Antonio Banderas’ performance of artist Pablo Picasso has stunned viewers worldwide. Fabián W. Waintal interviews the Spanish-born actor as he takes on the role of the eccentric genius who lived a few blocks down the road
Playing Picasso on a TV series for National Geographic – knowing that he was born in Malaga, Spain – is a big deal, isn’t it?
I was born in a country under a dictatorship. General Franco was in power and Picasso died by the time I was 15 years old. We didn’t have many international heroes at the time, not in Spain and definitely not in Malaga. Too many of the intellectuals and painters, poets, and writers that were living outside of Spain in exile disappeared, but he couldn’t do that with Picasso. He was just too big of a persona to thwart out. He probably covered the fact that he, at the time, was part of a communist party. But we knew that there was a painter out there who was born in Malaga and in my particular case, lived two blocks from where I was born. That made a big splash in the world, especially my generation. He became our idol. We thought of Picasso like the person you want to become. He escaped the aura of the dictatorship, this estate of anaesthesia in which we were living in, with these paintings in the ‘60s and the ‘70s.
Do you think that Picasso lived to enjoy people’s appreciation for his art?
Unfortunately, Picasso died in Mougins on April 8, 1973 and Franco died November 20, 1975. So we didn’t have the opportunity of giving Picasso the applause that the Spanish people wanted to give him. The people from our hometown, we wanted just to receive him and say, “we love you, man.” That didn’t happen. So that was pretty much the context. That was the relationship that I had with this man. He was kind of the hero that escaped everything that Franco was trying to keep enclosed. Is it true that you had the opportunity to play him before, but you never felt like it was the right time?
Yes. I was really afraid of playing Picasso. I didn’t feel prepared. He was such a big figure for me, so complex. And at the same time, because he was from my hometown, I felt an added sense of responsibility towards authenticity. What if I don’t portray him right? What if I don’t get a grip on the character that he is, because Picasso was a very mysterious man. Even after playing him every day for five months, reading every possible book written on him, watching footage of his life and talking to his family and friends, the mystery lingers. I think that was his nature to the people that surrounded him, that were with him. I think he was an enigma even to his own self. This is why I was hesitant to play him.
Why did you agree this time?
I am close to being 60 and have plenty more acting experience now. Naturally, some of my fears have disappeared. I had a heart attack a year and a half ago. I saw the face of death. And then people like Ron Howard and Ken Biller came to me, knocking at the door with Picasso in their hands along with National Geographic, which offers a lot of credibility and prestige. I said, “If I don’t do it now, I better close the door to Picasso and be happy with enjoying his work just at museums. So I decided to take the leap of faith.
Did you compare notes with the other actor, Alex Rich, who played the younger version of Picasso?
It is ironic but we used to scrutinise each other in an almost unhealthy manner, becoming critical of one another. We then began mimicking the other’s ways and examining what we did. One day I started listening to him and he sounded like me in an uncanny way. I said, “oh, my God, he’s starting to sound like Puss in the Boots.” Little by little he started just adopting all of these things.
Did you take any part in the casting process to find someone who would look like you, like Alex Rich?
No, but they showed me the auditions of several actors who were supposed to play young Picasso and Alex was there. It was clear from the beginning and I just knew this is the guy. It’s beautiful because I see myself in him in many aspects.
And the same way people remember you as Zorro or the Mariachi, do you remember the actors by their roles?
I see a lot of faces and souls and I see my fellow actors, mainly all the women that we fought all the time, and we love each other and we were just in many different situations. I see them, the actors, but I see the characters that they represent, and I see people. Now that you finish the TV series, at the end of the day is the acting job any different than a movie?
In a movie, it’s different. You don’t have the time that we have, but these five weeks, these ten episodes, the level of world that we have achieved, waking up at 2am in the morning to start the day, sitting for five hours in a chair with the same person and then working for 10 hours consecutively was very hard.
How was it for you to relive that era of Franco, with the bombing of his own people on the first episode, when Picasso painted The Guernica?
It’s quite emotional. The Guernica is a symbol, an icon for many people all around the world. At the beginning, the government of Spain was not in Madrid. It was in Valencia because Spain was in the middle of the civil war. So a guy by the name of Josep Maria Sert travelled to ask Picasso to paint a mural for the universal exposition of Paris in 1937. In the middle of this kind of tribulation between the Spaniard Republic and Picasso, Guernica was bombed by the Condor Legion – a squad of planes from Germany that were rehearsing in Spain where they practiced later on in the second world war. They killed an incredible amount of people in the village of Guernica and more in Spain. Picasso saw that and it’s true that actually Dora Maar (French photographer, painter, poet and his lover and muse) pushed him to react because Picasso was kind of passive at that point. There was even a letter from The New York Times complaining about the passivity of Pablo Picasso. “What are you doing?” they said. So he wrote something and said, “Okay, I’m going to paint this. I’m going to need a big canvas. I’m going to do this painting.” Does the series reveal Picasso’s political ideas too?
He didn’t feel like doing a propaganda. Picasso was a very particular man. He offered some sketches that he had against violence, against military, things like that. They didn’t accept that. Dora Maar took seven pictures of it. They were very famous because you could see the process of the Guernica. In one of those pictures, I think number three or four, he took a position politically. He took a position in terms of ideology and put a fist in the middle of the painting. At some point, he realised that that was going to take that painting in one direction and so he erased it and changed it for a lantern. It is held by one of the characters in the painting in the middle, and is quite prominent. The painting got international exposure and is quite relevant even today. If you see on television or the war of Syria, for example, the bombings that are happening, the Guernica still has something to say about that. It’s a painting that transcends time, and ideologies.
How did you imagine yourself as Picasso?
We worked on that for five months, trying to imagine him and portray him with respect. Not with respect for the character itself, but for the truth, to be fair to him. That was, for me, the most important element of the show. Don’t fail the character, don’t fail its time, don’t fail the people that surrounded him. It was almost like an obsession during the entire time.
Do you share his political ideas too?
I tried to leave aside all the morality issues and judgment of the character. That would be against acting and performing it.
What does Pablo Picasso mean for the Antonio Banderas of today?
We’re a bunch of people just putting things in a pot, and to my fellow actors, just trying to understand. We know – I said this many times but it’s true – we know what Picasso did and we know what Picasso said. What we don’t know completely is why?
To get into character, did you study other artists?
I had the opportunity to play Salvador Dali. I got offered the role like 12 years ago. In the end I didn’t end up taking it. At that time, I studied Dali very much and started painting and approaching the character. But it’s completely different because Picasso was in a different universe. Dali created a character to express himself. It was a completely different approach. So no, I didn’t approach a specific artist in order to play Picasso. Do you know what the relationship was like between Picasso and the other artists he met?
I was conscious of the artists that surrounded Picasso at that time. Their relationships were complicated and slightly torturous because he fought with all of them including his dear friend Matisse. There was only one painter that he was afraid of. He was the only one that actually could shadow him a little bit. So, he criticised whatever he did. Many painters of Picasso’s time, just to understand how powerful the guy was, hid the latest paintings that they were creating whenever he visited their studios. They feared that if Picasso took a look at them, he could reproduce a better version of the same. So they hid everything under their beds because Picasso was coming. He was a sponge.
If you had to pick one thing or a circumstance, what is it about Picasso that inspired you?
It is very difficult to pick just one out of the many, but it’s probably the moment that is invisible to many people, when he decided to take a leap in the future and paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That was the beginning of how the history of modern art began to transform. He hid it for 10 years. He only showed it to very dear friends of his. So it was that moment, the one he actually hid from everybody, that kind of inspiration of saying, “I’m going to do something that nobody did before.”