Javier Bardem on "The Good Boss" humor: Humans love "seeing people suffer when we see they are safe"

The Oscar winner spoke to Salon about his latest movie, shooting "Dune 2," how acting is like a salad and more

Published August 25, 2022 4:59PM (EDT)

Javier Bardem in "The Good Boss" (Cohen Media)
Javier Bardem in "The Good Boss" (Cohen Media)

Javier Bardem gives another remarkable performance as the titular character in "The Good Boss." It is on par with his criminally underseen turn as a beleaguered detective in "The Dancer Upstairs" and his masterful work in "The Sea Inside," "Biutiful," and as Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls." Whether he is playing a Bond villain — as he did in "Skyfall" — the drug lord Pablo Escobar, or in his Oscar-winning role as the menacing Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men," Bardem always makes viewers anxious to see what his characters are going to say or do next.

This new film is no exception as his character, Blanco, encounter a series of difficult characters and situations. Bardem's performance is incredibly sly. Just watch as his expression changes subtly and then dramatically at every reversal of fortune. The actor exudes patience against adversity, but at times drops his brave face and shows how conniving he really is. 

"The Good Boss," which was Spain's 2022 Oscar entry, reunites Bardem with director Fernando León de Aranoa, whom he first worked with 20 years ago on "Mondays in the Sun." (They also made "Loving Pablo" together five years ago.) In "Mondays," Bardem played an unemployed dock worker. In this new film, Bardem plays the title character, the owner of Básculas Blanco, a company that makes scales. The local government has shortlisted the business for its excellence award, and Blanco is determined to win it. The trouble is, he has to first resolve an issue with Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), a worker who was just laid off, as well as deal with Miralles (Manolo Solo), his head of production, whose work has been compromised because of a domestic situation. Blanco also gets a little too intimate with Liliana (Almudena Amor), an attractive new intern. As he tries to tip things in his favor, Blanco may have to "trick the scale" to get things the way he wants them.  

The actor spoke with Salon about "The Good Boss," and collaborations, and his work/life balance.

In "Mondays in the Sun," your character tried to survive hard circumstances with irony. In contrast, "The Good Boss," is a satire on capitalism. What observations do you have about how these two films portray workers' rights and the dignity of work in Spain?

"The Good Boss" is the other side of the coin from "Monday in the Sun." That film was a story of a group of people trying to fight unemployment. It speaks about the union, solidarity, and workers' rights. Now 20 years later, we are telling the other side of the story, which is that people are employed, but their rights are violated sometimes in various ways and there is a lack of solidarity, there are no unions, and now people are out for themselves, and not paying attention to anyone else because they know they are being [viewed] by the boss. It's the opposite of "Mondays in the Sun." The difference here is that it is more of a black comedy, but of course there is a social statement. The characters [I played] couldn't be more different. Fernando, the director and I often thought, "What would the character from 'Mondays in the Sun' say to 'The Good Boss' and vice versa?" They would have a very nice and sometimes very heated discussion about work, unemployment, and people's rights. 

Can you talk about your work ethic and your passion for work? You throw yourself into your roles, and that's why your performances are so strong. 

I don't know. It depends on so many things. There was a time when I was 20 and I thought the world was revolving around myself. Well, thank God, it's not. There are way more important things than yourself, my friend. You try to put a little bit of what you think you can add to the ingredients that others are cooking — screenwriters, directors, lighting, wardrobe, sound. You bring your thing and hope it will end up in the salad. I've done movies more than theater, and it depends so much on so many elements. Theater you play the part, and no one can stop you. In moviemaking, so many elements fall into place. So I would never dare take credit when things go right. I'll take credit when things go wrong. In my experience, that means not even a good editor can fix it.

Blanco emphasizes that Blanco Scales is a family business and talks about legacy. You come from a family of actors. What can you say about the pressure to "perform well," which is one of Blanco's main concerns?

I try to do my best, and I prepare myself. I do homework. I go to the set, and I am on time. I am a good colleague and a good partner. I learn my lines and bring ideas when I feel the director is open to those. If not, I will follow his direction alone. I try to be an element in service of the director and story as much as my ego allows it. Because as an actor I have an ego that is necessary to play in front of camera, but most of the time, it goes against your freedom and your perception and your collaboration, and your way of creating something with somebody else. When your ego interferes and says you, you, you — you have to do this right. You forget about what is surrounding you, which is a group of people doing their best. You miss the opportunity of learning from others. The older I get, I try to feel the bottom of my feet, breathe, and feel present and really allow myself to receive the gift of being in that place.

Today, I shot with Denis Villeneuve; I'm making "Dune 2" in Budapest. He has this vision and gives you direction and it's such a joy and dream of his to make this movie. If you are on your own, you lose that, and it's a pity. Fernando [León de Aranoa] is a good friend of mine. He is so smart. When you have the connection and are open to that, things happen. Otherwise, you are incarcerated within yourself. So that takes the pressure off. Me, I don't have any value by myself. Me with you, we have value together. 

The Good BossThe Good Boss (Cohen Media)

Blanco tries to help his employees, which is the collaboration you were just talking about. But he also micromanages situations he cannot or should not control — like his coworker's personal lives. He tries to construct his life the way he would like it to be," Are you a control freak, or do you have a more easygoing nature? Does Blanco have to win at all costs? 

He was born into that. As his wife says, it was a heritage. The factory was given to him by his family; he didn't earn it. Fernando and I talked about it. He is used to being a winner and have everything he wants. This is the story of a man who happens to have a very stressful week because things don't go the way he desires, and he's not capable of dealing with that because he's not used to it — not getting what he wants. That's a curse, and that's where the fun comes from. We see him suffering, and that's what we humans love the most — seeing people suffer when we see they are safe. It's a story meant to make people laugh; it's not a real situation.

What is so incredible about your performance are your expressions. I like that Blanco appears to be confident and relaxed, but he is absolutely terrified inside — and his face does not always hide his thoughts. Sometimes it can be very funny, but there are scenes that are very uncomfortable. Can you talk about how you conveyed his internal conflict? 

The story has great dialogue, situations, and characters. But it has to be maintained by reactions. Blanco reacts to many of the issues he faces and confronts. With Fernando, I trust him so much, and shooting in digital, you can roll and try many things. We tried so many different options on how to react to something. Most of the time, I'm scared of what the director will choose — as I said earlier, the performance depends on so many people — but with Fernando, I know he is going to pick the very best shot that works for the story. We worked on different expressions and attitudes. Some of them were funny, and some were scarier. When I saw it, I was laughing at what he did; that was a great option. It was fun to work like that and not imprisoned by the idea of how he should react. Let's just react and see what happened. 

Do you like to improvise? Do you feel you need to find five ways to express one thing? 

I try not to make [each take] similar because it's boring. I try to, in some way, surprise myself —not to surprise others for the effect, but to put myself in a place or a situation that's new for me. Most of the time, it is a little detail or way of seeing someone from a different perspective it changes the whole thing and how you react. [Bardem shifts his position and changes his expressions to illustrate.] I don't think that's improvising, but that at least brings something new to every take. Some editors are keener to it, other don't like it. You have to go with it. If you are not into it, that's fine. You are the director.

Blanco is also a bit amoral, manipulating things and even people to get what he wants. Viewers will root for him until he goes too far. What are your thoughts about his character? 

He abuses. He is abusing the intimacy with his coworkers that he has built, based on some lies that some workers believe because they want to keep their job. It's a relationship between the needy and the one that gives them their needs, and, at the same time, abuses their needs.

How do you balance your life and work? Where do you find your harmony? 

I don't know! If you know, let me know. In very brief, sporadic, fast, quick moments in my life. OK, this feels right — then it goes!

"The Good Boss" opens in theaters Aug. 26. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dune 2 Interview Javier Bardem Movies The Good Boss