Sometimes It Hurts to Be Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar is fun at parties, but parties aren’t always fun for Pedro Almodóvar.

“Socializing has really exhausted me as time has gone by,” Almodóvar told me in September, not long after he had jetted from his home in Madrid to the Toronto International Film Festival to present his latest movie, “Pain and Glory.”

It was a surprising thing to hear from a director whose early films, including “Law of Desire” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” often possessed the anything-goes spirit and mischievous cast of a crowded bacchanal. Even over two days in Toronto, I had watched Almodóvar breeze through an ambitious schedule of press obligations as if he were born to make small talk in a second language.

But when he returned to Madrid, Almodóvar phoned me to confess that as he had gotten older in recent years — his 70th birthday was on Sept. 25 — he had begun to purposefully isolate himself. “People have stopped surprising me so much, they’ve stopped exciting me as much. And secondly, there’s the pain.” He paused. “Pain is not something you can share with other people.”

The startlingly personal “Pain and Glory” will change that for him: After trying his hand at a pair of adaptations in “Julieta” (2016) and “The Skin I Live In” (2011), as well as a fizzy farce (“I’m So Excited!” from 2013), Almodóvar has turned inward. A look back at the desires and deep feelings that have shaped him, all sprung from a body that has begun to turn on him as he exits middle age, “Pain and Glory” is a quiet, career-capping masterpiece.

Antonio Banderas stars in the film as Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker patterned so obviously on Almodóvar himself that he wears the director’s own clothes and lives in a replica of Almodóvar’s chic apartment. Mallo made his name on sensational Spanish sex comedies, but when we meet him, he’s so racked with the pains of getting older that he doesn’t have the energy to create anymore.

Those aches take many forms, both physical and spiritual. Mallo is debilitated by frequent migraines and back spasms, and he’s also haunted by a past relationship torn asunder by drugs as well as a mother he feels he has failed. All of these maladies were taken from Almodóvar’s own life, and that candor caught Banderas off guard when he read the script. “There were things I never thought he was going to expose, not even to his friends,” Banderas said. “Pedro is a very private person.”

That’s not to say that Almodóvar was ever shy: Forged by La Movida Madrileña, a raucous countercultural movement that swept through Madrid when he arrived there in 1969, Almodóvar has long held one of the most provocative points of view in moviemaking. Unafraid to tackle societal and sexual taboos, he regularly packs his films with a surplus of heart, comedy, lust and color, like a child who goes to select a crayon and then absconds with the entire box.

But “Pain and Glory” was different. For all his open-book ebullience, there were still things Almodóvar had kept hidden, especially the extent to which he must navigate wrenching pain as a daily indignity. After he sent the screenplay to Banderas and his other frequent collaborators, including the actress Penélope Cruz and his producer-brother, Agustín, “all of them came back to me really worried,” Almodóvar recalled. “They were saying, ‘Are you really as bad off as Salvador is? Are you suffering that much?’”

Fortunately, there are a few key differences. Mallo turns to a newfound heroin habit to cope with his pain, while Almodóvar swears he’s never touched the stuff. And though Banderas wears his hair grayed and unruly for the role, it’s no match for the actual Almodóvar’s famous, dandelion-like pouf, a sign that this is much more than just an easy impersonation. (In May, Banderas took the best-actor trophy at the Cannes Film Festival for his deeply felt performance.)

“But the character doesn’t moan about his ailments, and I’m not a person who complains, either,” Almodóvar noted. To use the parlance of pain, Almodóvar decided to rip the Band-Aid off: If he was going to let the whole world know what’s been hurting him, he had no intention of milking any of it for sympathy. Instead, he spends a minute and 20 seconds of “Pain and Glory” listing all of his physical troubles in a tidy animated sequence.

It’s a gut punch of grievances, though he couldn’t help but make it colorful, too.

SOCIALIZING MAY TAKE its toll on Almodóvar these days, but I’ll be damned if he’s not still good at it. When I sat down with him in Toronto, he was talkative and funny, and he pumped me for details on a party he’d skipped the night before. (“Was Jennifer Lopez there?” he asked, ready to gossip.) Across from us sat his translator. Though Almodóvar speaks fast, fluent English, he frequently toggles over to Spanish like someone breaking into song in a musical.

It’s easy to see what beguiled Banderas so long ago in Madrid’s Café Gijón, where the young actor had gathered with other thespians from the nearby Teatro María Guerrero. It was 1981, and Almodóvar, fresh off his first full-length feature, “Pepi, Luci, Bom,” had wandered over to the group to hold court. “He appeared with this red plastic briefcase, and he talked — a lot — in this beautiful monologue,” Banderas recalled. “After 20 minutes, he stood up, looked at me and said, ‘You should do movies. You have a very romantic face.’ And he left.”

Banderas asked his fellow actors who the mystery monologuist was: “They said to me, ‘His name is Pedro Almodóvar. He just directed a movie, but he will never do another one.’” Banderas snorted at the memory. “They tried to be a prophet, which is a very common thing in my country. And they failed horrendously.”

Before long, Almodóvar had offered Banderas a role in his next movie, the comedy “Labyrinth of Passion,” kicking off a juicy collaboration that would span several decades and bring them both international fame. Almodóvar was the button-pushing auteur, Banderas was his sex-bomb male muse, and they lived colorful lives that spilled across Madrid’s night life.

“I was like somebody invited to a party they didn’t know about,” Banderas said. “I wanted to be a serious theater actor, and suddenly I was in the middle of that tsunami.” Through it all, Banderas was both enamored of and intimidated by his director: “We were all in a group of friends,” he said, “but Pedro was the pope.”

As their profiles rose, especially after the Oscar-nominated “Women on the Verge” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” Hollywood came to court both men. Only Banderas made the leap, working in major films including “Philadelphia” and “The Mask of Zorro.” Almodóvar, offered the chance to direct studio comedies like “Sister Act,” decided to stay in Spain.

“I have to confess that I missed him a lot in the beginning of the ’90s,” Almodóvar said. “I had the impression that one day, when we were older, we would meet each other again, but I was in no rush for that re-encounter. In my head, I wanted to reconnect with an older, more mature, more adult Antonio, as if all that youthful energy had already exploded.”

But it would take two decades for that reunion, and when it arrived, things did not go smoothly. Almodóvar cast Banderas as a sociopathic plastic surgeon in “The Skin I Live In,” and both men had changed considerably in the interim. Almodóvar was in a new phase of his career, directing polished, Oscar-winning melodramas like “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her,” while Banderas had become a Hollywood star, blossoming outside Almodóvar’s tutelage.

Banderas said, “I arrived on set with all my new things that I had learned over 22 years. ‘Look Pedro, I’m now more secure in front of the camera, I have worked on my voice and my body, this and that.’” Almodóvar was dismissive. “He said, ‘These things, I cannot use.’”

Both men described the shoot as rocky. “The fact that I was encountering an actor who was very experienced wasn’t an advantage to me,” Almodóvar said. “Quite the contrary. What I was looking for was that innocence, an actor who relies on his intuition, not his intelligence.”

Eventually, Banderas acceded to his director’s demands, and once he saw the final cut, he said he was impressed by what Almodóvar had pulled from him. Still, after all that, he had no reason to expect that his old collaborator would give him another starring role. Time had passed, and perhaps their moment had, too.

“PAIN IS PASSIVE,” Almodóvar told me. “Someone suffering from pain isn’t easy to film — it’s not cinematic at all.” So when he began writing “Pain and Glory,” he did not have Banderas in mind to play the lead: What use would the actor’s boundless vitality be in a muted role like that?

Then, Almodóvar happened across a photo of Banderas as he was recovering from surgery after a 2017 heart attack. “I saw the experience of pain in his face, and that was something very important to the character,” Almodóvar said. He knew he had his Mallo, and now, in a irony worthy of his movies, it would be Almodóvar serving as the muse for Banderas.

This time on set, director and actor were in sync: Instead of impersonating Almodóvar, Banderas should go small. “He still ended up stealing the scenes from other characters because of that subtlety!” Almodóvar said, laughing. But the role served an olive branch: Banderas played it as a tribute to the man who had transformed his life, and when Almodóvar went to embrace his actor on the final day of shooting, he burst into tears.

“It was shocking for everybody on the set — the casting director, the art director, everybody,” Banderas said, adding, “He’s not like that. Pedro is a hard cookie.”

Almodóvar was as surprised as anybody. Despite the fact that he had drawn so much of the film from his own life, when he was on set, he had tried to treat Mallo as a character, someone separate from himself. Now, as he embraced Banderas, that all fell away, and he couldn’t stop crying.

Instead of remaining stoic in his 70s, then, “I think I need to break away from that,” he told me. “I need to open up more.” It’s true that Almodóvar has found his pain hard to share with other people. It’s also true that in that moment, he found it harder not to.

Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan

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