Not Just Skin Deep
By Jerry Portwood
Photography by Xevi Muntané | Styling by Alberto Murtra
A quarter of a century ago, an unknown Spanish actor named Antonio Banderas fell into bed with his older male lover, spread his legs akimbo and, on cue from director Pedro Almodóvar, produced a show of homoeroticism that turned him into an object of gay desire -- and none of this ever slowed his trajectory to Hollywood leading man status.
This month, the 51-year-old returns, comfortably grizzled and alluring, in the director's new movie, The Skin I Live In, opposite newcomer Jan Cornet, who undergoes a harrowing cinematic transformation at the hands of Banderas.
The Skin I Live In may be the most disturbing and difficult Almod*#243;var film yet. A radical departure from his earlier work, it's his Frankenstein movie seen through a Hitchcock lens. Instead of patching together a new creature from the parts of dead bodies, the sinister plastic surgeon played by Banderas attaches new, genetically engineered skin to a man's body to produce a vision of his dead wife. Cornet's character, Vicente, is slowly turned into Vera, who is then played by the gorgeous Elena Anaya.
In one scene, Vicente wakes up to find he has been given a vaginoplasty, before he's presented with a collection of dildos of varying sizes meant to expand his new organ's circumference. It’s difficult material, but the beguiling 29-year-old Cornet says that collaborating with Almodóvar was one of the most rewarding experiences of his young career. "For an actor, it's amazing," he says. "And working with Antonio was intense -- but fantastic." Since he and Anaya played the same character with different bodies, they had to develop who Vicente/Vera was below the skin. "It wasn't just simply that we worked on the way the character had to move or walk or speak," Cornet says. "I think we took it one step further and worked on the inner self, and it was lovely."
After Cornet is kidnapped by Banderas and chained to the wall of a cave, he endures food and water deprivations. Later, in a pivotal -- and unnervingly sexy -- scene, Cornet is strapped to a chair and shaved with a straight razor by Banderas. It was an episode the duo rehearsed many times and had just one take to get right. "Pedro told us what he wanted for every second," Cornet explains. "It was like a dance; it was very near choreography the way he told us to move and interact." It was also a lesson in intensity and restraint. "I think actors, we want to cry, to be very emotional in every fucking scene," he says. "But Pedro wanted us to reduce our emotions to a minimum. Less is more."
There are deep, problematic questions raised in the film -- How fluid is one's sexuality and gender? Whose survival and safety is paramount? -- but Cornet believes the focal point of the story is the abuse of power: changing someone's gender against their will, in this case. "But, at the same time, there are people out there who have been born into a body they don’t feel happy with. So why can’t they change their sex?" Cornet asks. "The soul doesn't change. The soul is something, the inner self -- it's much deeper, much greater than the trappings of the sex we have."
The Skin I Live In opens October 14.
To view our slide show of Jan Cornet photos, click here.