Life is Biutiful
Declan Cashin coaxes now Oscar-nominated Javier Bardem into revealing he still takes acting lessons and what he thinks about fate and fame
‘I have to go to the premiere later. I don't know how I'm going to do it," wheezes Javier Bardem, sluggishly stirring a dainty cup of tea in a dark hotel suite in central London.
The man does not look well. Though his skin is a healthy, sun-kissed shade of mahogany, his big, soulful-and-doleful eyes are puffy and bloodshot, and his voice is croaky and nasal.
The poor guy is smothered from a head-cold, something not helped by the fact that he has just jetted in to dank, rainy London from the scorched plains of Oklahoma, where he is busy filming an as-yet untitled project with legendary director Terrence Malick.
Day & Night sat down with Bardem when he was in town to promote his latest Oscar-nominated movie Biutiful as part of the London Film Festival. It was just a few weeks after it had been announced that he and his new wife, actress Penelope Cruz, were expecting their first child.
Stern warnings have been issued that the 41- year-old Spaniard is point-blank refusing to speak about his personal life and might indeed end the interview if he feels the conversation is steering in that direction.
That resolve is tested early in our interview because Biutiful — helmed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel — is largely about fatherhood, and what it means to be a father and provider.
But, make no mistake about it, Biutiful isn't an easy feel-good watch. At the movie's bleak heart is Uxbal (Bardem), a struggling, single father-of-two, who has ‘the gift' of communicating with the dead, and who himself is dying from cancer.
It's a ferociously committed and intensely lived-in performance from Bardem, who walked off with the Best Actor award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for his efforts (he has also secured nominations for a Golden Globe and a Bafta).
For his part, Bardem appears to be taking all this praise in his cautious stride. Or perhaps he's just too sick to care. At any rate, on this day he stays extremely wary throughout our interview, continually fidgeting with his teacup, his mobile phone, his packet of Marlboros and his lighter.
His English is good, but idiosyncratic, and he has a habit of punctuating his answers with ‘Hmm', a sound that comes across as distracted, or even bored.
Biutiful was an eight-month commitment for the actor, and Bardem freely admits that it was a demanding shoot. “Hmm, it was hard to know where the line was between what's real and what's not,” he says. “For me, it was the toughest movie I've done in the sense of knowing where the limits are. It was five months of a shoot, which followed three months of preparation with my acting teacher.”
Wait a second: an acting teacher? He smiles. “Yes, I have this acting teacher I have worked with for the past 20 years. Every year I go to his school.”
But, I splutter, surely having an Oscar — which he won for the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men in 2007 — means not having to sweat and toil through dramatic lessons any longer? “You would think, but it's actually the opposite,” he replies. “If you really like your work, you prepare your work.”
It's now time to stray perilously close to the verboten topic of fatherhood, as it's impossible to talk about the character of Uxbal without addressing it. “I think he finds at the very end what kind of father those kids expect him to be,” Bardem says.
“He has created this whole wall around him to survive and to feed those kids, but then he realises that those kids also need to be fed by different things: not only milk and bread, but soul. They need ideas, emotions and ethics.” He pauses, before adding: “It's not very common to see a movie where the father is taking care of the kids.”
Has he taken away anything from the experience that made him consider fatherhood in another or a different light? He stops and gives me a stare. “Hmmm… I know where you are going and I'm not going to answer that,” he states. I try to qualify my question, rephrase it, but he just cuts me off with a curt: “I don't want to answer that.”
The conversation moves swiftly on to the topic of spirituality, another key theme in Biutiful.
“Hmmm, I'm not an especially spiritual person,” Bardem admits, before hesitating once more as if sensing danger. “It's not a question of I do or do not believe. I know God exists and I respect that.”
Does he believe in fate then? Or is it the case that we make our own luck in life? He sips his tea, thoughtfully. “That is an interesting question. Whether it's luck or fate, you need a lot of people to help you. I'm very grateful to a lot of people who have made this fate of mine a cool one.
“It's about equilibrium. A lecturer of mine once said that it's 25pc talent, 25pc hard work, 25pc luck and 25pc opportunities for a successful life in any career. I believe that.”
Bardem was born into an acting family in the Canary Islands: his grandparents, uncle, older brother and sister are all film-makers. He made his acting debut at age six, but didn't fully concentrate on it as a career until the late 1980s, when he began to pick up TV and theatre work.
In 1992, he teamed up with famed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar for Jamon Jamon, in which he starred opposite his now wife Penelope Cruz. Bardem became a mainstay of Spanish cinema, his lack of English holding him back from an international breakthrough.
His big moment came in 2000 when he played the persecuted real-life gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He followed up with disparate roles in Collateral, The Dancer Upstairs and the awardwinning The Sea Inside, in which he played a quadriplegic.
Then came his memorable turn as the psychotic hitman in No Country For Old Men, and, with it, an Oscar, global fame and a wife: the next year he starred in Woody Allen's sex comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, alongside an Oscar-winning Cruz. The two fell in love and married last year. And now he has another Oscar nomination to add to his bounty.
Bardem is clearly still adjusting to life in the spotlight, but he tries not to let it get to him. “I don't really think about it,” he explains. “That's something that goes parallel to you. I was raised in a family of actors. I've seen everything: the ups and downs, and I don't buy into any of it. I don't buy the gold, I don't buy the failure, and I don't buy the effort.
“The ego is something you can control, and something you don't have to pay attention to. It's not easy, but there is a way to do it. Otherwise you'll do things for the wrong reasons. I think some people have great talent, but they get awed by what is not important.”
In addition to the Malick project, Bardem is linked to three other movie projects over the next two years. I put it to him that it seems like something of a golden period for foreign actors in Hollywood.
“I think it's impossible to deny that the world — communities, languages, nationalities — are more connected than ever,” he says. “Everything is mixed up and that has to be reflected in the movies. Movies are vehicles of expression. It's like what happened with black people: there came a moment where they simply had to be there, and had to be represented.”
One such recent role for Bardem was as the Brazilian love interest of Julia Roberts in the, erm, uneven travelogue-romance Eat Pray Love. Though having seen what he put himself through making Biutiful, one could understand why Bardem signed up for something frothy afterwards.
“After Biutiful, I did Eat Pray Love because I felt I needed to do that,” he says. “I needed to go to a different place where I can be lighter, or more joyful, or funnier, and to stretch some of my muscles.
“I don't know anything else but acting, so I try to appear in movies that speak about people. Biutiful, for example, is a movie that doesn't let anyone be passive. It stays with you, it makes you ask questions of yourself. That's the task of good movies.”