Javier Bardem: no country for old hombres

sonorerat/wikimedia commons

sonorerat/wikimedia commons

Javier Bardem would rather be elsewhere. It's warm in this room in central London. He has coffee and cigarettes. Yet the Spanish actor's heavy eyes follow a trail of blue-grey smoke from the ashtray and out through the window.

Given the chance, he would probably make a run for it. His limbs shift awkwardly on the sofa and then settle. He sniffs, rubs his face. Evidently, the promotional side of his job is an ordeal. 

"I don't like it at all," he admits. "Actors are so insecure that we need to constantly hide inside imaginary characters. That's why it's funny to see an actor presenting an award because we don't know how to be ourselves. Of course, some actors think they're worth being watched and listened to but that's generally not the case."

Bardem's English is good, intermittently: his words, when they come, spill out fast, stop dead. Eye contact is minimal; his 6'3" frame curls inwards like a rosebud. But he is by no means hostile, which comes as a genuine relief. Less than 10 minutes have passed since an advance screening of the latest Coen brothers' film No Country For Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.

Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, a kind of evil incarnate, who blows like tumbleweed into Texas in 1980 and fires bolts into people's heads from a cattle stun gun depending on the result of a coin toss. Bardem's portrayal is both comical and terrifying.

The film has already taken a clutch of major awards, eliciting the kind of praise studio bosses live for, and Bardem is hotly tipped for an Oscar. He shrugs off the hype, praises the Coens and admits he had doubts about accepting the role.

"I don't like the idea of watching violence as entertainment so when I got the script I felt a bit lost," he says. "But I read the novel and had a clearer idea of what the author wanted to say. There's a big statement about violence being the logical reaction to violence whether it's spoken, physical, or an illegal war in Iraq. It's never the solution. My character is the natural reaction to the violence of the other characters, an icon of ultimate violence represented in the body of a man."

He employed a voice coach for the role, although much of what makes Chigurh menacing is non-verbal. There's his stun gun, powered by an oversized oxygen tank; and then there's his haircut - an unsettling synergy between the Osmonds and Kurt Cobain. It was recommended by Bardem's co-star Tommy Lee Jones, who had seen photographs of similar hairstyles from the period. Between shoots, Bardem kept the do in check with a hairnet, to the delight of his colleagues.

"It was insane living for three months with that hairdo," he says. "Going to buy some milk, trying to lead a normal life. On the last day of shooting, I arrived on set and everyone was wearing a hairnet for a joke. You could say that the hairstyle represents the feminine side of Anton Chigurh."

Bardem's route to his first all-American production has been circuitous, and yet describing No Country as his breakthrough film would be worthy of a bolt in the head. The 38-year-old was the first ever Spaniard to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2000 for his role in Before Night Falls. He played Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer persecuted under the Castro regime, imprisoned and tortured before contracting Aids and committing suicide.

Eight years earlier he starred in Bigas Luna's international hit Jamón Jamón as the archetypical Latin macho man alongside 17-year-old first timer Penelope Cruz. In both, he convinces. He is believable as a semi-paralysed policeman in Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh; and even more so as the bedridden paraplegic Ramon Sampedro in The Sea Inside, a part for which he was required to age 20 years and lose considerable weight. There have been no Batman And Robin style roles. No turkeys. Not yet.

"Some characters are really boring to watch so I can only imagine how boring they must be to perform," he says. "But you never know what's going to happen in the future. I'm an actor, I need to work. Sometimes you're hired for things you're not extremely confident about and that's fine - I don't need to excuse myself."

Intuition plays a big part in choosing roles, as does a degree of caution. "It's true that a good role leads to a better performance, whereas a bad role – not even Marlon Brando could pull it off." The rule so far has been to go for opposites, preferably polar opposites, from film to film.

Hence, two weeks after finishing No Country, he began working on Mike Newell's forthcoming adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, Love In The Time Of Cholera, as the consummate Columbian lover Florentino Ariza. It is not the first time he has performed a Hispanic role in English, and probably won't be the last.

"We're now at a place in history where movies should be made in their original language so that people receive them in a more honest way," he says. "But you keep on doing them in English because otherwise they won't be made. If the film works, people forget about the language 10 minutes later. If it doesn't, well that's a risk."

Bardem will also play the lead this year in Woody Allen's "Spanish project", Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a part that saw him reunite with Cruz in Spain, but with both actors performing in English. The experience, he says, was unique.

"Things go really fast with Woody. There's no rehearsal, just one take, and most of the time there's no script. You're usually just improvising, which for English speakers must be easier than for me." Because cinema is still dubbed in Spain, alternative actors will voice the parts of Bardem and Cruz when the film is screened there.

The anomaly is a hangover of the Franco regime where, rather than ban foreign films, scripts were doctored to suit the regime's tastes.

Bardem knows all about it. His family has been involved in Spanish cinema since its earliest days. His grandparents were actors. His uncle Juan Antonio Bardem, who directed Death Of A Cyclist, was imprisoned for five years under Franco for his radical views. His brother and sister are both actors. His mother, Pilar Bardem, is one of the most famous actors of her generation.

She gave birth to Bardem in Gran Canaria and raised her children single-handedly in Madrid. "Being an actress during the Franco years wasn't easy," he says. "There weren't many jobs. Being a woman wasn't well considered, and being an actress even worse. She went through years of unemployment but finally managed to make a living and feed us." One need look no further for the roots of Bardem's work ethic.

"My surname is very well respected in Spain," he says. "If you're going to wear it, you have to break your back." Bardem joined the family trade almost by accident during the first wave of post-Franco Spanish cinema. He was training as a painter in Madrid, working as a stripper to fund his studies.

kami jo/ flickr

kami jo/ flickr

Before that he played rugby for the Spanish national team – an honour he describes as equivalent to being "a champion bullfighter in Japan". He began working as a film extra, where one line of dialogue became two. When he enrolled in a drama class to study for a part he quickly became "immersed in the pleasure of performing".

But his view of the profession during childhood has kept his mind firmly focused on realities. "Most actors don't fly on private jets," he says. "Around 90% of us are unemployed and have a very hard time finding work. But it's a decent profession where people are committed to their need to perform whether they clean floors or wait tables to get by. The truth is that you work in a very unstable job and never know what's going to happen next."

As such, Bardem has never taken any roles, and particularly politically charged roles, for granted. One of the social issues he has tackled in his work is the legacy of the Spanish Catholic church. A few years ago, he caused a minor storm by saying that, if he were gay, he would marry a man just to annoy the institution.

As Ramon Sampedro in The Sea Inside, he questions the church's stance on euthanasia; in Milos Forman's 2006 film Goya's Ghosts, he plays Brother Lorenzo, a monk executed during the Spanish Inquisition.

"I respect people's beliefs," he says, "but not the manipulation of those beliefs to create fear. I'm not a victim but I've been witness to the psychological harm that the church has caused people of my generation. The Catholic church has shrunk people's minds rather than opening them to other possibilities. It has put itself in a very narrow place where things are either right or wrong, and I want to see the institution taking some responsibility for the things it has done in the past."

Regardless, he thanks God for his opportunities, and says that Spain, for all its faults, is home. Los Angeles, by contrast, is "an office to go to and return from", rather than a place of permanent residence. "I want to keep working in Spain mostly but sometimes that's not easy," he says. "I don't have the talent to write or direct my own projects so I depend on other people's material. Luckily enough, I've had the chance to go outside Spain to work, but that's something accidental that happened."

So far, he has resisted the blockbuster approach taken by Antonio Banderas, but says the actor deserves praise for blazing a trail in Hollywood. "What he did for us is really huge," he says. "He was the first Spanish actor to pack his luggage and go to a foreign country without speaking the language. In Europe, if you don't speak the language, it's impossible to work in different countries, but in America you are just a foreigner and can play lots of different foreigners. Of course, people there might eventually get bored of me."

He is self-deprecating, but not in a cloying way, and it's unlikely he is fishing for compliments. In John Malkovich's 2002 directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, Bardem plays a policeman who confronts the Shining Path terrorist group in the 1980s. Malkovich described Bardem at the time as "the best young actor in Europe, maybe anywhere", and the plaudit still embarrasses him.

On being reminded, Bardem diverts his eyes and unloads a sachet of sugar into his coffee. "That's because John is a nice man," he says. "He has a brilliant mind and is an extraordinary actor. When he was directing he would give me these clues, these images, that would help me tremendously to understand the character, but he would never be over me telling me what to do. When I heard what he'd said about me I called him to tell him he was nuts."

Almost inevitably, the success of No Country will lead to more fame, more effusive praise, and more scrutiny for Bardem. And there's the rub. He describes the promotional campaign during the Oscar buzz for Before Night Falls as an exhausting experience; the only saving grace, he says, was that he got so many people to sit down and watch the film.

But it came at the expense of his private life, which was what interested many interviewers. There is no talk today of his supposed romantic relationship with Penelope Cruz – in fact he clams up at the mere mention of it.

He is as interested as anyone else in the views of other stars but draws a definite line in the sand. "I read an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis recently and that was great because you want to know what a genius like him does and thinks. But the moment it gets private, that's it." He slaps his hands together, flamenco style. "It's insane that people's privacy is raped constantly."

Pending the resolution of the writers' strike in America - which he characteristically supports - Bardem is chalked in to play infamous Columbian drug baron Pablo Escobar in a film about his life; likewise, he is set to star in the film Nine, a homage to the Italian director Federico Fellini based on the successful Broadway musical. His guiding principle is simple: "Do your best and keep trying."

He would like to work with Paul Greengrass and Ken Loach, but equally with other directors who have yet to make their name. He auditioned for Loach's 1995 film Land And Freedom, but was turned down because he didn't speak any English. Now that he does, the door is open for more meaningful collaborations.

"I've met some really great people through my work," he says. "Beyond their talent, as with the Coens, they are usually very good human beings, and that definitely makes life much easier."

It is fair to assume that this is the pay-off for Bardem, rather than the thought of seeing himself magnified on screen. When he watches his performances, it's usually through shaking fingers. He dislikes the promotional poster for No Country – and in particular the prominence of his nose. "I thought it was a joke," he says. "The Coens knew that I hated my nose." It was broken years ago in Spain, by a stranger who asked for the actor's name in a nightclub and then punched him.

"You always see yourself on screen trying to be someone else," he says. "There might be a couple of frames where you go, Wow, what was that?' and it feels really good. Have I ever experienced that? Sometimes, very briefly. When you get lost in the character, when you are somebody else.

"That's the drug every actor is trying to pursue."

First published in the Sunday Herald, 2008.