Spanish actor Antonio Banderas began his career in the 1980s doing a series of movies for director Pedro Almodovar. Thirty years later he and Almodovar have collaborated on another project, the unique drama The Skin I Live In.
Bandares portrays Dr Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who, after his wife is burned in a car crash, becomes obsessed with creating a new skin with which he could have saved her. After twelve years he develops a skin that is sensitive to the touch, but is also a shield against all assaults.
But over the course of the years, dozens of young people have disappeared from their homes, becoming a part some willingly, some not, in Dr Ledgard’s experiments.
What was it about this role or project that fascinated you?
It was Pedro who approached me first almost ten years ago, at the Cannes Film Festival. [Then] he got involved with other projects and it didn’t happen, but I knew he was trying to adapt it in some personal way.
When I received the script I was in New York, I was doing a workshop at the time, and when I read the script I was very surprised knowing already the fundamental premise of the movie and the story.
It surprised me basically that he was not going to shoot it in a linear way, that he established a very strong game with time, in the movie with flashbacks, making basically the first part of the movie a question without an answer.
What was it like playing the role of Dr. Ledgard?
Playing the role was very difficult, thank God, because working with Pedro Almodovar is never an easy task. He’s unbelievably precise in the things that he wants from you. He doesn’t like you to come with a bag filled with experiences that you have been accumulating through the years as an actor.
He loves to just take the bag and throw it out the window and tells you that we’re going to start from zero. That’s the way that we always work. He said, ‘I want a new you, and we’re going to attack the work and the character from a different perspective.’
How did Pedro describe this character to you?
He came to two main points; one thing was the fact that he wanted a character that was almost like a white screen which the audience can actually write their own fears, and to do a character that was very limitless with no parameters, so you can expect practically anything from him.
When you read a character that’s bigger than life on paper, your tendency is to go big with him. As an actor you want to show some skills (he laughs), but [Pedro] cut all that.
He said, ‘No, we have to play it [laid back],’ because the second thing he was working on was the mental state of the character, and he said, ‘This character is somebody who could eventually melt perfectly into this society.’
He’s like characters that we’ve seen sometimes in the news, when they arrest a serial killer, and they interview neighbors and people say, ‘He was a very charming guy, well-dressed, very well-mannered, educated, polite.’
He went to church on Sundays, but then he had a horrendous story behind him. So that’s the character that we had to do, and from the moment we started we were working in that direction.
Because you had to live in this person’s skin and see through his eyes, how did you come to terms with his obsession – was it something to admired or was it something to be frightened of?
Once we finished the period of rehearsal which was enormously big, we were rehearsing for almost two months, I said to myself, ‘You shouldn’t establish a morality judgment over him.’ I didn’t want to play the character like I was carrying a backpack of everything that he is.
So I got the premise in my mind that I had to play him almost like he was a family doctor. Nothing from his point-of-view of what he was doing was horrendous. He was actually doing something extraordinary for science and for the future.
There’s always a wink of an eye when you’re playing a villain, there’s always a comment that you do to the audience sooner or later. But in this case we tried as much as possible to never do that, to just be very natural, a family doctor, I am doing good things.
You almost feel compassion for Dr Ledgard because he’s so sick.
I know. Pedro didn’t want to make him a monster [that would] completely separate him from the audience. In a way he’s almost telling you the monster may not only be around you, he may be you too eventually. And the guy’s carrying a backpack of big tragedies with his wife, and his daughter later on, so that creates a certain sympathy.
How was it to work again in a European-style movie as opposed to working here?
I think movies, as art in general, serve many different purposes and I think all of them are valid and legitimate if they are done with honesty and dignity. From the most frivolous light comedy to movies that reflect about the complexity of our human soul, as an actor I’ve played all of them.
There are people who are searching for movies like this one. They want to go there to be proposed something different. Almodovar has never played mainstream because he’s not made for that. His movies are going to make people have radical opinions about him, whether they want to put in on an alter or they want to crucify him.
And in this particular time in my life, I needed to get in the mud with him. I really needed to get my hands dirty and start doing what [Pedro and I] used to do in the eighties.