Pedro Almodóvar has a punishing migraine, one that woke him up at four this morning. It’s the sort of chronic ailment that would also plague Salvador Mallo—the aging film director played by Antonio Banderas in Almodóvar’s exquisite semiautobiographical feature Pain and Glory. The character, too overcome by his various maladies to create new work, starts casually dabbling in heroin while reflecting on the major unresolved relationships of his past, from his late mother to the bygone lover who broke his heart in the ’80s. “It’s a product of me having lived through the seven decades that I lived through,” Almodóvar tells me. “I didn’t have a special circumstance that pushed me. I didn’t do therapy or nothing similar.” If anything, making the movie was therapeutic in itself. Banderas, also present, has known Almodóvar for over 40 years and was taken aback by the radical candor when he first read his friend’s script. “I didn’t know that he wanted to close that wound,” Banderas says of all the previously unspoken sentiments revealed by the film. “I didn’t even know that there was a wound there.”
The director and his muse have been friends since the days of la movida madrileña, the frenzied countercultural movement that exploded in Spain’s capital after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Almodóvar, who says the actor was like his “young brother,” proceeded to cast Banderas in a series of daring roles, from a psychotic young man who becomes obsessed with a porn director in 1987’s Law of Desire to a psychotic young man who becomes obsessed with a porn actress in 1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! In the early ’90s, Banderas went off to Hollywood for a decades-long stretch, and the two didn’t work together again until 2011’s The Skin I Live In (in which Banderas plays a psychotic, obsessive doctor).
For Almodóvar, writing Pain and Glory was “very intense, like going to a safari.” When he emerged, mostly unscathed, he had a vision of Banderas in the lead. Early on, the two realized that they were sublimely simpatico. Banderas recalls the day they filmed a sequence in which Mallo is talking to his dying mother and Almodóvar became so overwhelmed on set that he couldn’t even speak. For Banderas, something clicked, and he immediately knew the depth of emotion that he had to bring to the scene. “It’s something that comes like a fucking train—hwah!” he says, smacking his hands together to demonstrate the intensity of that moment. “In 40 years, 112 movies, I never had a direction like that. Never.” Banderas would go on to win the best actor award at Cannes.
In the film, Banderas trades his close-cropped black locks for Almodóvar’s spiky gray do, wears Almodóvar’s actual clothes, and lives in an exact replica of Almodóvar’s apartment, but otherwise the character is a strange amalgamation of reality and fiction. (The real Almodóvar, for example, has never experimented with heroin.) The closest parallel between Pedro and Mallo, though, might have been born from a brush with futility. “After my back surgery, I lived with the pain of thinking that I was never going to be able to make movies again,” Almodóvar says. “That possibility scared me. I had the impression that I couldn’t live without making movies. I don’t know if it’s good or bad.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2020 issue with the title “The Director & His Muse.”
Pedro Almodóvar Breaks Down His Most Iconic Films
Photographs by Pari DukovicStyled by Mobolaji DawoduGrooming by Kumi CraigLocation at Rum House, New York City
Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar are GQ’s Director and Muse of the Year
Director: Pari Dukovic
DP: Alberto MojicaProduction: Good CompanyEditor / Colorist: Jerry Chia