Entertainment & Arts

Banderas returns to Spanish roots

Image caption Antonio Banderas plays a Dr Frankenstein-like character in The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas is known to audiences for playing the swashbuckling Zorro or the sly voice of Puss in the Shrek franchise.

But after more than 20 years, the actor has returned to his Spanish roots and the director who gave him his international break - Pedro Almodovar.

Banderas plays a psychopathic doctor in Almodovar's new film The Skin I Live In.

Their last collaboration was Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! back in 1990, when a young Banderas played a recently released psychiatric patient called Ricky.

It was a performance which put him on a trajectory towards Hollywood, where he now lives with his wife, actress Melanie Griffiths. But the 50-year-old wanted to return to an edgier kind of film-making.

"I just needed it after so many years in America," he says. "They make beautiful movies there but they play it safer.

"Maybe it's because of the money that's involved, but for a director like Pedro, money is just for creation, it's about exploring and experimentation.

"Experimenting is a forbidden word in the United States. You say, 'It's an experimental movie,' and you're kicked out."

Banderas plays a Dr Frankenstein-like character, Robert Ledgard, who is holding a beautiful patient, Vera, captive in his house while he experiments with skin grafts.

For much of the movie, Vera - played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya - wears a skin-coloured bodysuit.

Almodovar describes it as "a horror film without any blood", and Banderas agrees.

"Pedro wanted me to show the monster within, to play the character so that even when I am doing terrible things, I would seem like a family doctor prescribing aspirin."

Almodovar, 61, is Spain's most prolific director, first coming to international attention with the grimly comic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988.

Worldwide success came with movies like All About My Mother and Talk to Her, for which he won a best screenplay Oscar in 2002.

Almodovar the 'genre'

He is also a starmaker. As well as launching Banderas's career in the United States, he brought Penelope Cruz to the attention of Hollywood producers and secured her an Oscar nomination with his film Volver.

Image caption Pedro Almodovar pushes his stars to the limit, says Banderas

His movies share certain characteristics: high melodrama, vivid colours, identity issues and mental instability. He dropped his first name from his credits a long time ago.

"He is a genre in himself," says Banderas. "It used to happen with directors like Fellini, that you would explain away what you see as, 'oh, it's a Fellini film'.

"The same thing now happens with Almodovar. I think it's priceless in our day when so much cinema is just a pattern."

Almodovar argues that he never "sets out to be deliberately outrageous, or to provoke, although I maybe want to provoke sympathy for an outrageous character.

"I like it if people are still trying to work out what went on in my movie days after seeing it."

But being described as a "genre" also insinuates seeing the same thing repeatedly - and the classic Almodovar characteristics can also tip into self-indulgence, according to some critics.

Not all his films have achieved success, including his most recent movie with Banderas, Tie Me Up Tie Me Down!, which was described as "too strange".

Even his first film with Penelope Cruz - 1997's Live Flesh - did not translate to great box office.

2004's Bad Education, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, was criticised in some quarters as being Almodovar's "flabby" exploration of parts of his own childhood.

'Suicidal' directing

However, when The Skin I Live In was presented at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it received almost uniformly positive reviews.

In its write-up, The Telegraph described it as "the work of the master near the top of his game".

"He is not as baroque as he used to be," Banderas replied, when asked if Almodovar had changed much in the intervening two decades.

Image caption Banderas (with co-star Elena Anaya) returned "refreshed" to make Puss in Boots In Hollywood

"He is more profound in certain ways, more serious, more solid as a director. But he still has the same engine - the same alive personality.

"Sometimes I feel he is almost suicidal on what he is trying to achieve on screen.

"I kept saying on set, 'Can I do that? Can I really just go out there and put my arm inside the mouth of this lion?'"

For Banderas, The Skin I Live In might be a welcome interruption to his normal Hollywood schedule. His next film - Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots - will find him in more familiar mode.

"I enjoy my profession, and a movie can serve many purposes," he says. "But by working again with Pedro, it was refreshing.

"It was to get out of the pattern I have been playing for the last 20 years and to do something where I recognise my roots and the taste of acid in my mouth.

"It's the bitter but good taste of danger when you're going to places you've never been before."

The Skin I Live In is out in the UK on 26 August.

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