Antonio Banderas is passion. He is emotion. He is, as Saturday Night Live lampooned, how do you say, ah yes, the sexy.
When he talks, as he did last week at Sotheby’s in Manhattan in front of a small collection of real Picassos, he is like a swashbuckling Cheshire cat, with a smirk creeping so high you nearly expect it to leave his face. But then when he’s thoughtful, his brow furrows so intensely that the only explanation for the two extremes is that his face is elastic.
Then there’s that thing that happens when he talks, the slow, deliberate, heavily accented English delivered with a grandness that makes you forget he’s simply answering an interview question and not orating to you, and you only, the greatest story ever told.
Of course, these are the characteristics that make Antonio Banderas Antonio Banderas, the Spanish-born Hollywood crossover who can play seemingly anything: Pedro Almodóvar’s muse, the sensitivity of The Mambo Kings or Philadelphia, the Broadway crooner, a Zorro so Zorro-esque you still think of him as Zorro, a Puss in Boots. They are the characteristics that allow him to play the role that, in many ways, his entire career has led up to: Pablo Picasso, in National Geographic’s second installment of its anthology series, Genius.
This is the third time Banderas has been asked to play Picasso, but the first time he said yes. At any point in his career, the casting would have seemed perfect. Banderas and Picasso both hail from the same Spanish town, Málaga, where the latter’s legacy loomed large Banderas’s entire life. Growing up, his mother often walked him past Picasso’s house, which Banderas can still see from the home he now owns in Málaga.
“I am never tired of talking about Pablo Picasso, because I’ve been talking about him since I was five,” Banderas tells me, chuckling in the face of exhaustion at the end of a grueling press tour. And it’s true, he engages in conversation about the artist with gusto and insight, fully aware of how meaningful it is to finally portray his childhood hero at this point in his life, at age 57, with enough perspective to do the role justice.
It’s a role that has forced him to consider his own past, confront his mortality, challenge his perceptions of a life-long hero, and reckon with what he might want his own legacy as an artist to be. In the age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, this is a series that hails Picasso as a Genius, lionizing his talent but also staying frank about his, subjectively, vile treatment of the women in his life: mistresses, wives, the mothers of his children.
Banderas was ready to do that, and he doesn’t think he would have been before.
“I idolize him, it’s true,” he says. “But I idolize more my professional life. That is over Picasso and over the character that I play.” The other times he was offered the role, he didn’t think he’d be able to get over his admiration of the artist in order to fairly play him, warts and all.
“The idol is still there, but the idol I can see at the museums,” he says. “The other side of it was more unknown to me.”
Genius: Picasso, like last year’s Albert Einstein installment before it, jumps back and forth through decades of Picasso’s life with Alex Rich playing Picasso in his younger days, and Banderas donning prosthetics—jowls, a nose, and a severe gray wig—to transform into the artist in old age. When we see Banderas at Sotheby’s, he has what resembles a buzz cut, his hair still growing back after he shaved it to make the process easier.
As Genius skips through time, we see the various tragedies in Picasso’s life, how an artist’s torture seems to beget later-in-life arrogance, his complicated politics, his existentialism, and how all of that fanned the flames of his womanizing.
When anyone gets older, they experience darkness, they encounter loves and lose loves, they grapple with their health. It gives them greater perspective, and that’s certainly true of Banderas. In 2015, he divorced his wife of nearly 20 years, Melanie Griffith, with whom he had a daughter, Stella, and two stepchildren. He’s since started dating investment adviser Nicole Kimpel, with whom he lives in Surrey, England.
Then about a year and a half ago, during a particularly stressful time in his life—he had filmed seven movies in a year, gotten divorced, and moved to a new country—Banderas suffered a heart attack. In a strange way, it all made getting this third Picasso offer, at this time in his life, creatively serendipitous.
“It’s true that this probably came to me at the right moment,” he says. “It would have been a mistake to take on the character 15 years ago, 20 years ago.” He brings up his heart attack. “You see death closer to you,” he says. “You are getting older. I am two-and-a-half years from being 60. It gives you perspective.”
He’s able to understand the Picasso he plays toward the end of the season, in the last years of his life. It’s made him, too, reflect on his own mortality, and more significantly his present: what’s important in it and what isn’t.
“When you get older, there is more detachment from things that are not useful to you,” he says. “You start throwing out things you have been carrying around your whole entire life, kind of in a backpack. So that when you’re walking with all of this you say, ‘I don’t need this anymore. I can get rid of this and walk a little bit faster.’”
“It’s a type of thing you start to understand, especially after you had a heart attack,” he continues. “When you see death in front of you, it is a type of filter that helps you to see what is the essential. And you actually want to live with the essential.”
If his life-long relationship with Picasso is the major talking point of Banderas’s press tour, then so is reckoning with the artist’s attitude toward women that is not only vehemently at odds with our cultural moment, but with Banderas’s values as well.
As Salma Hayek recounted to The New York Times magazine, he was one of the first friends to call her after reading the essay in which she recounts being harassed by Harvey Weinstein. He offered support, of course, but also regret that she never told him about it when he filmed a cameo in her movie, Frida.
Then there’s Picasso, who once told his mistress Françoise Gilot that “women are machines for suffering,” and has said that there are “only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.” It’s all sparked an interesting conversation surrounding the series: we call this man a genius, but after we grapple with his reckless, misogynistic behavior, should we?
“What I can tell you is that we didn’t try to glorify Pablo Picasso in his personal life,” Banderas says. “We talk about the artist, but it is not a glorification of the character.”
Banderas is hardly the first actor to pledge that when they play a character, they reserve judgment of the figure’s actions.
“There are some things that are very factual,” he says. “He was a very unfaithful man. Definitely. We know that for sure. From that to be an abuser is a long walk. We don’t have reports actually that that happened. So I’m not going to defend him and I’m not going to attack him. I prefer that when the people see the show they have their own opinion.”
He points out that Françoise Gilot, who is still alive at age 96, wrote a tell-all book that exposed Picasso’s behavior, and Picasso never actually defended himself against the accusations she made against him.
“He was attacked sometimes about this particular issue that you mention now, but he never said anything,” Banderas says. “He never defended himself. He never said anything about anything,” including his artwork. Picasso’s politically charged 1937 work Guernica is a major focus of the early episodes of Genius, for example. “When the people ask him, what is the symbolism in the Guernica? What does the bull mean? He always said the bull is a bull, and the horse is a horse, and the woman there with a kid dead is a woman with a kid dead. That’s what it is. So he was very dry in this aspect.”
“I prefer not establishing a trial or judgment of him,” Banderas concludes, “because I am still, even now, trying to understand him.”