A "Biutiful" chat with Javier Bardem

Javier Bardem on how his buzzy new role differs from his Oscar-winning turn in "No Country," and more

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 30, 2010 12:01AM (EST)

Javier Bardem in "Biutiful."
Javier Bardem in "Biutiful."

Javier Bardem gestures meaningfully out the window at the frozen New York streets and says, "I saw the wolf." Whether this is an unfamiliar Spanish idiom or simply a metaphor that appeals to him I am not sure, but I think it translates as "I have a cold."

My meeting with Bardem, in a hotel cafe overlooking Rockefeller Center, begins at noon, but the 41-year-old star of "Eat, Pray, Love," "No Country for Old Men" and "Before Night Falls" arrives looking rumpled and unshaven (not that that's unusual in itself) and doesn't even try to pretend it's not breakfast time. While publicists, assistants and waiters orbit around him, bringing cappuccinos and a basket of rolls -- and trying to discover whether the hotel will permit him to sneak a cigarette -- he apologizes for running late and chats with me a little about childbirth and fatherhood. He and partner Penélope Cruz are expecting their first child in February, and have avoided learning its sex so far. "We're old-fashioned in that sense," he says. "We want to be surprised." When I mention that my twins were born by Caesarean section, he asks whether I stayed to watch. (I tell him that I did, but wouldn't necessarily recommend it.)

Bardem is in town to talk about his magnificent starring performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film "Biutiful," an Oscar contender that has already won Bardem the best-actor award (shared with Italian actor Elio Germano) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. As I wrote at the time:

"Biutiful" is another of Iñárritu's grandiose meditations on life and death, parents and children, the supernatural, the interconnectedness of the universe and everything else under the sun (or over it). But at least it's mainly about one guy and one city. While it might run 20 minutes or so too long, and could stand to be thematically deflated as well, "Biutiful" is a major return to form for Iñárritu, closer to his riveting debut "Amores Perros" than to the ponderously noble "21 Grams" or the Hollywood-loves-the-world messaging of "Babel."

Bardem plays Uxbal, a shaggy, soft-hearted Barcelona lowlife and single parent who makes his living by managing and renting gangs of illegal African and Chinese workers, and who's been putting off going to the doctor because he expects some really bad news. As one friend of mine noted in Cannes, if you lay out Uxbal's story, it sounds like way too much: He's sick with cancer, he's got two small children, his estranged wife (Maricel Álvarez) is a junkie nutjob and he's got to deal with corrupt cops, organized crime lords and cheapskate employers. Oh, and he has a side business communicating with recently dead souls, whom he visualizes as human-shaped helium balloons huddled against the ceiling.

"Biutiful" is in danger throughout of collapsing into a sentimental omelet of pseudo-spiritual mush, and it's Bardem (along with the spectacular photography of Rodrigo Prieto) who keeps it tethered to recognizable human experience. Despite his reputation as an international sex symbol and bon vivant, Bardem in person comes across as a serious student of acting and cinema, discussing the invisible similarities between his role in "Biutiful" and his Oscar-winning performance as cold-blooded, Ringo-haired Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men." He also told me as much as he could about his just-completed role in an untitled Terrence Malick film (the one that will come out after "The Tree of Life"), and explained why he considers himself "retarded," at least in comparison to John Malkovich.

So you've got a baby on the way, and some people are saying that you could get another Oscar nomination for "Biutiful." This must be an exciting time.

Very, very exciting. If it were not for this cold, it would be even better.

You may not feel much like getting out right now, but do you like coming to New York? Do you have fun here?

I think New York is pretty amazing, in every sense. It has the best and the worst of any town in the world. The impulse that it has, the sensation, is unlike anyplace else. Everything on the street is a show. You have to pay attention, no? It's very exciting, but also exhausting.

Talking about cities, you've made two movies in a row in Barcelona -- "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" followed by "Biutiful" -- and they could hardly be more different. It's not like the same place!

I said the other day to the people in the city hall in Barcelona, "I brought a lot of tourism to you guys with 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona.' And now I'm taking it back." So we're even!

Yeah. In "Biutiful," we see the side of Barcelona that Vicky and Cristina never visit.

No, they don't. But I've been to the Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and it's real too. Have you been there? It's a beautiful town. Both of them are real, both of them have to live with each other. As in any major town like this one, I mean, there's a backstage. A lot of people are trying to survive in that backstage, sometimes with the waste that we leave for them. That's basically the Barcelona that Iñárritu shows there.

We were there shooting for five months, and that's a very, very long shoot. For an emotional work like this, that was pretty tough. Prior to that, I prepared for three months, and the last month of my preparation was to be in Barcelona going to those places with those people, the immigration community. I knew about it, I read about it, I saw it on the news, but then I was in it.

So you saw things you hadn't known about before.

Well, you go and see all these illegal factories. It's very impressive to see that they are right in the middle of town. Like, right here, right there, that window. You wouldn't ever expect that. So it's not only the backstage. It's also in the middle of town that things are going unnoticed. Big, big things that are affecting a lot of people are going on there.

Uxbal must be a tough character to spend five months with. I mean, he's a decent man, but he's a total mess. He's sick with cancer, burdened with guilt, haunted by ghosts ...

Yeah, he is. This is not a movie about delivering the lines and then going back home. This is a life experience, and a journey. I knew that. I knew since I read the script, and based on Alejandro's previous work, that what he was proposing to me was to jump into the abyss. That's why it took me a little bit of time to say yes, because I knew he wasn't offering a job. He was proposing that we grab hands and go to the end of the world. We know where we have to go -- we'll see if we can come back. Five months, plus three months of preparation, working six days per week. Most of the time we worked Saturdays, and he likes to work 12 to 14 hours per day. Holding that emotional state for so long is not easy.

When you are in a movie you have to always be in focus. It's not like doing a play. When you do a play, of course you warm up a few hours before, you live the play, and then you go back home and have a drink, whatever. You stay with him, but you don't have to be in focus. The play is done in two or three hours, and then goodbye. On a movie set, you have to be totally in focus, because you never know when they're going to say, "OK, now we got it. Let's go!" When you're doing a character like this, you can't take a break from him. Otherwise it's going to disappear.

I wonder whether being exhausted like that helped you play a guy who is terminally ill. Because I think it's hard to play someone who's dying -- who knows he is dying -- without lapsing into cliché.

Yes. This is the most powerful character I've played so far, and I'm not sure if I will ever play somebody like this again. There are so many layers to convey and so many circumstances to construct. Relationships of many different kinds -- people that you use, people that you are used by, affectionate relationships, hate relationships. And then there's the sickness. I felt there was no way I could do this without putting myself at risk. Because Alejandro's work, the way I see it, is about being as honest as you can. The work of the actor has to be about taking off all these faces, social characters that you put on yourself in order to survive out there, and getting as naked as you can, in order not to interfere with the character.

This character needs to be as transparent as crystal, because there are so many things that have to be seen through his behavior, his voice. Those things have to be attached to the actor emotionally, otherwise you cannot portray them and it will be a fake performance. [Clutching chest and moaning.]"Oh, I'm sick!" No. All of that has to be within, so that when he's not speaking, when he's walking on the street, you will see that. That was the challenge, and that was the exhausting part. Bringing all that and putting it in there and saying, "I have to hold this for five months."

I suppose preparing for "No Country for Old Men" must have been very different. That character is also intense, but almost in an opposite direction.

Yeah, it was very different. I didn't know what I was doing there, man! [Laughter.] But it's funny you mention that, because they are similar in a way. They are characters I had to work on with my acting coach, who I've worked with for 20 years. I go to my acting school every year, whether I'm working or not, I have to be there at least three months. My coach is named Juan Carlos Corazza, and I think he's a genius. I think he reads material, characters and human beings in a way I haven't seen before. In both cases, those roles have to do with how much you have to take out of yourself -- it's not about doing anything, it's about, OK, let's take things out of yourself so you can go to the character in a way that is more pure and simple.

Especially in "No Country for Old Men," he is a very simple man, with simple ideas. But those ideas were pretty tough! Uxbal is the same, I think. I've done some other characters, like Reinaldo Arenas [in "Before Night Falls"], where you have to add things, add behavior, and then work around them until the moment those things are yours. These two guys are different -- it's like take out, take out, take out, until you are naked. And then you put that drama in, or you put that philosophy in, like in "No Country for Old Men." They are simple statements, but very strong.

Of course language is only one part of a performance, and a lot of actors say it's the last part. But it must be different for you, acting in Spanish, as in "Biutiful," after all the recent films you've done in English.

Yeah, it makes a difference because it's the mother tongue. You live your life in Spanish and you've suffered and enjoyed and had pleasures and pains in Spanish. Words have an emotional resonance in you, huge emotional echoes, when you're speaking in your own language. You don't think about what you're saying; the words come out of a need to express yourself. When you're speaking in a foreign language, there's like an office in your brain, where people are throwing the words at you. "Give me that word -- I need a verb! I need an adjective!" There's a lot of people working in there, and you have to live with that.

Well, one of the funny things about Anton Chigurh, in "No Country," is that he doesn't seem to speak or understand Spanish. And he doesn't seem to be a native speaker of English either. He's, like, Hungarian. Or maybe from nowhere.

He's something else. He doesn't belong to anywhere. We don't want to know. [Laughter.]

I'm sure you can't really tell me anything about your role in Terrence Malick's next film, but I still have to ask. You wrapped that recently, didn't you?

We wrapped a month ago. I am not allowed to talk about it, as you know. Well, there are two things: I'm not allowed and I don't have any idea. [Laughter.] So how's that? It's set in Oklahoma, and here's the great thing about Terry: To my surprise -- because I didn't know him -- he is as funny as hell. He has a great, great sense of humor. He made me laugh a lot. He is a great man, a philosopher. I've always been very grateful for his work, so when he gave me a call I said, yes, of course. It's like with Woody Allen: He calls you and you go, "Where? When?" And of course they don't pay you shit! They take advantage of that! But it's OK, you go there and you want to be part of the experience. Will I end up in the movie? Maybe not! Or maybe I am the star of the movie. Who knows? But that is the less important thing. The most important thing is to be there, to go through the experience of shooting with him.

OK, so what's that like? You can tell me what Terry is like as a director without really talking about the movie, I suppose.

Well, it's unique. He sends you some notes, and that's it. Then you show up and he takes the camera and you never know what's going to happen, ever. What time, where, when, with who. So you have to be so alive, especially when you're playing a character like mine. I cannot really tell you what my character is, but it's definitely a character. It's not just me being natural. Hopefully! Maybe you'll see it and it's the most horrible thing I've ever done. But when you're playing a character with certain behavior, with a very clear point of view, you have to be 24 hours with him. The way Terry combines reality and fiction is pretty amazing, very poetic. Things were coming out of the scenes unexpectedly, and some of them were amazing things, amazing reactions. Afterwards he would let me know, "That's why I don't write, because I would never have expected you or him to do and say that." He's like a hunter, and sometimes when you go hunting you don't get shit. Sometimes you get a big buffalo, man, and I saw Terry hunting a lot of buffaloes. When it works it's pretty fantastic.

Before I go, I wanted to ask about a movie of yours that's one of my favorites, that people probably don't ask you about that much: "The Dancer Upstairs," which you made with John Malkovich directing. Hardly anyone saw it, but I love that movie.

Me too!

I think that was one of your first movies in English. What do you remember about making that film?

Oh -- stress, nervousness, responsibility! Before that I had done "Before Night Falls," because my dear friend Julian Schnabel had given me his trust, partly to see if I could more or less act in a foreign language, preparing for what would come later. And then working with John Malkovich was like a master class. He's a very sweet man, a very, deeply, extremely clever and smart and intelligent guy who I will never have anything to talk about with. It doesn't matter what I say, I will always look, like, retarded next to him. He knows a lot about a lot of things, but he never makes you feel stupid about it. I think that film is very powerful, I loved the story. I have nothing but good memories of that one.

"Biutiful" opens Dec. 29 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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