Surviving a mild heart attack 15 months ago was a life-changing experience for Antonio Banderas.
“It makes you think a lot,” said Banderas, a trim, fit 57, in a recent interview. “It affected my acting. I’m a lot more quieter. I am less anxious to demonstrate anything. Maybe all of that anxiousness [caused] my heart attack. I just try to love everything I am doing in the moment.”
And at this moment the actor, whose resume ranges from the swashbuckling Zorro to the voice of the animated “Puss In Boots” from the “Shrek” films, is riding high from playing legendary influential artist Pablo Picasso — in “Genius: Picasso,” a limited series beginning Tuesday on National Geographic.
(Banderas plays the older Picasso with Alex Rich portraying the artist as a young man.)
“Picasso” heralds the second season of the “Genius” franchise which began last year with the Emmy-nominated “Einstein” starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein.
A child prodigy, who spent most of his life in Paris, Picasso is considered one of the most prodigious artists of the 20th century, creating some 5,000 works before his death in 1973 at the age of 91. He cofounded the Cubist movement, but his style evolved over the years.
Among Picasso’s works: 1910’s “Girl with the Mandolin,” 1921’s “Three Women at the Spring” and 1937’s “Guernica,” his Surrealist masterpiece mural and devastating anti-war statement he completed during the Spanish Civil War.
The series also chronicles his marriages and often stormy love affairs with Francoise Gilot (Clémence Poésy), a French painter and writer who became his lover, muse and mother of two of his children; Dora Maar (Samantha Colley), a seminal surrealist photographer who met the artist in 1936 and photographed Picasso creating “Guernica.”; Marie-Therese Walter (Poppy Delevingne), his long-time mistress and muse whom he met in 1927 and who was the mother of his first daughter and Fernande Olivier (Aisling Franciosi), a French artist and model who was Picasso’s first real love before he became famous.
Banderas doesn’t hesitate when asked what made Picasso a genius.
“Honesty,” said the actor, who was born in Picasso’s hometown of Malaga, Spain. “As a painter and as a man. Honesty, by the way, is very sour sometimes. It’s really tough. He hurt a lot of people.”
Especially the women in his life. Picasso’s callous behavior and treatment toward the women he loved would definitely hit a raw nerve today during the #MeToo movement.
“Painting meant more to him than anything,” said Banderas. “He was not going to let personal feelings get in the way. I think all geniuses are difficult. I don’t think he had remorse.”
Picasso, said Banderas, searched for a new muse/lover in his life when his wives and mistresses couldn’t “gas the fuel” that he needed. “The excitement of the new person, the excitement of the discovery of the body, the excitement of the discovery of a personality — he needed that. It’s like a drug.”
Though Banderas noted he is less anxious, he admitted he was nervous when he was approached last year about the project. He has played real people previously including Che Guevara in 1996’s “Evita’; the legendary Mexican general Pancho Villa in 2003’s “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself” and one of the survivors of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster in 2015’s “The 33.”
However, he has never played someone possessing the larger-than-life complexity of Picasso. Over the years, he has turned down offers for various Picasso films.
But this time was different.
“Ron Howard came,” Banderas said of the Oscar winner who is one of the executive producers. “And National Geographic. The credibility of this institution, National Geographic, and Ron Howard is someone who I consider is honest in the things that he does. And I met Ken Biller, he created the Bible [for the series]. I said if I don’t play him now then I’m a coward.”
Biller would have had a major problem if Banderas had not accepted the role. In an e-mail interview, Biller noted that Banderas was the only actor who popped in his mind.
“When I pitched out the season to the studio and the network, I actually asked them to imagine Antonio in the role,” he said. “Of course, I had to finish the script before we could actually offer him the role”
Once on board, Banderas went full Pablo. He read everything he could on Picasso. He talked with the artist’s oldest daughter, Maya, and became friends with her son, Olivier Widmaier Picasso, who has written books about his grandfather. He also shaved his hair and eyebrows and looked at whatever footage he could find of the painter.
“It was interesting — he was afraid of his voice,” said Banderas, whose hair is beginning to grow back. “He didn’t like his voice. So he didn’t do interviews in radio or television because he listened to himself from the inside. So I created a voice for him, way lower than normal, way more raspy.”
Banderas did find footage of Picasso painting. “When I see him painting, I see a guy who is secure, unbelievably secure,” sad the actor. “He doesn’t hesitate painting. He just takes the brush and is very quiet. His body is very relaxed, and it’s like the brush is taking him.”
The actor jumped up to illustrate how Picasso walked and stood. “I’ve seen some pictures where he’s walking like this with his foot out but standing he’s frontal,” he said. “So I started doing that with my feet and being frontal with anybody I am talking with and in rehearsals.”
He also had long discussions with costume designer Sonoo Mishra. “She had to transform me and understood something I said to her: In order to create Picasso, I have to deconstruct Antonio Banderas. I have to kill myself metaphorically, but I have to do that exercise. I have to find a way.”
Mishra designed clothes and shoes that were bigger than normal. “When I’m wearing shorts, you see my legs. If you make an extra-large pair, the legs will look smaller and so the arms the same way.” He also spent up to four hours a day in makeup.
The actor turned out to be one of Biller’s favorite collaborators. “He was passionate and knowledgeable about the character, incredibly hard-working and brought a fun playful vibe to the set every day. He was very respectful of my vision for the show but also had the many insightful ideas of his own which ended up incorporated into the show.”
In fact, before production began, Banderas asked Biller to visit him in Malaga. “I said you have to see where this guy walked,” said Banderas. “So he came and said we have to shoot here. We shot the birth of Picasso in the exact same house that he was born in. “
Banderas, who has lived in London since his divorce four years ago from Melanie Griffith, is currently filming the Robert Downey Jr. fantasy “The Voyage of Dr. Dolittle” there.
“I’m playing a beautiful and romantic pirate,” Banderas said with a gleeful smile. “He’s a fun guy. Loving. He’s bad and good. It has nothing to do with Picasso.”
Where: National Geographic Channel
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)