The acclaimed Spanish filmmaker also reflects on reuniting with Antonio Banderas for his semi-autobiographical new drama.
Pedro Almodóvar’s buoyant shock of white hair is as iconic as his long career. And in person that shock is even more glorious. The 70-year-old writer and director has a résumé that has helped make stars of Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, told stories about pregnant nuns and porn stars, and done it all in a consistently vibrant color palette.
Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory (in select theaters Oct. 4), reunites him with Banderas, whom he first worked with early in their careers and most recently directed in 2011’s The Skin I Live In, about a sinister plastic surgeon. This time around Banderas is playing a veiled version of Almodóvar himself, as Salvador, a successful film director whose body has failed him to the point where he’s unable to work. In dealing with his ailments, he looks back at formative moments in his life — his childhood, his first love, and his career. It’s a film that delves into themes Almodóvar explored in 1987’s Law of Desire and 2004’s Bad Education and is a colorful meditation on a life well lived and loved. EW talked with the director about reuniting with Banderas, his place in queer cinema, and a mutual love of the actress Barbara Loden. Light spoilers for Pain and Glory ahead.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Pain and Glory fits into this unplanned trilogy with Bad Education and Law of Desire. How do you feel about creating these kinds of films that are personal to you and the ways that people might read into them as autobiography?
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR: It is true, for example, this film in particular, but also the other two that you mentioned, that they are close to my life, but it’s really fiction that establishes the rules for narration. So even though this one’s based on me, I’m actually much more loyal to whatever fiction is asking from me than I am to reality. So for example, once I’m done with this script I am much more interested in the story being realistic and making sense rather than it being loyal to reality. But I also am quite aware that I’m exposing a part of my intimacy and that I’m opening myself up for people to have opinions about it. That’s not something I really like. [Laughs] I do think it’s the passage of time and the process of maturity that takes me to the place where I feel like making a film like Pain and Glory.
This film looks at the way art is created by an artist, and what shuts them off from creating art as well. How does that kind of tie into in the ways that people might read into the way you create your art?
The first thing that I want spectators to do is to be moved by the story. But this is also a story about a film director who has been incredibly successful for a long period of time until illness and pain stop him in his tracks. Part of what I’m talking about is almost the first moment in which he also realizes that because he was producing so fast and working so fast, he’s never had a moment to really reflect and think about his past. So part of what I give to this character narratively is that opportunity to go back and reflect on the past. Because when he discovered the watercolor, for him it’s a key because then he remembers everything related with the watercolor. What he found is a story that should be told. This is what he needed. And that saves him.
What’s important for me to convey is when I make a movie, I’m not necessarily thinking of exactly how I want the spectator to react. And if you are thinking about how the spectator sees any piece of your movie, I think this is not a good idea because, at least, I write completely blind.
What was it like working with Antonio Banderas again? I’ve read a lot of interviews where he has talked about how he had a heart attack in 2017, and I think this role is very physical in the way that he deals with pain in his body and mind. Did that affect his performance?
It has been a wonderful experience. But I have to tell you that at the beginning, I had my hesitations about him because I was conscious of what I wanted to demand of him. It was something completely opposite of what we worked on before. So it was going to demand that type of interpretation from him that I’d actually had never even seen him do. But he understood it immediately, from the very beginning. He understood that nothing that he had done with me before was going to work for this particular character. For me, it has been a spectacle in itself to just watch him work almost as if he was a brand-new actor. I feel that this is the best performance of Antonio’s.
I watched the film again last night, and the heart, for me, feels like the scene with Federico [Leonardo Sbaraglia] and Salvador reuniting in his apartment and just staying up all night talking and the unrequited love between them. What was it like creating that scene between two former lovers?
I agree that for me it was very, very moving to shoot this and the way the two actors did it. The experience that I had gone through was one in my youth, I had this kind of relationship that I had to break up while the relationship was still alive. But the return I have not had. [Laughs] So I had to write it in order to live it.
I said to the two actors, “You two have loved each other passionately and yet there is not going to be a moment at all whatsoever,” right? There’s no romantic interchange between them. And I said to them, “The spectator has to understand that you guys have been mad about each other.” They understood it very well. For example, one of the things that I’m talking about, Antonio mostly looks and listens as his ex-lover tells him the stories of his past. It’s just something very simple that he does. And yet he’s able to transfer to the spectator the feeling of depth because he probably has been a man who has loved desperately. I did not tell [Sbaraglia] to touch Antonio, but he did that himself. All the ways in which he communicated through just very slight physical touch [show] the depth of the passion that he once had for this man.
You’ve been a pioneer putting queer lives and the queer experience in cinema. What does it feel like to be part of that first wave, and how do you feel like your work fits into that landscape as there are more films and directors exploring that?
I’ve never thought of myself as an activist, right? I wanted to put this on screen, but someone who just tells the story of real life as it is. I happened to be surrounded by queer people, transgender people, people who also lived their lives in full acceptance of themselves. And this is what you then see reflected in my films. What I of course was aware of is the way that society perhaps had a problem with these people. And therefore what I really gave them was the ample room of a story for them to be able to explore this.
But there’s also something in Pain and Glory that you hardly ever see in queer cinema, which is these two older men in their 60s kissing and it’s still passionate and exciting. I don’t really consider myself or want to be the pioneer of anything, but what I take very seriously is to be able to portray the very different gamuts of sexuality that exist for all kinds of human beings, and to represent that as honestly as possible. And not from the lens of activism, but from the position of being true to life.
I was really excited to see that Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass has a part in the film, and I was wondering what’s your relationship with it?
That was a movie that I’ve remembered since my childhood. At the moment that I was watching it, I thought they were talking about me because I was living in a small place. I understood the character of Natalie Wood very well with this [internal] fight she has [about having] sex with Warren Beatty or not and what the people around [think], the father, the relatives, everyone. She was a slave of what others think, and I felt that very strongly and I understood very clearly when I was a child. It was a very important film of my childhood.
And I loved Warren Beatty in the movie, nobody could be more sexy. But I felt completely hooked on Barbara Loden’s character, the sister [of Beatty’s character]. I thought, “If I get out from this place, I will behave like her. I want to be f—ing everyone, drinking all the time, and driving cars.” I was thinking when I get older I would be like her. [Laughs] The opposite of good manners! I became a big, big fan of all three of them. I [loved] Wanda [the film Loden directed], it’s one of the best movies of ours. I think it was an incredible debut. It was a pity that it didn’t release, and it was very unfair. So [after that film] I was a big fan of these actresses.
This interview has been edited and condensed.