When someone says Pablo Picasso, everyone has an image or a perception of the world's most famous artist come to mind. That kind of notoriety is terrifying when an actor must embody that person and put their own spin on an icon's story. Antonio Banderas knew that, and had the additional bonus of growing up in Picasso's hometown of Malaga, Spain before stepping into the painter's shoes for National Geographic's Genius: Picasso.
"For me to portray Picasso was a big responsibility," Banderas told TV Guide as part of our Best Performances series. "I wanted to have the opportunity to go back and live in my hometown without the pointed fingers, 'This is the guy who misrepresented Picasso!' So I wanted to be fair with the character. We are just telling the story of a character who had wonderful moments, but he had some dark moments too."
The series explored the life ofPicasso, merging the timelines of his young adulthood with his middle-age and onward. The final episode focused almost entirely on Picasso's last months though, with Banderas barely recognizable beneath heavy prosthetics. The intense transformation has Banderas in contention for a Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie Emmy nomination. His work culminates in the final episode where Picasso must accept that death is coming and can only do so after a touching family reunion delusion that reunites Picasso with the people he loved most during his tumultuous life.
"We are in a garden and his kids are there, Claude and Paloma. He embraces them, 'What are you guys doing here?' Then he turns around and there is Marie Therese and then a very young Dora Maar appears. At that time he realizes, 'Oh, I'm dying,'" Banderas explained. "It's a very emotional scene because those are the people that he loved, really loved, and they loved him. Not everything ended up beautiful in those relationships, but there was love there."
The touching reunion allows Picasso to find peace with the selfish way he treated the women in his life, which the series documented through his affairs and his inability to put anything before his art and his own reputation. In Banderas' final moments as Picasso, he asks for a paper and brush, which was inspired by an incident he read about involving another Spanish painter, Salvador Dali.
"[Salvador Dali] was very old at the time, in a wheelchair and being taken to his car. There were a lot of paparazzi taking pictures and stuff. Suddenly, he looks at the cameras and goes, 'Geniuses should never die,'" Banderas recounted. "I was just thinking when I was doing [Picasso's death] scene that they think they have a right to live, because they can give so much to society and the universe. In the end, death is very democratic."
Even the great Picasso was not immune to death's universal inevitability, but the troubled man was able to accept it — at least through Banderas' deft portrayal.
"He goes kind of in peace, acceptance of the moment," the actor said. "It was something he refuses his whole life. Death was a huge enemy, you know? At the end there is a certain release."
Genius: Picasso is available to watch on National Geographic. Nominations for the 70th Annual Emmy Awards will be announced on July 12, with the ceremony airing Monday, Sept. 17 on NBC.