Antonio Banderas is a man of many faces: the international superstar of “Spy Kids,” “The Mask of Zorro,” and “Puss and Boots,” and the serious actor with roots in Pedro Almodóvar movies. The Spanish auteur discovered the theater student at just 19. Together, they went on to make eight films, starting with the outrageous “Matador” in 1986. Their most recent Oscar-nominated collaboration features the Málaga native portraying the director’s alter-ego in the semi-autobiographical “Pain and Glory.” That highly personal drama garnered Banderas the best actor award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival — and featured Penélope Cruz as his mother.
Directed by Argentine filmmakers Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the backstage comedy “Official Competition,” in Spanish and English with subtitles, opens Friday and casts Banderas, 61, as fictional international movie star Félix Rivero. Cruz plays his manipulative, red-headed film director, Lola Cuevas, and Argentine actor Oscar Martínez is Iván Torres, the self-important thespian who’s jealous of Felix’s celebrity and wealth.
Competition, ego, and acting chops collide in a hilarious insider comedy set during rehearsals for their upcoming production. Is Banderas a superstar steeped in vanity, or a serious comedic actor? In “Official Competition,” he playfully melds both, digging deep while teasing the ambitions, and perks, of Hollywood stardom.
Q. Who’s Felix?
A. He’s a star, so he’s frivolous. He’s very clear, the way that he’s proposing his characters, the way that he works, the way he sees his relationship with the universe. He values work, money, and women, so he’s a very transparent guy.
Q. Does he have a dark side, too?
A. Yes. He’s dangerous when somebody attacks him or he feels that he’s losing power, or he feels like somebody’s just damaging his vanity and his ego.
Q. There’s an intense scene in which Cruz’s director plastic-wraps you and Iván together, and destroys your acting awards while you’re impotent to intercede.
A. The entire scene, probably the whole movie, is a metaphor. The scene’s message isn’t just for actors. This is about attachment. We get attached to objects, to things that don’t really have value in and of themselves, but we feel validated when somebody gives us a medal. It’s about being very insecure and making you not feel so insecure.
Q. Like you, Cruz is an Almodóvar muse. Here, she plays your famous, force-of-nature director.
A. It was a pleasure to see her compose a character so different from herself. We met with the Argentinian directors and began working on a movie about our universe. We put on the table situations and behaviors that we’ve seen. Of course, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat took that material and saturated it a little bit, put it under a magnifying glass. To make a comedy you have to be slightly bigger than life, but some of those behaviors are very close to reality.
Q. The scene where the actors prepare is hilarious, particularly the sounds Felix makes before he delivers his lines.
A. Watching actors prepare for doing a scene, I’ve seen unbelievable things. That moo that I make? The first time it ever happened to me, I thought there was a cow behind me. In reality, the heart of the movie is about ego, but it’s also about analyzing the stupidity that sometimes takes its toll on art.
Q. You begin by being relatively easygoing; however, when Ivan gets method and angrily breaks a chair during rehearsal, you get a splinter in your cheek and explode.
A. That’s my instrument. That’s my copyright. You cannot touch that.
Q. Has your 2017 heart attack shifted your priorities?
A. There were many things floating around me. When I had my heart attack, the things that weren’t important sank. Only those things that were important stayed on the surface: my family, my daughter, my friends, and not even my profession, but my vocation as an actor. So I returned to Málaga trying to do what I love, which is to go on the stage and perform every night and do it in the best possible way I can. I’m an actor because of musicals.
Q. What musical affected you?
A. In 1976, when I was almost 12, I saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the screen. It had an incredible impact. I thought, wow, this is something I’ve never seen before. They created a different air in the theater, which I didn’t know how the hell they managed to do in Spain, still with the regime of Franco in the air, even though he died in 1975. I thought, oh my God, I have to go to the other side of that mirror.
Q. And, now, do you feel like you’ve come full circle?
A. When I returned to Málaga, I bought this theater [Teatro del Soho CaixaBank] and fixed it. I made a place for actors where they can feel totally dignified. I’m doing the musicals that I loved that they wouldn’t perform in Spain before because they weren’t supposed to be commercial. So, for example, I’m doing “Company,” for five months with a full house every night. I’m having a blast. If that makes me do the play better, I don’t know. I really don’t care, because, actually, the first person who benefits from this is me.
Q. In the final analysis, you’re both Félix and Iván, part international star, part serious stage and screen actor, true?
A. Yes, I suppose I’m both, but I’m not totally Félix and I’m not totally Iván. I’ve had a career in which I did movies that were very commercial, that represent your image all around the world, that give you a certain power and financial stability. And then it’s true that there’s another side of me, and in a way that side has to do with regaining my career. If I define myself too much in one aspect or the other, I’m going to start to feel like one of the characters in the movie. I am a human being. And I make mistakes, like every human being, and I do good things like every human being, too.
Interview was edited and condensed.