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April 05, 2018

Only Human

The world agrees: there was — and will be — only one Pablo Picasso. And for the team behind season two of Nat Geo’s Genius, there was only one actor to portray him in his fertile, later years: Antonio Banderas.

Benji Wilson
  • At Korda Studios in Budapest, the design team for Genius — headed by production designer Arv Greywal and set decorator Steven Shewchuk — reproduced the famed studio of Pablo Picasso on Paris’s rue des Grands Augustins, where he lived and worked.

    Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield

Picture Pablo Picasso.

If anything comes to mind beyond the .Spanish artist's work, you're probably thinking of a squat, broad-shouldered man with deep, searching eyes and a round, bald head. Now picture the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. They have next to nothing in common. And yet, while filming on location in Budapest recently, Banderas has undergone an astonishing transformation.

"Picasso," he says in that thick Spanish accent, "he has this gesture that is very common where he plants himself like… this ."

With that, Banderas sticks out his chest, spreads his legs wide, turns out his feet like Mary Poppins and stares intently. Suddenly, there it is — Banderas, who has shaved his head and eyebrows for the role, does look like Picasso. Or, more accurately, he has become Picasso. He holds the pose, then breaks his stare and laughs.

"You know what, it doesn't matter too much if we don't look the same. Why? Because I don't try to be part of a wax museum. I'm trying to tell a story." The story Banderas is telling is of the life and times of arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century.

What's inarguable is that Picasso was a visionary, which is why he was chosen as the subject for the second season of National Geographic's anthology series Genius, which begins April 24 with a two-hour episode (there are 10 parts in all). The first season featured Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein, a role that earned him a 2017 Emmy nomination. Genius was also nominated for outstanding limited series, so the challenge for season two was to top that.

First, however, came the problem of which genius to focus on next. "We spent a lot of time talking about a number of amazingly interesting people," says executive producer Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment produces the series with Fox 21 Television Studios. "It was important, as we were preparing for season two, to push the boundaries beyond science.

"To delve into the world of art was really great — to take the tenets that we learned about in Einstein and see them [reflected] similarly in a world that is completely different. And it's good for the franchise to push those boundaries and show all the different worlds in which genius exists."

Showrunner Ken Biller (who, in addition to exec-producing, wrote and directed the first two episodes) says they approached the decision with three criteria in mind: "One, it had to be someone who's undeniably a genius. Two, someone who has a life story that is big enough and sprawling and eventful and dramatic enough that it could support 10 hours of television. And three, particularly for season two, it was important that we had a name that would garner interest immediately, that was internationally known. Picasso fit that bill."

When it came to casting their lead, they had only one name written down: Banderas. Both Picasso and Banderas are Spanish exports who've found global fame. Both were born and grew up in Malaga, in southern Spain.

"Picasso," Banderas says, "is a character who has been very present in my life, for the reason that I was born in the same place. He's always been like a big shadow in my life since I was a little kid. We didn't have so many heroes in Spain in that time, not international heroes, as we were isolated because of the Spanish Civil War."

Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, weren't the first to try to get Banderas to play his hero. The actor has been offered the role of Picasso several times in his career, but he'd never accepted it. Until now.

"Ron and Ken were very convincing," Banderas says. "And the fact that National Geographic was behind it made the project very solid historically."

What he didn't realize when he met Howard and Biller in London, where he currently resides, was that the Picasso project he was being offered was intended to be the second season of Genius — a show he happened to have watched. "I saw the first one, and I got caught completely," Banderas says.

"I thought, this is quality television, and I like it. I found Einstein interesting and surprising. So, when they said it's the second season of that, I said I wanted to do it."

"Antonio saw what we had done and that we were treating the subject seriously and that it was very cinematic," Biller says. "So he and I just hit it off. When Antonio left, Ron went, 'My God, we have to get him. It's so authentic. He will be great in this role.' And — as Ron usually is — Ron was right."

The problem was, though Banderas had the accent and the history, he didn't have the look. He's a taller man with a longer face. The task of transforming him fell to costume designer Sonoo Mishra and hair and makeup designer Davina Lamont.

"Antonio is much taller than the real Picasso, and we didn't know how to achieve that at first," Mishra says. "So we researched all the pictures, remade all the original outfits, but made the jackets a bit longer and the trousers a bit wider. It makes Antonio look shorter, a trick of the eye."

According to Banderas, Picasso's habitual wardrobe of loose tops and baggy pants helped him adjust his posture and gait. "Picasso used a lot of loose clothing — I love that. That helped me, because I can deform my own body. When I put Picasso's wardrobe on my body, I can feel that it changes."

As for the face, Lamont points out that what people consider the Picasso look comes largely from photographs taken in the later stage of his life.

"I didn't want to put [Banderas] in a full prosthetic mask right from the start," she says. "He goes from 44 years old up to 92, so we slowly progress into his aging look, where we add in gels, cheeks, eye work.

"Then we get to his 70s, 80s and 90s, and that's when the full prosthetics come in. But before that, my idea was to still have Antonio in there, but with elements of Picasso. The first couple of stages are not what we consider the iconic look for Picasso, anyway. We're just waiting for him to get to his bald look."

During a scene Banderas works on in the morning, it's 1946, and he does indeed have hair — in the form of an elaborate gray comb-over. You can see why Picasso got rid of it roughly two years later.

"I reckon he got more and more attractive as he got older," says Lamont, who also worked on the Einstein story. "Probably when he was in his 60s he got more attractive — because, let's face it, the comb-over is not a good look."

Genius didn't need just one Picasso, however. Following the pattern laid down in season one, each episode jumps between two actors playing the artist at different ages. If Banderas fit the bill for the mature Picasso — the one we might think we know — the younger Picasso was a totally blank canvas.

Howard and Biller cast the net high and wide, and ultimately reeled in a young American from the L.A. suburbs.

"I just did a self-tape," says Alex Rich, a 20-something who has previously appeared in True Detective and GLOW. He has an advantage, because his facial shape more closely resembles Picasso's, but his trump card is really how closely he's been watching Banderas.

"When you watch Alex in the role," Howard says, "he has completely taken on Antonio's accent and mannerisms in such a natural, believable way. We couldn't have gotten luckier."

Rich — speaking in his trailer, parked near Banderas's — says he has been "tracking" aspects of the older actor's performance to make sure their two Picassos (who meet somewhere around age 40) read like a single person. Rich has the feet-open Picasso stance down pat. For his part, Banderas says he only started doing it when he saw Rich at work.

"I've got to tell you, the first time I saw Alex as Picasso, it was in the bull ring in Malaga in rehearsal. I got almost emotional, because I saw him. I saw Picasso. There are some paintings that he did of himself. It was like, 'Oh, my God, Alex, you're him!' Since then we've talked, we've been for dinner; I mean, walking with my feet open — a little bit of that comes from Alex." He leans in conspiratorially. "I think we are doing the same character."

Most of the production has been shot in and around Budapest — with directors Kevin Hooks, Laura Belsey, Greg Yaitanes and Mathias Herndl cycling in after Biller — but in keeping with its depiction of Picasso as a world citizen, Genius has also filmed in Barcelona and Malaga.

"To tell you the truth," Banderas says, "in the year 2000 I gave the Pregón, which is the speech at the opening of the summer festival, to the people of Malaga. I talked to them and said what a pity that Pablo Picasso died a couple of years before the dictator [Francisco] Franco. Wouldn't it have been nice just to see him walking on the beach, seeing his old house, applauding him?

"I talked about him walking on the beach, and then [later] I was there, walking along the beach, for the show. With my bangs, in my bathing suit, with Dora Maar [Picasso's lover and muse, as played by Samantha Colley] walking up and down. I thought, Wow. And this is very weird, but it happened — the side of the ocean walk where we worked, it has my name. Antonio Banderas sidewalk! We worked there!"

Yet if Banderas lionizes Picasso and is dazzled by his output — Picasso, he says, created more than 40,000 works of art, and Banderas owns "a small piece" himself — he is not blind to the artist's failings as a man.

"He was not a good man or a bad man. He was a human being with all the contradictions and defects that a human being has, magnified by the magnifying glass of being who he was." As with Genius's treatment of Einstein, the story of Picasso's life is told warts and all — and there were many warts. Picasso was a womanizer who would seduce much younger women with his fame, call them his muse and then abruptly move on.

"Something that was very determining was that he was a superstar very early in his career — he's not Van Gogh, who died in misery," Banderas says. "Picasso was well respected already in the '20s and the '30s. Coming from a repressive Spain, he got to this Paris of open sex. And with the power that life gave him, he took things. Why wouldn't he? 'If I don't love you, I put you aside.' 'I need a new muse, a new stimulus.'

"He saw what he wanted and took it. Many people may watch that and think it's egotistical. And it probably is. But to be egotistical in the way that Pablo Picasso was, you have to have the power to be that way."

Clémence Poésy plays Françoise Gilot, one of Picasso's many women. The French painter met Picasso when she was 21 and began a relationship with him. He was in his early 60s. They had two children together before she left him, after about a decade.

"She knew what she was getting herself into," Poésy says, "but she was a very strong woman in her own right and at some point she said, 'I've had enough.'"

Picasso, Poésy adds, "was terrible to women. His genius was unquestionable, but I think there's a vampire element to him. He has an obsession with youth, with going back to the very beginning and finding something primal. And he's constantly trying to go back in time and to fight. It's amazing to watch.

"It's almost like he needed to feed on youth to keep fresh, to keep searching for new ways to see the world. Like a vampire, he needed to feed on others' youth and vitality. The minute there was a bit less youth, he needed a different woman. That's absolutely awful if you're experiencing it. And yet it seemed to work for him.

"Hopefully," she says, "we're telling both those stories and not shying away from the fact that as a lover he wasn't the nicest man."

Nothing in Genius (available as of April 26 on demand and on the TV Everywhere app) has been censored or watered down, Grazer says. "In both seasons, we celebrate Picasso's and Einstein's work, and the series seeks to understand the motivations and events that helped inspire them. Their genius in life and the legacies they left certainly don't negate their character flaws as people.

"But our series is called Genius, not Saint, so we are very much focused on showing them from all angles."

That's something Howard says the producers learned from telling Einstein's story (besides Howard, Grazer and Biller, the series' other exec producers are Francie Calfo, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Sam Sokolow, Jeff Cooney and Chris Cooney). To appreciate their subjects in full, they realized, they had to also tell the stories of the people they knew, worked with and loved.

"Most especially, we found that it was absolutely necessary to focus on the lives of the women who surrounded these men," Howard says. "Picasso had numerous lovers who doubled as muses. And we had learned with Einstein that Mileva Marić was such a vital part of his untold story that we knew going into this second season that women like Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot and Marie-Thérèse Walter needed to have the spotlight shone on their stories, too.

"We're proud that, even though Einstein and Picasso have been our focal points, in telling their stories we can give attention to the incredible yet often unrecognized work of the strong women who surrounded them." But it does raise the question: why not put a female genius at center stage? Biller admits they have received some criticism for not telling a woman's story in season two.

"The answer is not that there aren't any women geniuses — of course there are. But if you try to fulfill the criteria I mentioned, how many of those women are well known and unarguably considered geniuses?"

Regardless, both Howard and Biller say season three, should there be one, will be about a woman.

"We are in the process of narrowing down a list of genius women who we think perfectly represent the series' idea," Howard says.

"Why not see if you can guess who it's going to be?" Biller says with a laugh. "We've had fun choosing. It's a great parlor game."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018

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