Antonio Banderas faces facts

October 13, 2011


The question to actor Antonio Banderas, “How crazy is this guy?”, referred to his character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, in his new film, “The Skin I Live In.”

But Banderas assumed it referred to his longtime friend and the director of the film, Pedro Almodovar, and happily launched into an answer.

“He’s enough crazy to break all Spanish strictures of movies in the 1980s,” Banderas, 51, says, sitting in a Manhattan hotel room. “My memory goes back to the decade of craziness in a country that was growing from a dictatorship to democracy. It was not as crazy as people think. But let’s just say his mental health is perfect in its craziness.”

When corrected and told the question referred to his character in his new film, Banderas quickly says, “Oh, he’s a monster, a psychopath. But he’s deceptive because he has such wonderful behavior in society. He’s like one of those serial killers who, after they’re caught, people say, ‘Oh, he was so charming, so nice.’ He leads a double life.”

In the film, Ledgard is a plastic surgeon still recovering from the death of his wife. When his daughter is raped and loses her mind, he begins a very calculated plan to take revenge. At the same time, he is developing a new synthetic skin that blends human and porcine DNA, to create a skin that is impervious to flame (because his wife committed suicide after being badly burned and seeing herself in a mirror).

“But the character is also a metaphor,” Banderas says. “He is a monster but he is also an artist. Life gives him the ability to create identities, to change identities. I’d say he’s a little bit like Pedro.”

When he first read the script, “I had the same relationship to it as the audience does when it sees the film,” Banderas says. “I laughed, I was scared – the whole thing is like traveling on the edge of a cliff.”

Banderas worked several times for Almodovar in the 1980s, when the director was exploding on to both the Spanish and the international scene, in films such as “Labyrinth of Passion,” “Matador” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The last time was the censor-baiting “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” in 1990 – but when Banderas reunited with his old mentor, he found that much of what he remembered about the director had not changed.

“He’s very difficult to work with because he’s unbelievably precise in what he wants,” Banderas says. “He’s not the type of director who lets you put in your ideas. He’ll listen and say, ‘I understand but my idea is to do it this way and I am the director, so you should do exactly what I want.’”

For this role, Banderas was required to maintain an almost flat affect, without emotional outbursts of any kind. His character is completely serious at all times: “It was almost like quantum-physics acting, because he was precise in a kind of micro-world: how I moved my finger, how I moved my face. These are the kind of things that actors coming from the Method would reject.

“But it’s fantastic, in a way. Because, when I saw the finished film, I realized he was right. He made me play it with only my instrument, my body and my face, and I found notes I didn’t know I had. It was painful because when you discover a new space, you feel naked and insecure. Your instinct is to let the horses go; when you read it, the character seems larger than life and you want to go big. The difficult thing is to contain that.”

Almodovar’s film touches on issues dealing with identity: who are you if you no longer have your own face, how big a role does gender play in a person’s identity. One character undergoes involuntary transformation through cosmetic surgery, an idea that horrifies Banderas.

“If I woke up and looked in the mirror and saw someone else’s face, I would jump out a window,” he says. “That would freak me out beyond my experience.

“On the other hand, if I could wear someone else’s face by choice – well, this will sound weird, but I would like to be what I am not, to be in the body of the thing I love but can’t be: I would like to be a woman, but for no longer than a week. I’d like to experience how it feels from the inside out. I love that idea of seeing it from the inside out.”

But Banderas is quick to note that he has no interest in cosmetic surgery for himself: “I’d never do it,” he says.

“It has taken me years to accomplish this,” he says, gesturing to his face and physique. “Human beings have to work with what we are. Our experience is reflected in our face.

“For other people who feel different, I make no judgment. Hollywood – and society – put a lot of pressure on people to be more beautiful, to be younger all the time, which is totally against nature. Beauty, of course, is subjective for everybody. But I like the fact that I have gray hair now. It gives me some kind of degree, I think. Age is good. I take it like a man.”

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