It was written in the stars that one day Spanish star Antonio Banderas, who used to walk to school every morning past Pablo Picasso's childhood home, would have to play the great painter.
For years Malaga's second most famous son has been turning down offers to play its greatest, knowing that he “would be looked at with a magnifying glass.” But finally Banderas has said yes — twice.
He's playing Picasso in a 10-part television series on the artist's tumultuous life steered by Hollywood heavyweight Ron Howard, and in a film on the 33 days he took to paint his anti-war masterpiece “Guernica” written by the Spanish great Carlos Saura.
“Movies are very good for events,” Banderas said, “but for somebody's life, 10 hours of TV is a very interesting vehicle.”
Even so, with someone like Picasso “no matter how well you do it, you are going to face criticism”, the 57-year-old actor told AFP from the set of the new series, “Genius Picasso”.
“It was same for Picasso,” Banderas insisted. “He knew when he painted 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' people were going to try to kill him for it because it was not seen as proper at the time.”
Picasso loomed large over Banderas' childhood in Malaga, the Andalusian port where they were born only four streets apart.
Paloma: 'You sound like my father'
“He was a hero. I remember my mother holding my hand and taking me to school in the morning past his house on the Plaza de la Merced,” said the actor, who without his hair is not physically unlike the artist.
Another thought also comforts Banderas. He once met Picasso's daughter Paloma when he first arrived in Los Angeles and spoke very little English.
“I started to speak Spanish with her” and after a while “she closed her eyes and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm boring this woman.'
“So I asked her if she was tired, and she said, 'No, not at all. When I close my eyes I can see my father, because you speak with the same accent as my him. That's how my father spoke, he spoke like you.'”
“I cannot compare myself with the most important artist of the 20th century, it would be stupid and ridiculous,” said Banderas, who plays the artist in his later years, spending five hours a day in makeup before he steps onto the set.
Rather than a typical biopic, the series for National Geographic – shot partly in Budapest – is a “kind of cubist painting of him actually,” he said. “We're going back and forth in his life continuously. It starts with the bombing of Guernica,” the Basque town which was levelled by Hitler and Mussolini's bombers during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, created in response to fascist forces' bombing of the village of Guernica in 1937. Cristina Quicler/AFP.
Reading between the lines
“The narrative is not linear, which is very good I think,” said Banderas, who made his name in Pedro Almodovar films like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” before going to Hollywood.
He said his biggest struggle was not the makeup but trying to “understand Picasso”, the choices he made politically and artistically and his relations with the women in his life.
“You have to constantly read between the lines trying to understand what was his truth,” Banderas added.
As well as combing biographies of the painter, the actor talked with his grandson Olivier Widmaier, whose book “Picasso: An Intimate Portrait” is published in March.
Banderas' passion for the painter has also seen him keep faith for more than six years with Saura's long-delayed film “Guernica 33 Days”, which sets his creation of Picasso's great painting against the backdrop of his stormy relationship with Dora Maar.
“It is completely different to what we're doing here, it is dedicated to 'Guernica', his great reflection on violence and the civil war. Carlos Saura wants to get away from realism and do something that is literally a painting. I am interested in that and I may still do it.”