Antonio Banderas, who shares his birthplace with Pablo Picasso, decided it finally was time to portray his hometown hero. But he leaves it to viewers of National Geographic's drama series "Genius: Picasso" to reconcile the artist's revelatory work with his treatment of the women who helped inspire it.
The actor had passed on two other chances to play Picasso, intimidated by the prospect of playing the man he calls a "huge figure" from their shared birthplace of Malaga, Spain. Learning more about the titan of 20th-century painting, who died in 1973 at age 91, made the mature Banderas cautious for other reasons.
"I started realizing he was not just complicated but mysterious, because of what he did as an artist and because of his life. There were so many opinions of him, some of them good and some bad, his behavior with art and with women and his friends," Banderas said.
But he was impressed by the first season of "Genius" from executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, with Geoffrey Rush playing Albert Einstein, and decided this was the time to take Picasso's complex story and paintbrushes in hand, literally.
"I wanted to be familiar with all the tools, brushes and oils and acrylics and everything. I bought canvasses and starting painting" to prepare for the role, he said, although he counts himself only a dedicated novice.
Howard said he had no reservations that Banderas the actor, if not painter, was up to the task in the 10-part series that debuted at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday.
"It took us a while to settle on Picasso as the next 'Genius,' but once we did Antonio's name was immediately thrown into the mix, and everyone agreed he would be perfect for the role," Howard said. "He put in an incredible amount of work to bring the artist to life on-screen and I think he has delivered an exceptional performance that we're all very proud of."
A convincingly prosthetics-aged Banderas plays Picasso in his later years, with Alex Rich as the youthful artist. Those co-starring as Picasso's lovers and muses are Samantha Colley as photographer Dora Maar; Poppy Delevingne as Marie-Therese Walter, and Clemence Poesy as the artist Francoise Gilot, now 96, who left him after a decade and two children.
It was Gilot who, in her 1964 memoir, quoted Picasso as saying, "For me, there are only two kinds of women — goddesses and doormats." A Paris Review column about a 2017 exhibition of Picasso artwork and memorabilia related to his daughter Maya (born to mistress Walter during his marriage to first wife Olga Khokhlova) was headlined: "How Picasso Bled the Women in His Life for Art."
Picasso married second wife Jacqueline Roque when he was 79 and she was 27, and they remained together until his death, with Roque his inspiration for that prolific final period. Banderas said that much of Picasso's work was deeply intertwined with the women who shared his life.
"When he was upset with Dora Maar, for example, you could tell how he painted her. He kind of made her a monster," he said. "Without those women around him, the pieces of Picasso, it would be a completely different story."
His relationships didn't always start or stop cleanly, the actor said, and there was "something of them that always was kept in the soul of Picasso."
The artist's colleagues had reason to be wary of his brilliance: They would hide their own works from him because they knew he could improve on whatever style he saw, Banderas said. There is also a cloudy chapter in which Picasso refuses to sign a petition to save French poet Max Jacob (played by T.R. Knight) from a Nazi internment camp, claiming it would hurt his close friend's cause. Jacob died in the camp in 1944.
How an artist's conduct influences the perception of his art, or its acceptance, has particular currency, with the careers of some top creative lights derailed or sullied by a range of alleged sexual misconduct. In Picasso's case, women were willing partners and research uncovered no evidence of physical abuse, said Banderas.
But there was betrayal and abandonment.
"I don't think the goal of the show is to celebrate someone," executive producer Ken Biller told TV critics. "The goal of the show is to explore a very complex, complicated individual and all of the people around him. This is the stuff of drama. We are not sugarcoating Picasso."
How did Banderas weigh Picasso's genius against his character?
"I don't want to be the morality judge, because that can be difficult to do. We can do that from our time. But if we go back in time, how can you do that for a man born in 1881," Banderas said. "The audience has the opportunity to go in one direction or another as we tell the story. But me, as an interpreter, I shouldn't do it. I shouldn't do it."