Just as Antonio Banderas (62) happily talks about his heart attack, which he survived thanks to his girlfriend’s aspirin tablets and the tubes that the doctors urgently placed in his narrowed coronary arteries, the PR lady tries to end the conversation. That was the last question, she warns the five journalists who were briefly allowed to sit down for an interview with the movie star, due to his starring role in the Spanish comedy Official Competence.
“But that wasn’t my last answer!” the actor says cheerfully, waving her away. “That heart attack was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It’s apparently possible: something appears bad but turns into something good. I saw all the things that I always worry about, fall away one by one.’ Banderas mimes an explosion, his cheeks full. ‘Poof! Politics? Gone! The new car I was going to buy? Gone too! And what’s left: family, my daughter. And not my profession, but my calling. Well, and then I don’t know about it, maybe something with my aura or something, but all of a sudden all kinds of good things came to me. Ron Howard called: do you want to do Picasso? And then Almodóvar called for dolor y gloria. And then Steven Soderbergh too The laundry. And these guys, of course.’
These guys are Argentinian filmmakers Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn. With their satirical film shown in Dutch cinemas from next week Official Competence (official competition) they ridicule the world of film and acting with sardonic pleasure. The Spanish filmmaker Lola Cuevas (played by Penélope Cruz) won the festival awards and obtains the generous financing of a business billionaire, after which the eccentric appearance assembles her feature film as a (acting) duel between the two extremes of the acting landscape. One role for the over-serious stage god Iván Torres, the other for the frivolous Hollywood star Félix Rivero, who drives up to rehearsals in his yellow Ferrari. Two vain men with huge egos, played with visible pleasure by the real Argentinian theater god Oscar Martínez (72) and the real Hollywood star Banderas.
WHO Official Competence You learn that you can never just trust actors at their word: they also act in their spare time. It was a relativistic and sensitive monologue that Banderas just gave to the press, about the lessons of his heart attack and the ‘really important’ things in life. But how do we know if this was not – partially – acted on? “Oh no!”says the actor with an innocent look followed by a laugh.
Muse of Almodóvar
Should someone ever decide that there is a feature film in the life of José Antonio Dominguez Banderas (Banderas for the Stage), the young years of the Málaga-born-and-raised actor seem the most interesting. The genesis of the man who became Pedro Almodóvar’s male muse, the cinematographer who so effusively captured the Spanish counterculture on film during the turbulent years when Spain went from dictatorship to democracy. And how that actor transitioned so smoothly to Hollywood, first without any knowledge of English, after Madonna provided him with extra star appeal by seeing him (and Almodóvar) in her hit documentary In bed with Madonna:’I want to make Antonio fall madly in love with me.’
But everything starts with a broken foot and with it a broken football dream, after which the son of a teacher and an agent of the Guardia Civil joins the local scene, which is still under heavy censorship by the authoritarian Spanish regime. Antonio ends up in prison several times for performing subversive plays (Brecht), much to the dismay of his parents. An attempt to connect with La movida Madrilena, the counterculture in the capital, seems to be failing. Until Antonio, after a hungry year in Madrid, on the very day he wants to travel back to Málaga with dangling legs, runs into the daughter of a well-known stage actress: she gives him an audition.
Shortly afterwards, Antonio is sitting on a terrace with a full mustache due to the stage role he got, and he is joined by a rather strange, fast-talking man who tells him that he has a ‘romantic’ face: would not be a film for him? Oh, it’s Pedro, the bar owner later notes, he wants to make movies but never succeeds.
It’s those burning, passionate eyes, Almodóvar once said, of what drew him to Banderas. “Eyes to build rolls around.”
After a role as a terrorist in Almodóvar’s Laberinto de passions (1982), the alliance takes shape in the erotic thriller monopoly (1986), the comedy-thriller La ley del deseo (1987) and the motley hit comedy Mujeres al borde de un attack de nervios (Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown) from 1988, with which Almodóvar immediately establishes his international reputation. A year later, the early Almodóvar-Bandera tandem ends with the Harvey Weinstein-bought comedy Atame! (Bind me! Tie me down!), where Banderas kidnaps a porn actress as a psychiatric patient. The actor reports to Hollywood, only to reunite decades later with his Spanish discoverer, for La piel que habito (2011).
Official is Official Competence his third film with Cruz, Almodóvar’s second and somewhat later muse. The Spanish actress played the mother in Almodóvar’s autobiographical drama dolor y gloria, in which Banderas himself served as director; the role for which he received his first and only Oscar nomination in 2020. ‘We shared a scene without interaction: I’m just saying cut, as its director. And we were together in that Almodóvar airplane movie, Los amantes pasajeros, but it was just a cameo. So this is our first real collaboration. I met Penélope when she was 18. We were introduced to each other in New York when I had a few days off from the set of Philadelphia (Banderas played the lover of Tom Hanks’ AIDS-infected protagonist, red.). She was dating a Spanish rock star who was in New York. Later I invited her to my home in Los Angeles, where I was already established, so I opened the doors to all the Spaniards who came by. She and Melanie (Griffith, Banderas’ other ex-wife) clicked immediately. And it was great to finally be able to perform with her. We love each other.’
Philadelphia, or rather the night of Oscar-winning Tom Hanks’ starring role, was a defining moment for Banderas. Afterwards at Elton John’s party, at the table with Elton, Bruce Springsteen (Oscar winner with his song The streets of Philadelphia), Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the latter asked the question: do you know Zorro? Yes, he knew Banderas. “Come see me tomorrow,” said Spielberg, “we’ll talk about it.” With the Spielberg-produced hit Zorro’s Mask (and the inevitable sequel The Legend of Zorro) Banderas had been typecast forever: atop the Hollywood studio pile as the sexy-charming Latino man. But what did that mean? Later, Banderas ridiculed that image by lending his voice – with a wearable Spanish accent – to it Puss in Bootsthe lovely Spanish kitten from Shrekwhich was also rewarded with a solo film: another colossal hit.
Back home in Spain, Almodóvar sometimes grumbled in the press about his former protégé: He could do better than what he got in Hollywood. Don’t mind Banderas: Pedro was allowed to say that.
Banderas, when asked if he took fame too seriously at any point in his career, like the actor he plays in Official Competence: ‘No. On the red carpet, you might think you’re special for five minutes. But not afterwards or at work. I’m lucky, that’s how I see it. And acting is a game. The English word is fantastic: to play. The best actors are kids who play cowboys and Indians because they’re totally into it. Is it serious? No, it’s a game. But if you’re as into it as those kids are, people watching you will believe you too. Then you are true.’
Another question from the press: what was the strangest thing a director ever asked him to do, for the shooting of that oeuvre of about one hundred and twenty feature films. ‘Practice. I have been asked many strange things by directors. Injecting heroin, for example, to better understand a character who was addicted. Of course I refused’.
It was not Almodóvar, he emphasizes. ‘Oh no, Pedro would never ask that. Never.’
After his heart attack, Banderas bought a theater in his native Málaga, the Teatro del Soho. He is closely involved in the performances. ‘I believe that the theater matters more than ever in this day and age. In a world where technology plays an increasingly important role, what is not recorded no longer seems to exist. We are busy filming ourselves all day. Theater is pure: you, me, nothing in between. And afterwards it is part of your memory, where it grows inside you. Look, I’m now in a position where I want to enjoy my craft, regardless of what it means for my career. I do not care fuck my career. I want to have fun while shopping. And I do.’