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How Antonio Banderas Overcame His Fear of Playing Hometown Legend Pablo Picasso

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “It was a certain sense of responsibility that I didn’t want to put on my shoulders,” Banderas says of playing the other big star from Málaga, Spain

A version of this story about Antonio Banderas was first published in the Miniseries/Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

When “Genius” producer Kenneth Biller went to the Spanish town of Málaga to visit Antonio Banderas, he quickly learned the hierarchy. The Andalusian coastal city, he was told on his way in from the airport, has two local heroes who are particularly esteemed by the town in which they were born.

“They explained to me, in Spanish, ‘El primero is Picasso,'” Biller said. “‘El segundo is Antonio.'”

And No. 2 played No. 1. In “Genius: Picasso,” Banderas takes on a role that had long haunted him, and one he’d spent years avoiding, of the protean artist who cast a huge shadow in his hometown, where he grew up during the reign of dictator Francisco Franco.

“Picasso was enormous in Málaga,” Banderas said. “We didn’t have many heroes. In Franco’s times we were isolated, and to see a Spaniard who made something noticeable in the world was very rare.”

Franco tried to keep his subjects from knowing much about those who’d fled the country, including Picasso — but, Banderas added, “It was impossible to cover the sun, the light of Picasso. We felt very proud. Just the name, Picasso. I remember my mother telling me about him: ‘He’s a painter, he lives in Paris.’

“It was a fascination, a mystery. We were trapped in this dictatorship, but we loved Picasso.”

Banderas had been offered the part of Picasso in a variety of projects over the years, but he could never bring himself to do it. “I don’t know why, but I think it’s a certain sense of responsibility that I didn’t want to put on my shoulders at that time,” he said.

“In truth, I was afraid of portraying a character that I loved and I knew was revered by so many people around the world. And I didn’t feel like I was ready. But it felt like it was pursuing me — like a ghost, Picasso was there.”

Antonio Banderas, Genius:Picasso

He came close to playing Picasso for acclaimed Spanish director Carlo Saura (“Carmen,” “Tango”), until financial problems killed the film and Banderas didn’t like what Saura came up with when he tried to restart the project with a new script.

When Ron Howard and National Geographic approached him to play the older Picasso in a 10-part limited series that would also feature a second actor (Alex Rich) playing the younger Picasso, he knew it was now or never.

But the timing wasn’t ideal. Banderas suffered a heart attack in late January 2017, less than nine months before he began shooting the grueling miniseries. “I had good doctors, the stents were there, my veins were open again and I was probably under less risk than many of the people surrounding me, because they don’t know how they are,” he said. “But there is a psychological factor, because those two words — heart attack — are very heavy.”

And so was the role he was playing. “It became part of my life and my bones,” he said. “I didn’t watch movies, I didn’t read books — it was all Picasso, 24 hours a day. Even on Sunday, when you don’t have to work, you wake up and go to the shower moving like an old man, until your girlfriend says, ‘Will you stop that, please?'”

Banderas said he reconciled himself to the dark side of the artist, particularly the way he could be cavalier and sometimes brutal in his relationship with women. “Picasso is a universe in himself,” he said. “He was all about himself, and about art. And the people around him, probably unconsciously, he uses them.

“I think genius is pathology. A genius like Picasso is self-centered and egotistical and doesn’t really think about the other. He just moves ahead and needs to be fueled with people, and the people who are around pay a high price.”

Antonio Banderas, Genius:Picasso

He paused. “When I think about Picasso, I think of Jupiter,” he said, leaning forward. “I think of a big planet, with a tremendous gravity and a bunch of satellites around that cannot escape that gravity. And he needs them to be fed, like a vampire. But a vampire has to pay a price, too — he cannot walk in the daylight, there are a lot of rules.

“Geniuses, they have a number of rules also. One of the rules is that he was going to end up as he ended up: alone.”

Playing a man like that, took a real toll. “You have to do it piece by piece, little by little, to understand the aesthetics of what you have in front of you,” he said. “It’s very difficult to describe. I know how to play it, I think, but I don’t know how to explain it.”

His voice grew softer until it was almost a whisper. “It’s true that it affected me,” he said. “I think that still Picasso is inside me somewhere, and it bothers me.”

Read more from TheWrap’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy issue here.

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