When Antonio Banderas agreed to play Picasso for National Geographic’s second season of Genius, it was with the proviso that the show be entirely true to the real life of the artist. Having grown up in Picasso’s hometown of Malaga in Spain, Banderas had a personal stake in that piece of history, and had in fact turned down a previous offer of the role in a different production for fear it wouldn’t do the man justice. Imbued with reverence for the painter from a very early age, telling his story had been a long-held dream for Banderas.
Do you remember the first piece of art you loved?
Yes, but it was for its sexual content: the Three Graces by Rubens. I remember that it was in a book that my father had, and I was very young. I must have been six years old, but they impressed me. It aroused me just to see these three women holding each other like that, totally naked. That was the first impact that I received from art. It was from the sexual side of it.
Was your family very interested in art?
My father and my mother were very much theater aficionados; they took my brother and I very early on to see things that came from Madrid or Barcelona to Malaga. That for me was absolutely a discovery—all those incredible images. I immediately understood the ritual that was happening [on the stage], an almost religious thing in which people are at an altar telling a story to other people who accept the game of listening.
When did you decide to act?
It took a little time for me to rationalize that feeling of wanting to be an actor because for me it was forbidden—I mean, prohibited. It was already decided that I would be a policeman, secret police. To live in Madrid and be an actor was something not done. Imagine the tribulation when I realized that I want to be them. I didn’t want to say that to my father and my mother. It was like coming out of the closet.
I remember one day I said to my mother and my father, “I’m leaving and I’m going to Madrid. I’m going to try to be a professional actor.” My mother said, “Oh my god! You’re kidding me.” I put together $100. My mother, you know what she did? She sewed pockets inside my pants because she thought that that way if they got stolen, they wouldn’t find the money. It was really uncomfortable because if I went to a bar to grab a coffee, I’d have to go to the bathroom just to pay. I had to take the pants off to open the pockets and get to the money.
How long did a hundred dollars last?
One day I was completely desperate and I thought, OK, this is it. My adventure’s going to finish here. I have to go back to Malaga. This is not happening. I took the staircase and I was almost on the street and there was a woman who was a secretary in the National Theatre, but I knew that she was the daughter of a very famous Spanish actor. I caught up to her. She was called Alicia Moreno. I said, “I’m José Antonio Domínguez Banderas, what should I do to work in the National Theatre?” She laughed and said, “OK, do you have a telephone number?” I said, “No, but I can give you a telephone number of a friend of mine.”
Two days after, this friend that had the telephone came and shouted, “Antonio, come down. They’re calling you from the National Theatre for a test.” For a play called La Hija del Aire by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. They tested me, and two months after, I started working there.
You don’t know how many times in my life I questioned myself. If I didn’t turn around in that staircase that night, would I be talking to you right now? Would I be in Los Angeles? I like those things. If Carlos Casagemas didn’t commit suicide and Pablo Picasso didn’t get depressed, and the Blue Period doesn’t exist, what would’ve happened? Would we be doing a series about Picasso? So, all our lives are made of these moments, these moments when we turn around and suddenly something happens. We call it destiny, right?
Picasso hurt a lot of people, but we seem to forgive artists that. Do you see that in the world?
I forgive him, yes, but I was not a victim of him. I guess I forgive him because he never tried to justify anything that he did. He never came to anyone and said, “Well, no, I wasn’t an assh*le with you.” He just assumed that he hurt people and said, “This is me. You take it, you leave it.”
I don’t think he was cruel for being cruel. Genius is a pathology and I think there are some who are sick with that. They are very capable of doing certain things that affect a really large number of people for good. They influence art and science, but at the same time it comes with a price. We always talk about his behavior with women. It was the behavior of him with everybody; men and women. He fought some of his best friends, too. He fought Matisse, who was his dear friend; he loved him a lot. With Chagall they didn’t even talk anymore, and at the end what was the price? Solitude.
Are you religious?
Yes. I do believe; I feel comfortable living in the mystery. I am not someone to say that we know everything. I do believe in karma, though. If you create a negative environment around you, bad things are going to start going there, and if you are positive, good things are going to come. Sometimes bad things happen for a reason. I had a heart attack a year and four months ago, and it was so interesting what happened to me. I really don’t regret that. I’m happy that it happened, because it taught me that the only thing that is really, really perfect is death. That’s perfect and everything else is uncertain. You say, “Oh, I got you, so I’m going to spend every speck of the day just enjoying life, and doing exactly that thing that I want to do,” because it comes. It comes to everyone.
What did your heart attack make you appreciate in your life specifically?
I knew what important things were and you realize they are the most simple ones; friendship and family pretty much. If you have that, you have everything. Money became the least important thing, big time. Money went down to place number 35. It’s true that I have stopped smoking, and that was probably the stupidest thing that I was doing before, but then I said, “No. I want to continue living, doing what I want to do.” And if death comes a little bit before, fine, but if I have to live like I’m dead, to die ten years after, what’s the point? No, I want to live life fully. That’s what it is.