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Antonio Banderas On 'Pain And Glory,' Working With Pedro Almodóvar

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Few people have had quite so much fun on screen as Antonio Banderas.


ANTONIO BANDERAS: (As Puss In Boots, laughter) Fear me, if you dare.

MIKE MYERS: (As Shrek) Hey, look, a little cat.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).


BANDERAS: (As El Mariachi) Let's play.

INSKEEP: We're hearing Banderas in "Shrek 2," "The Mask Of Zorro" and then in "Desperado" where he shared the screen with the likes of Salma Hayek and Steve Buscemi. The Spanish actor has done a little of everything on screen, but not until now, at the age of 59, has he received an Oscar nomination. He is up for best actor for his role in "Pain And Glory," a film more serious than some in his past. He plays an aging film director living with physical pain and equally painful memories. Some parts of this movie are loosely based on the life of the director of the film who also wrote it, Pedro Almodovar. This acclaimed filmmaker has been like an older brother to Banderas who now, in effect, plays his mentor on screen.

BANDERAS: The director, Pedro Almodovar, you know, I've met him 40 years ago. We have done eight movies together. Probably he's the director that better knows me and better knows how to actually explore my acting abilities and take the best out of me, even things that I didn't even suspect that I had inside.

INSKEEP: But if Pedro Almodovar understood the actor, the actor admits he did not fully understand Almodovar. Antonio Banderas says he worked with the director for years without quite knowing how much personal anguish he suffered.

BANDERAS: You know, every time that I called him, he was telling me that he didn't see many people, that he got this pain, that he got to go into an operation for his back. Then he got to do this and that and medicines. And it was all about. And, you know, common friends that we had, they said to me, no, he's not coming out. He's just living like a monk in his house. And so, yeah, that's absolutely true. That part of the movie is true. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you not understand why it was that he was isolating himself? Did he somewhat hide his pain, mental or physical, from you?

BANDERAS: In a way. You know, it was surprising to me when I read the script for the first time that there were a number of things that for me were like empty spaces that I didn't know. There were certain things that he wanted to say to his mother that he never did. And then the mother died probably without hearing things that are said in the movie to her. So - and I knew that was emotionally very strong for him to say.

You know, during the whole entire process of the movie, I could see - almost like in therapy - that Almodovar was just taking weight out of his shoulders by saying things that he never said and by doing things that he never did. And I think that's what the movie is all about. It's just about looking back and trying just to fulfill those empty spaces in the parcel (ph) of your life.

INSKEEP: This is really profound because many of us understand how just saying things out loud, talking things through can make you...


INSKEEP: ...Feel better. But in this instance, he's having you say those things for him on screen in imagination.

BANDERAS: Yeah, and also sharing with audiences all around the world. And the reason of that is because life, to Pedro, is cinema. He lives through his art. He lives through movies. That is the center of this man life and is his therapy and is his medicine.

INSKEEP: Would you give an example of something that he wanted to tell his mother that he scripted for you and that you said on screen?

BANDERAS: Being homosexual in Spain in 1950s and the beginning of the '60s when he was a kid must have been torture because Spain was, at that time, in a dictatorship. The country was very conservative. So there is a scene in which he says to his mother, Mother, I'm so sorry that I am not the son that you expected me to be - because he was living in a little village. His father was a peasant. You know, in the little village, there is no place to hide...


BANDERAS: ...So he suffer very much, you know, the type of very early isolation, including his family. But he never said that to her. And it was very emotional because when he came to the set and read with the actors before we start actually shooting the scene, he came and he read the character of my mother first. And, you know, I was just giving him - feeling the lines of my character. And then he was going to read my character, and he couldn't. He couldn't say the line. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Were there experiences of your own that you drew on in recreating or creating this character of an aging director?

BANDERAS: Absolutely. Something happened to my life, and, you know, I've been talking very openly about it. I had a heart attack three years ago. We are all conscious that we are going to die since we, you know, can use our reason in our brain. But when you see it very close, when you see the face of death very close to you, it change completely the meaning of your life. The priorities order change completely. And you put attentions to things that are essential and very simple.

That heart attack, in a way, helped me to find myself. It's one of the best things that ever happened in my life, I have to say that. And Almodovar saw it. Pedro Almodovar saw it. And he said to me, there is something that changed, and I want that in my movie. I don't want you to hide it. I don't want you to just try to overcome in front of the camera. Show it. Please, show it.

INSKEEP: We should mention you've never - acclaimed career. You have never had an Oscar, right?

BANDERAS: No. No. I was never nominated for an Academy Award. I've been nominated five time for Golden Globes, for Tonys, for Emmys, for SAG, for - you know, you name it. No, no. I've been an eternal nominee, which is great, you know? I mean, I was very happy with those nominations because they came through a period of time of four decades...


BANDERAS: ...Forty years. So it kept me, you know, in the cream, you want to call it (laughter)...

INSKEEP: Oh, the cream of the crop is what you're saying...

BANDERAS: Yeah. Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: ...The best...


INSKEEP: It was clear that you were among the best, even if you did not get the Oscar.

BANDERAS: Yeah. But I never receive an Academy Award nomination. And I have to say, I was not expecting it. Why? Because, you know, I am speaking Spanish, and I am in a little production and because I've been in the theater. I have been performing for the last three months. And so I thought, no, it's not going to happen, but it did. It was a gift at this particular time in my life in which I'm going to be 60 this year. So I'm very thankful. And it's a sweet feeling. What the heck? Yeah.

INSKEEP: Antonio Banderas, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

BANDERAS: Same here, man.


INSKEEP: Antonio Banderas, who is one of five nominees for best actor for his role in "Pain And Glory" - currently in theaters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.