going to touch the very heart of Spanish morality, and he may be capable of changing it. And it happened like that. Pedro Almodóvar actually helped to change the Spanish morality at the time.
At the San Sebastian Film Festival, it was a scandal. There were people insulting us — members of the audience. Some just left the theater, and others were cheering and applauding. It was an incredible, unbelievable reaction. Some of us, we were insulted on the streets, because we were doing these “dirty movies.”
Do you remember the specific things people said to you?
Well, yeah. “Faggot.” You name it. Things like that. I didn’t care because I felt like a Rolling Stone. I felt the support more than the rejection. You’re winning the space for new things, for a new way of thinking. We were actually conquering spaces. We were in a kind of a war, and we knew, very early on, that we were going to win.
A few years later you made together, The Law of Desire, has that sense of community as well. I’d argue that it’s even more revolutionary.
That movie, in terms of sexuality, opened a whole national discussion. I remember, at the time, with journalists and in debates that we had on television and in other forums, everybody was so scandalized about the fact that my character is homosexual and he has explicit kisses and makes love on the screen with another man. But nobody paid attention to the fact that I killed somebody in the movie. That was totally fine! I said, “How is this possible. Why are crime and violence, blood okay, and the love of two people that are from the same sex is so scandalous? Why is that?”
Your lovemaking scenes in that film are genuinely sensuous and passionate. Maybe that’s what bothered some people about it?
Yeah. I guess. I don’t know. But when I do something, I do it for real. If I love, I love. If I touch, I touch. If I look, I look. If I eat, I eat. If I kill, I kill.
Then of course in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down, which is a love story that develops between a kidnapper and his victim, there’s a different pushing of extremes.
There was a big reflection in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down about a relationship between a man and a woman, which could be very violent and could be very tender at the same time. I remember Pedro telling me that even if a character goes to that extent, we have to make him somehow sympathetic to complete the circle of what a relationship should be. If the character is hideous in the beginning, there is no relationship. There is just somebody abusing somebody else.
This would be very difficult to do in our day, basically because it would be very difficult to understand that Pedro was trying to present this metaphorical world in which he’s exploring that type of relationship. At that time, it was very important to do that. But right now, it could be confused for something else. If you see it with good eyes, if you see it without any type of prejudgment, it’s a very interesting movie, because the two characters are basically, both of them, victims of themselves. They empathize … I mean, if there is something that Pedro is not, is a coward. Whatever idea he got, he is planning to explore. He will never stop himself from doing it, or engaging in self-censorship. No. That is not Pedro. Maybe some other director, but not him.
Not long after that, you came to Hollywood, to do Mambo Kings. As I understand, you didn’t speak English at the time?
Nothing. I did the movie phonetically. I learned the language phonetically. I couldn’t understand the director so we had an interpreter. But it was a dream because I never thought I was going to do a movie in America. And a new language brings to you a little freedom, believe it or not, because when you’re working in your own language, every word has a very specific meaning to you. Every word has a history. I realized very soon in the process that it was easier for me to say, “I love you,” than to say, “te quiero,” because “te quiero” has a meaning, very specific, that has to do with me. With my psyche. With my people.
Do you remember the first English curse word you learned?
I think it was the classic fuck. Because it’s such an easy word.
Do you remember who taught it to you?
No. That, I don’t remember. Maybe it was from a movie with Joe Pesci.
So you came here and you didn’t speak the language, but you were on this movie. You must have felt lonely.
I felt weird. Weirder outside of the set, because on the set I had my script. The problem was when I was outside, when I had to be at a dinner table. Many people are talking and they’re interacting and you feel like an idiot because you cannot participate and you have to be very shallow because you cannot go into conversation with all the complexities and all the depth. You have to think all the time, “How can I just translate this idea in English?”
I remember it was exhausting to have a social life in Hollywood. Once I met Melanie [Griffith] and I got married, we were home most of the time — because I could understand her and when we went out, for me, it was a lot of work. A lot of work to have to talk, to talk, to talk.
That must have been an interesting contrast, because Melanie Griffith is practically Hollywood royalty — the child of a movie star. She must have known that world well.
The first time I went to the Academy Awards after we got a nomination for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, we got on the red carpet and I saw this blonde woman and I knew her because I saw movies of her, but I didn’t remember [her name] at the time. So, I said to Pedro, “Who is she? Who is she? What is her name?” Pedro said, “That’s Melanie Griffith!” I said, “That’s it. Oh my God.” Six years later, I was married to her.
Everything happened in those years really fast. My life was fast and fascinating if I actually see it in retrospective. I remember those years as very effervescent and really beautiful. I am not married with Melanie anymore but she is my family. She is probably one of my best friends, if not the best friend that I have. My family is there, Dakota [Johnson], Little Estella and Alexander.
Dakota now has a very promising career of her own. You must be proud.
Of course. I met her when she was five years old! I followed every single step of it. I’m so proud of her. I saw her the other day in Toronto, and she looks — as I said in the social networks when I put a picture of her and myself, I put there, “My radiant Dakota.”
Did Melanie and the kids have nicknames for you?
Melanie called me Negrito. And I used to call her Rubia. Rubia is “blonde” in Spanish and Negrito is “little black boy.” I don’t know why she called me that, but she called me Negrito. I’ve never told this to anybody. You’re the first person, actually. And Dakota called me Paponio, which is a mixture between papa, which is “daddy” in Spanish, and Antonio. I am her Antonio papa, so Paponio.
Not long after Mambo Kings, you did Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. Did you speak English by that point?
A little bit better. I didn’t need an interpreter on the set. I think that movie actually was a landmark for so many people, because people didn’t let their friends, their families talk openly about the trauma of AIDS, the tragedy that was going on all around the world. The film was absolutely necessary at the time. And the one who really understood that was Jonathan. I remember that we used to go, guided by him, to demonstrations in Philadelphia. It was a very emotional adventure. Oh my God. I loved everyone that was involved in the movie. We became very good friends actually because of that, with Tom Hanks. Tom represents that side of America that I love, in terms of honesty and courageousness.
I remember at the time, much was made of your kiss with Tom, which was such a gentle demure little moment. For anyone who had seen your scenes in Law of Desire, it was like, “This is nothing.” But for that to happen in a mainstream American studio movie at the time, with big stars, it actually meant quite a lot.
It was my idea, that kiss. I remember that we were at a hospital rehearsing, and we came to the scene where I am coming running just to see what happened to my lover. Finally we embraced, and it was missing something. I said to Tom, “Tom, we should kiss here.” He said, “What?” I said, “We should kiss.” Jonathan was there and he looked at both of us and then Tom said, “Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. You’re right. What the fuck? Yeah. You are right.” So we did it.
It was just a little kiss but it was important for Hollywood that we got that — that little sparkly moment where you see two people from the same sex kissing on the screen. Now, it’s natural [to see this onscreen]. It’s good that these barriers, these frontiers, these boundaries, are just destroyed. There is still a lot of work to do in that department, but I’m very happy that I have been in those places sometimes.
To what extent do you feel like you were playing Pedro Almodóvar himself in Pain and Glory?
To a big extent. I knew that it was his alter ego. But the situation is this: Maybe everything that you see in the movie, maybe not all of them happened in the way that they are described. But still, I think this movie is more Almodóvar than Almodóvar. Why? Because what are we? Are we the things that we have done, the things that we have said, or are we the things that we wanted to say but we didn’t say? The things that we wanted to do but we never did? Almodóvar, in this movie, comes to terms with himself and his fans, and with the people that probably he left circles open. There is reconciliation with his mother. There is forgiveness. For him, I think this movie became very therapeutic in a way, because I remember that he was getting happier and happier as the movie was advancing.
There was a long period of time when you and Almodóvar didn’t work together. You reunited for The Skin I Live In. Had things changed?
When we did The Skin I Live In, it was 22 years after we did our last movie, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, so I came with all my experience from Hollywood, all my new tools. I am an actor now, I have done this and I have done that, “Look Pedro what I have learned,” blah, blah, blah … And after a week of rehearsals, he said to me, “You know Antonio, all of those things that you brought from Hollywood, they might be very useful for your Hollywood directors, but they are not useful for me. Where are you?”
So, this humble reflection started in my mind. I was praying for the opportunity to work with him again, and it came with Pain and Glory. I went to him and I said, “Listen. I don’t want to use any tools. I don’t want to use tricks. I want to go for the truth, because Pedro, we are in a position right now, we are old enough to leave a space only for the truth.” He said, “This is a good place to start.” Everybody in the world travels through life with a suitcase filled with miseries and greatness. With pain and glories. Everybody has a circle to close. Everybody has to come to terms with himself at some point. Everybody has to ask for forgiveness. This is a normal thing. We are human beings.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.