Jose Haro/Roadside Attractions
Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a hustler moving counterfeit goods, in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful.
Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a hustler moving counterfeit goods, in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful. Jose Haro/Roadside Attractions
This interview was originally broadcast on February 3, 2011. Biutiful is now available on DVD.
Spanish actor Javier Bardem burst into the American moviegoing consciousness in 2007, when he played a very bad man with a very bad haircut in the Coen brothers' film No Country for Old Men. He won an Oscar for his trouble, then turned up again as a romantic Spanish artist in the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Bardem received his third Academy Award nomination — his first was for the 2000 film Before Night Falls — for his performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film Biutiful. Bardem plays Uxbal, a small-time Barcelona criminal managing a crew of African immigrants selling knockoff goods on the street. (He also has connections to a sweatshop full of illegal Chinese immigrants who make the shoddy merchandise.) But he's a loving and attentive father to his two children, and when he is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he is forced to allow his ex-wife, a bipolar alcoholic played by Maricel Alvarez, to re-enter their children's lives.
In an interview with Fresh Air's Dave Davies, Bardem explains that as soon as he read the script for Biutiful, he connected with his character — because he enjoys playing people who are full of contradictions.
"You have to create a normal person under strange circumstances, and that's always challenging because you don't have a stereotype to create," he explains. "You have to really go to the bottom of the heart of this man and try to live with him for five months, which is what the whole shoot lasted."
But living with his character for five months isolated Bardem, he says, in ways that he didn't expect.
"When you are portraying somebody that has a very specific emotional weight, you feel like you're really starting to abandon your own body and go to someplace else," he says. "And then when you come back to yourself, people that know you well, they ask, 'Why did you say that?' or 'Why are you doing this?' or 'Why are you behaving this way?' But you don't realize. Because it's so unconscious, you don't have control over it."
Bardem says he experienced a similar sensation while on the set of No Country for Old Men, in which he played a psychotic killer.
"I felt isolated. I felt I didn't belong to that world, because it was my first time I was working with a whole foreign crew," he says ."I was the only one speaking Spanish. I was in the heartland — Texas, New Mexico. So I felt really out of place. But that was not the only reason why I felt that way. In a way, unconsciously, my character was putting me there — that is, in a place where you do not belong to any world or anyone."
Becoming An International Star
Bardem didn't originally set out to become an actor. He wanted to be a painter. And though he appeared on Spanish television as a child and young adult, he saw acting as simply a way to make enough money to further his artistic career.
"One day, they offered me a couple of lines, and I thought, 'Well, why not.' And I did it," he recalls. "And I felt great. I felt like I knew that place. I belonged there."
Though he took roles in films like Jamon Jamon and The Ages of Lulu, Bardem says he didn't achieve international success until he met director Julian Schnabel, who cast Bardem as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls.
"He saw some of my movies in Spain, and at that time, I didn't speak any English," he says. "And he said, 'We're going to make this together. Don't worry. It's going to be fine.' And I had one of the best experiences of my life doing that movie, and I will never forget it."
Filming with Schnabel, Bardem says, he realized that performing in English — though it was certainly a challenge — gave him a sense of freedom he didn't have when acting in his native language.
"It's like, I'm trying to express myself ... and there's this office in my brain full of people working at the same time ... trying to not be wrong with the intonation, with the words," he says. "So it's very exhausting. If I speak Spanish, that office is closed. ... But [working in English] gives me a different kind of freedom because, since some of the words don't have an emotional resonance with me, I can play with them more freely. When you're speaking in your mother tongue, you may be more cautious."
On seeing that bowl haircut for the first time
"There was no mirror. So I turn and I look at [the Coen brothers] and they were laughing so hard. One of them fell off on the floor. And I said, 'I need a mirror. I need a mirror right now. What's going on here?' And I saw it. And it was like 'Wow, that's really insane.' But it's the Coen brothers. It was a brilliant idea. I knew that they gave me 50 percent of my character with that haircut. It was their idea."
On landing Vicky Cristina Barcelona
"I had a call from Mr. Woody Allen, which I was very impressed by. He told me briefly, 'I have a script for you. I want you to read it.' And he hung up. And I said, 'OK. Whatever.' And I read it and I thought it was fun and it was very, very smart, because it's about stereotypes and the people behind those stereotypes. And then he called me back and said, 'Do you like it?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'OK, you are on.' It was that easy."