Banderas is playing the legend in Genius: Picasso, the second season of National Geographic's Genius series; the first, which explored the life of Albert Einstein, was the most watched series launch in the history of the channel and drew 10 nominations for Emmy awards.
Banderas says the opportunity to play Picasso has actually passed his desk several times during his career, but he had previously declined. "I said no before because it was a big sense of responsibility that it came to me that, for whatever reason, I didn't want to accept in other times of my life," he says. "This time I felt it was the right time."
This project, Banderas says, "came with great scripts, with seriousness, with [the brand of] National Geographic, which was giving the entire project all the facts that we needed to create the complexity of a character like this."
In playing him, Banderas says he has discovered that Picasso the man and Picasso the artist were inextricably connected. "His artistic dimension was total linked to his personality, to his personal dimension," Banderas says. "There was no separation between the artist and the person.
"He was not only a man who was very capable painting, drawing the reality, but he put that at the service of the political and social context of his time, a guy who was a visionary and had a long sight for the future and, also, an introspection of himself, a reflection about life itself," Banderas says. "That was very important."
Picasso did not stop being a painter when he left the studio, Banderas adds. "Everything was mixed together in the same pot," he says. "And probably there is a big [lesson] to everybody who became an artist. You cannot separate those two roles. You cannot get comfortable ever."
While the producers are adamant the series is not a hagiography, it does seem to sidestep the complex question of the darker side of Picasso's relationships with women, in particular the claims he was an abusive misogynist.
Banderas claims not to have come across that side of Picasso in his research for the role, but says there was a deeply damaging side to the artist: "There were no masks with Picasso; Picasso stopped loving somebody, he says it," Banderas says. "We have to find a balance to explain all of those stories that happen with [the] women, because they are complicated, they are not simple."
Banderas adds that it is not his task, as an artist, to make a moral judgment on Picasso's character. "I am just trying to take all the facts that we have in our hands and interpret them in the best possible way, trying to give some answers to that," he says.
To prepare for the role, Banderas says he did as much research as he could. "It's been interesting because Picasso, everybody wants to own Picasso or a little bit of Picasso," he says. "In Barcelona, the people think Picasso is from Barcelona. In Paris they say, no, Picasso is French and in Malaga, we still say, no, Picasso was born here.
"At the same time, when you find many people wrote about him, you may be analysing an event that is factual [but] many people talk about the same event in different ways," Banderas says.
"So you have to be very careful, and you have to read continuously in between lines to actually make a composition of what was the reality of what happened to him, the way that he thought, why he made very specific choices," he says.
"[We know] he did something, he said something … what we don't know is why he did that thing and why he wrote that thing or why he said that thing," he adds. "That was a very important thing to me … to actually allow myself to be as honest as I can be with him."
And on top of that, Banderas says, he gave himself permission to be "a little bit creative".
"I think my directors and my producers are doing the same thing for the same reason that Picasso one day took a Velazquez painting, like Las Meninas, a very famous figurative painting, and did his own take on it," Banderas says.
"So we, with all the data and all the information that we have, we have to have a certain margin to give our interpretation of what we believe Picasso was," he says. "That's how I am attacking the character."
And, he adds with a wry grin, there is a lot riding on it.
"It is a lot of responsibility … when you play a character that already existed, it happened to me a couple times in my life before," he says. "But in this particular case, I have to be very careful for the reason that if I don't portray him properly I may not be able to go back to my hometown."
Genius: Picasso airs …
Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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