They are among the most internationally recognizable Spanish actors of recent times.
So it's a bit strange to realize that, apart from a couple of brief encounters and near-encounters in two high-spirited Pedro Almodóvar films, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz had never been on a movie set together, let alone one in which they shared starring roles.
That is, until "Official Competition," a black comedy now in limited theatrical release.
In this Argentine-Spanish co-production — directed by Argentines Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, and filmed on the outskirts of Madrid — Banderas plays Félix Rivero, an international movie star who places himself under the orders of Lola Cuevas (Cruz), an overweening independent director. Her unique working methods give rise to more than one tense and awkward moment with Rivero's co-star of the film-within-the film, Iván Torres, an actor of greater prestige than Félix but far less fame. (He's played by Argentine Óscar Martínez of "The Distinguished Citizen" and "Wild Tales.")
Despite their infrequent collaborations, Cruz and Banderas have had curiously similar career trajectories. Besides turning up in several of Almodóvar's shimmering screwball-comedy melodramas, both successfully made the leap into the Hollywood mainstream, Cruz with "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and an Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," among other roles, and Banderas with "Philadelphia," "Desperado," "The Mask of Zorro" and the "Shrek" saga.
They've also known each other for nearly three decades, Banderas said during a recent Zoom interview from his apartment in New York, where he had flown in from Barcelona to attend the screening of "Official Competition" at the Tribeca Film Festival. They first met in New York when he was playing the lover of Tom Hanks' AIDS-stricken lawyer during shooting of "Philadelphia" and Cruz was figuring out how she too might crack the English-language market.
Banderas said he enjoyed watching Cruz construct her prismatic character in "Official Competition," which he describes as "very different" from the real Cruz, "even in the external image" (for starters, check out her character's witchy red hairdo).
"Penélope created from the inside out, probably using part of her imagination and part of the behaviors that she herself had seen in different directors, to which she then added this whole exterior aspect, with the red wig and the eccentric side that the character has," Banderas said.
In Almodóvar's "Pain and Glory" (2019), Banderas and Cruz appeared almost entirely in separate scenes, on parallel narrative tracks, he as a physically and mentally ailing Spanish director, she glimpsed in flashbacks as his mother (or possibly, in a typically Almodóvarian life-imitates-art-imitates-life twist, as an actress playing his mother).
Yet, speaking by phone from Madrid, Cruz said that after teaming up with Banderas on "Official Competition" she felt they'd been colleagues forever.