In the early nineties there was a saying that half the world wanted to be Antonio Banderas, while the other half wanted to sleep with him. His reputation was built through his work with Spanish directing maestro Pedro Almodóvar, who was also fast establishing a name for himself. Films like Matador (1986) and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1990) helped launch Banderas internationally as cinema’s go-to Latin Lover and for two decades since, he’s been Spain’s major export to Hollywood. But in the movie version of the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, The Skin I Live In finally sees the long-awaited reteaming of the actor with Almodóvar, with Banderas playing Robert Ledgard, a leading plastic surgeon who’s latest patient is his greatest work yet, a product of Dr Frankstein-esque genius and dark, twisted obsession.
We caught up with the Malaga-born 51-year actor at Cannes Film Festival to talk about his reunion with Almodóvar in the director’s most outlandish film yet.
David Michael: I remember speaking to you about five years ago and this was the film you described then, when I asked you about your next project. Then it was going to star Penelope Cruz, but obviously it didn’t work out then. Did you think it was lost?
Antonio Banderas: I thought at some point it was lost. I think it was seven years ago that Pedro offered me the role. We were in Cannes at the Hotel Du Cap when I was in town for Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, and he told me its extraordinary story. Then I heard nothing, until two years ago. I remember getting into my car on a snowy day in New York, then the phone rang and it was Pedro, telling me ‘It’s time!” And I said, ‘yes’. So he sent me the script.
Had anything changed from when he first told you about the role?
I thought he was going to do a linear story from beginning to end, but he plays a game with the audience that is very interesting… The fact that you are questioning yourself about what is the relationship between the patient and my character? Why are they talking about a past we don’t know? He’s created a movie that is basically a huge question for the first hour, and then he starts giving answers through the two main characters point-of-view. I thought it was very original. Not so much for the use of flashbacks, but to put the answers so late in the story, it hooks you in a totally different way. Of course, I will never have that experience, because if you know the fundamental premise…
Neither will I… because you told me the film’s whole story five years ago!
Yeah, and you know what, Pedro was going to kill me for that! If you know it, it’s difficult to watch purely. It’s an experience I’d love to have, but obviously never will. I need to meet one of those men in Men in Black and have my memory erased.
How believable do you think your character is?
The story has a certain amount of science fiction, so you have to get into that convention. There’s face transplants and other things today, but the results are still very far away from this film, maybe it’s 30 years ahead [of time]. Going from there, Pedro was very careful not to make a monster out of my character. The material is there to play a very theatrical character who’s an ego-maniac and a fascist, and go into the whole Frankenstein operatic thing. But Pedro didn’t want to show the monster. He told me to take it down and play it economical, minimalist and very controlled. He would tell me to do it like I’m a family doctor prescribing aspirins.
So looking back how was the experience of working again with Pedro after all these years?
It was refreshing in a way, because I found the essence of what I had left behind in 1989, the last time I shot with him. I’m very thankful for 22-years of working in the American industry; they work in a totally different way where money is the centre of everything, so going back to Almodóvar has been like having a glass of water in the desert. But it’s not easy, because Pedro is a very difficult director.
In what way?
He doesn’t make things easy for the actors, he’s very demanding and he’s unbelievably specific to the extent of detail you wouldn’t even believe. You’ll have a long intense conversation about how you should position your finger! When I was starting to feel flat playing this character so controlled, it becomes almost a religious thing; it’s almost like an act of faith. You have to close your eyes and believe in the person you have in front of you. Pedro is maybe the person I believe the most in my career.
Was there any change from the Pedro of before?
This time I found he was content. More serious and complex, maybe. More profound in certain areas. And in the shape and form of the film, more minimalist and austere.
The film also works as a social commentary on the increased popularity of plastic surgery and moral ramifications of science…
It’s something that has to do with the pressure we are inflicting on ourselves. Beauty has increasingly become a focus in life. You watch TV ads, and even people would work in banks and supermarkets have to be beautiful. Imagine in Hollywood where your entire career is invested in your age. When you start to get to 40 the pressure is very cruel, especially with women. It’s scary when you try to analyse it, but that’s the way it is and it’ll get worse. It won’t just be about beauty, it will be directly linked with life. In 25-30 years from now, they may offer us the possibility to live longer. That’s going to open up a total new morality conflict, because who’s going to be able to afford it? It becomes another source of discrimination too – the rich live and the poor die.
Words: David Michael