Spanish actor Antonio Banderas is known for his collaborations with heavyweight directors like Pedro Almodovar and Robert Rodriguez, his star-making role as the masked Zorro, and even as the husky voice behind the animated Puss in Boots character from the Shrek films. Now, he’s set to take on one of his most ambitious parts, that of Pablo Picasso. The groundbreaking painter was born two blocks away from where Banderas grew up in Málaga. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the hefty role that spans fifty years of the artist’s life, but at a Q&A following the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of National Geographic’s Genius: Picasso, Banderas confessed that he’d said no before. “I was really afraid of playing him. Some other times in my life, I didn’t feel prepared. He was so big, he was such a big figure for me. So complicated and at the same time because he was from my hometown, I felt a double sense of responsibility. ”
In a moment of reflection, Banderas went on to explain why he finally felt ready to say yes. “I am two and a half years from being sixty. I have more experience now. Some of the fears disappeared. I had a heart attack a year and a half ago, and I saw the face of death. And then you know, people like Ron Howard came to me, knocking at the door, with Picasso in their hands and National Geographic behind [it], which offers a lot of credibility and prestige. And I said, ‘If I don’t do it now, I better close the door to Picasso and I can go and see him and enjoy him at the museums.’ So I decided to jump and here we are.”
In the series that deftly weaves backwards and forwards in time, Banderas plays Picasso from his mid-forties till his death in his nineties. His younger counterpart is brought to life by Alex Rich. When asked if they worked together to form one singular character, Banderas explained “We were looking at each other in a very unhealthy way.” The two would observe each other’s movements and gestures. Rich explained that he spent a lot of time listening to how the Spanish actor talks, trying to soak up his accent. Banderas set off a roar of laughter from the crowd when he shared: “I started listening to him and he started sounding like me and I said, “Hey, you are starting to sound like Puss in Boots.”
The second season of Genius, with its focus on one of the 20th century’s most influential painters, demanded a unique visual look to reflect their subject’s creativity and revolutionary aesthetics. The first episode brings you back and forth between older Picasso debating how to fight fascism in Spain with his art, and young Picasso trying to find his unique voice as a painter. It begins with his birth, jumps forward to a bullfight when young Pablo was only seven, cuts to his younger sister dying of diphtheria – a event that will mark his life forever – and then moves quickly ahead to his teen years when Picasso dreamed of studying at the Royal Academy. There are slow moody scenes with classical score, then dizzying edits with black-and-white sequences, or scenes that are splattered with paint – they all reflect the artist’s varying moods. What’s very clear, even from the first hour of the show, is that Pablo Picasso embodies the title of the show: genius.
Back at Tribeca, Banderas pondered on what it means to have this sought-after quality: “A genius is almost like a pathology. There are people who are capable of doing very important things… that is actually going to affect a very large number of people all around the world… But they do a lot of damage to the people that are surrounding them. They are egotistical. They are really arrogant. They are really difficult. That was the most surprising thing to discover.”
Genius: Picasso premieres April 24 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic