Antonio Banderas started his career working with director and compatriot Pedro Almodóvar on movies such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It wasn’t long before Hollywood took notice, and Banderas was starring in The Mambo Kings, Philadelphia, Evita and The Mask of Zorro, among many others, as well as providing his voice talent to animated hits like the Shrek franchise. While the vast majority of his work had been in film, when the opportunity came along to play Pablo Picasso in National Geographic’s Genius series, Banderas couldn’t say no.
TV DRAMA: How did you hear about Genius: Picasso?
BANDERAS: Ron Howard and Ken Biller were in contact with me. I had just finished watching the first season of Genius, about Einstein, with Geoffrey Rush, and I loved it. It was surprising to me. I didn’t know the full dimension of Einstein’s character until I saw the TV series. I thought it offered very good [lessons] about history and physics, of course, but at the same time about the human dimension of the character, which makes you reflect about yourself, and I think that is the primary purpose of any art piece. Ron and Ken called me to a meeting in London, where I live. I went to the appointment and they talked to me about the Picasso project. They offered it to me and I thought, Oh my God, of course, I want to do it now because I saw the Einstein project and the quality television that they were doing. I felt like I was in good hands. Why do I say that? I was offered to play Picasso a couple of times when I was younger and then there were a lot of projects with Carlos Saura, which I rejected, in part because it was a responsibility for me to play a character that was born in my hometown. But for whatever reason, that meeting with Ron Howard and Ken Biller was very convincing!
TV DRAMA: What research did you do to prepare for the role?
BANDERAS: I read a lot. I read practically every book that has been written: the biography by John Richardson and then probably the book that is more detailed about certain aspects of Picasso’s personality, Life with Picasso, by Françoise Gilot [an artist who lived with Picasso and had two children with him]. She is alive and living in New York; she is now 96 years old. Charlie Rose interviewed her in 2012 and she was in perfect shape. I don’t know how she is now, but at that time she was still in perfect shape. And then I painted. I wanted to get familiar with brushes and oils and acrylics and all the stuff that surrounds the little things—the manual gestures and mannerisms. I watched some footage; there is not too much footage of him, but there are a lot of pictures. And then I read the scripts, of course!
TV DRAMA: How old is Picasso at the start of the series?
BANDERAS: The first scene that I have, Picasso is 56. He’s still with Marie-Thérèse Walter and already in a relationship with Dora Maar. That is the time of the Spanish Civil War, 1936 to 1939, and there’s the International Exposition [of Art and Technology in Modern Life] in Paris and he’s painting Guernica. That’s the first time that we see the character, and from there, the series goes back and forth in time with flashbacks for the whole series. It’s almost like a Cubist painting during the entire show.
TV DRAMA: As an actor, do you approach a character that existed in real life, such as Picasso or Pancho Villa or Che Guevara, differently from a fictional character that the writer invented?
BANDERAS: Yes, it’s a different approach because there are certain rules you have to respect. And the research is greater because you want to know about the personality of somebody who has existed, especially if you are working with National Geographic because they love to be very factual. Many years ago I did And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, directed by Bruce Beresford for HBO. It was interesting because I studied practically every book, every biography. I talked to historians in Mexico. But the key to my character came from one picture. Pancho Villa was going to be executed one morning—the execution was actually a stunt by President Madero of Mexico at that time—but he was in front of a peloton with weapons pointed at him. The picture shows the attitude that he had in front of the peloton and in front of death; the expression on his face as he was defying these people, I thought, Oh my God! I saw in those eyes and that face all the material that I needed to play that character.
TV DRAMA: With Picasso, who is so iconic, did you feel an extra responsibility in portraying him?
BANDERAS: Absolutely yes, but I feel it before and after a scene. Once they say, “Action!” to me, Picasso is in me. I am Picasso, period, and it lasts until they say, “Cut!” If I am in the middle of a scene, thinking, “The responsibility! I am painting the Guernica!” I couldn’t perform, I would be blocked. You cannot do that. You have to liberate yourself at some point and say, Picasso is me.
TV DRAMA: As you learned new things about Einstein from seeing the first Genius, what did you learn about Picasso?
BANDERAS: He was a very complicated person. Like all human beings, he had his greatness and his miseries, maybe more pronounced than anybody else. He was a very capable human being, very skillful, and that gave him a tremendous amount of security, sometimes even arrogance. On the good side, he was a very creative, curious, free, passionate, impulsive, intelligent and persuasive person. And on the dark side, probably arrogant, egotistical, selfish, vain and conceited. Above all, he was very sincere, and that is a source of a lot of problems sometimes. When you confront life by being absolutely honest and saying what you think at the moment you think it, that can create problems.
TV DRAMA: Is it correct to say that his art was autobiographical? He often painted what he was experiencing, didn’t he?
BANDERAS: Absolutely, you can follow his life through his paintings, even his changes in styles [were triggered by life events]. He got into the Blue Period because of the death of Carlos Casagemas, his best friend who committed suicide in a bar in Paris; [as a result, Picasso] got into a depressive mood for years. Then he went through the Rose Period, which was a happier time. [In protest of] the Spanish Civil War, he painted Guernica and The Weeping Woman. You can see everybody who shared their lives with him, how they influenced him. You see the story of his life as you go through his works of art.
TV DRAMA: He was constantly breaking molds in his art and his personal life. He was not a conventional human being.
BANDERAS: Definitely not, and he was highly criticized for that, too, not only in his time but in our times, too. People look back and have judgments about Picasso that are very strong about his behavior with women and a number of things that he did. He was controversial because he did not play by the rules. He broke them constantly. He was a perfectionist and in a way very unhappy continuously. At times he said things like, I create naturally balanced and beautiful paintings and I have to find something that destroys them. So he was fighting against his own skills, to not be normal, to break the rules of his own paintings.
TV DRAMA: What creative challenges and opportunities does a ten-part series offer you that you don’t have in a two-hour movie?
BANDERAS: Time is the thing that comes to my attention the most. I had done television only once, the Pancho Villa project I referred to before, but I had never done a series of ten episodes. For me, the difference is the time that I have to get deeper into the character, to provide him with more colors. It’s more three-dimensional. If you are telling one specific event, then a movie [provides the] perfect timing, you can explain a lot of things. But if you are telling the life of somebody from beginning to end, the format of ten episodes is perfect because you have time to reflect on the different periods of the person’s life and all the progress and everything that happens.
TV DRAMA: What types of roles interest you? What connection do you need to feel to a character?
BANDERAS: A dramatic connection. I don’t always want to play good guys. Good guys, in fact, are way more boring than villains! Bad guys have more colors, more depth and complexities and are more interesting to play. I’ve played many characters in my life that I didn’t like at all; I wouldn’t even want to be close to them. I would be fearful to be close to somebody like that! But I have to recognize that when I played them they were interesting. For example, in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, that was a character [plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard] that I wouldn’t like to be close to at all. But from my point of view, he was incredibly interesting to play.
TV DRAMA: What was it like working with Ken Biller?
BANDERAS: Ken is a producer on Genius: Picasso, but he directed the first two episodes so he established the bible of the show, the style, how we were going to photograph Picasso young—with cameras in movement—and then the established Picasso, me, with the cameras on tripod, it’s all more academic. Ken was open to listening. Sometimes directors become too overdone with the work. When I see a director who opens an iPad and says, “You have to go to the right and the actress on the left,” ooh, bad! I prefer somebody that comes and talks to the different chiefs of the departments and the actors and then allows different energies on the set. Of course, he is the director and will make the final decision and will establish where the boat has to go. But the boat can go with sails, or we can row, we can go forward in different ways. Ken was the type of director who was open to listening to everybody [about how we would do] a scene.
TV DRAMA: Have you enjoyed Genius: Picasso?
BANDERAS: It’s more than enjoying. I know that I am doing one of those projects—you know when it’s happening—that I will remember forever. I felt that with some Almodóvar projects, playing Zorro, in Evita, [maybe] seven times in my whole life, and I feel that now.