When we last saw Antonio Banderas in a movie by Pedro Almodóvar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), he was playing a beautiful young nut job bent on winning love by taking a woman captive. More than two decades later, Banderas has returned under the director’s wing for a gothic thriller, The Skin I Live In—this time as a beautiful, middle-aged nut job determined to win his captive’s love.
“It took us a week or ten days to get used to each other again,” Almodóvar says, “but then everything picked up from the same point we left off at 21 years ago.”
“You know, you arrive at such a long-postponed encounter with a certain trepidation,” Banderas adds. “You think, Maybe things have changed. But then I saw that Pedro hadn’t gone bourgeois at all, and my fears dissipated.” While Banderas fretted that Almodóvar might have softened, the filmmaker worried that the actor he remembered as a kid from the southern Spanish city of Málaga might have grown less malleable in Hollywood.
“After he read the script, Antonio said, ‘Pedro, I’m putting myself in your hands, and we’ll do exactly what you want,’ ” Almodóvar recalls. “I wasn’t totally sure that was genuine, but when we started rehearsals, I saw that our relationship had remained the same. He didn’t even complain about the size of his trailer.”
In the eighties and nineties, Banderas was practically Almodóvar’s creation, bursting with carnal energy but willing to let the Madrid magus dictate his every gesture and inflection. Then he abandoned Spain for America, at first parroting his way through English lines that, to him, were just chains of meaningless phonemes. Since then, he has played a swashbuckling revolutionary (in Evita), a swashbuckling avenger (in The Mask of Zorro), and a swashbuckling pussycat (in Shrek). (He also learned fluent English, but he’s still relieved to discover that this three-way conversation is happening in Spanish.)
For The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar cast Banderas as Robert Ledgard, a tightly wound surgeon who conducts genetic experiments and high-risk operations in his villa outside Toledo, and observes his prize patient in high definition on a wall-size screen in his bedroom. Banderas, relishing the prospect of another garish Almodóvar romp, couldn’t wait to unleash a full-blown crazy act.
Now, though, the director wanted something utterly different: a restrained, quiet kind of creepiness, without shouting or blood or explosions of color. “I decided to make the tone of this movie very somber, very austere,” Almodóvar says. “So Antonio, you remember, I had to scrub expressions from your face. Give me less, I kept saying. Less! Keep your face empty. It’s that emptiness that causes fear. You hadn’t worked that way before, and certainly not with me.”
Banderas can hardly restrain himself from cutting off his former mentor in order to agree with him, furiously. “As an actor, when you encounter a psychopathic personality, you naturally want to make him ‘bigger than life,’ as the Americans say. Pedro wanted me to develop the character through economy of interpretation, to make him a kind of minimalist object, which clashed with my natural animal tendencies. But he won that battle, and I’m glad he did, because he drew notes out of me that I didn’t even know I had.”
Where once he flexed and mugged and pranced, in this film he moves with a feline prowl, his speech clinical, his face an unrevealing mask. Banderas brings up a scene in which his character confronts his victim with an array of dildos and instructs her on their use in the murmured tones of a family doctor prescribing antibiotics.
“Not dildos,” Almodóvar interjects. “Dilators.”
Soon, the conversation veers into a café-table discussion of craft and career, with detours into the omnivorousness of Michael Caine’s taste in roles and the pathological relationship between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. The two men agree that making a boatload of junky movies, along with some good ones, has been essential to Banderas’s artistic development. “The most complete school is experience with every genre,” Almodóvar insists, “and a character in a mainstream movie can be just as complicated to create as in a Bergman film.” Perhaps even the path to Lear wends through Puss in Boots.
It’s hard not to be struck by the strangeness of this amiable banter passing between an auteur and the creature he molded all those years ago. Almodóvar acknowledges a kinship between himself and the Frankensteinian Dr. Ledgard: “It can seem as if I’m creating a character for my own pleasure. It’s true: A director is like a scientist transforming an actor into a completely different person. The difference is that hopefully both sides agree to make that happen.”