Javier Bardem Reflects On A 'Biutiful' Acting Career The Spanish actor received his third Academy Award nomination for his performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film Biutiful. Bardem reflects on his role in Biutiful, as well as his performances in Before Night Falls and No Country for Old Men.
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Javier Bardem Reflects On A 'Biutiful' Acting Career

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Javier Bardem Reflects On A 'Biutiful' Acting Career

Javier Bardem Reflects On A 'Biutiful' Acting Career

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, won an Oscar for his performance as a psychopathic serial killer in the 2007 Coen Brothers film "No Country for Old Men." He played a seductive Spanish artist in the Woody Allen film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Bardem has been a respected actor in international cinema for years. He earned seven nominations for the Goya, known as the Spanish Oscars, and he's won four times. His films include "Live Flesh," "Before Night Falls," and "The Sea Inside." He earned his third Academy Award nomination earlier this year for his performance in the film "Biutiful," by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It was nominated for best foreign film. It's now out on DVD.

In "Biutiful," Bardem plays a small-time criminal in Barcelona who runs a crew of African immigrants selling knockoff goods on the street. He also has connections to a sweat shop of illegal Chinese immigrants. But he's a loving and attentive father to his two children. Their mother, his wife, suffers from bipolar disorder. And on top of it all, he learns he has a life-threatening illness.

I spoke to Javier Bardem earlier this year and asked him about playing the lead character in "Biutiful."

Mr. BARDEM: It was very challenging, and I was scared to death to do it, but I thought it was going to be a very rewarding experience, which it was, not only at a professional level but also a personal level.

DAVIES: Yeah. And why at a personal level?

Mr. BARDEM: Because you have to face yourself. It's impossible to do a character like this from the outside. It's impossible to be five months, almost 12 to 14 hours per day, six days per week, submerged in this emotional state and not be affected.

When you are portraying somebody and that has a very, I don't know, I mean a very specific weight, emotional weight, you feel like you are starting to really, I don't know, to abandon your own body and go to someplace else.

And then when you come back to yourself, people that know you well, family and friends, they know. It's like: Why did you say that, or why are you doing this, or why are you behaving this way? You are not like that. But you, yourself, you don't realize because it's so unconscious that you don't have control over it.

DAVIES: Now to the director, the Mexican, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I know that you and he were friends before this, and he wrote this part with you in mind, in part. And he describes himself as a perfectionist.

And this is hard to believe, but I read that the scene in which you talk to your doctor, and your doctor informs you that you have cancer, your character. I read that you took 50 takes of that scene. Is that right?

Mr. BARDEM: I don't know if 50 but a lot, a lot. He likes to - yeah, he likes to shoot and shoot and shoot, and which that explains why he's - I don't know. I would say he's the best actor-director I ever met. And why is that?

Well besides shooting 50 takes, which is very exhausting for everybody, it's about putting the camera in the right way, in the right place, at the right moment, and letting the actor breathe and letting the actor to take the time to take the journey. We both got to a place where we want to give the best of ourselves, and that's why we went through this journey together until the very end.

DAVIES: A lot of people saw you in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a romantic comedy, in which Barcelona looks just terrific. I mean, the sun shines, and the scenery is beautiful, and the sea is glistening. In this film, "Biutiful," it's a very different side of Barcelona. Do you want to describe a little bit some of the neighborhoods that this takes place in?

Mr. BARDEM: Yes. This Barcelona is more the Barcelona of people and communities that are full of people that are coming from outside of Spain. It's more of a landscape of immigration. And it's around the exterior neighborhoods, out of the town.

But also, in the middle of the town, there are many places where you can walk through this major and very famous shops, and two doors down the street, there is a big building full of, I don't know, people that are trying to survive there.

But basically most of it happens out of the Barcelona that we know, which is the Barcelona that was portrayed in Woody Allen's movie, which by the way is a beautiful Barcelona. But as any other town in the world, it has two faces.

DAVIES: Well, we have to talk about "No Country For Old Men," the Coen brothers' film, where you play Anton Chigurh, this truly scary, sociopathic killer. First of all, just explain how you got the look of this guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Well, Tommy Lee Jones brought a book, a photo book, of photos that were taken from the frontier - old Mexico. And there was this guy who was in the photo, it was kind of a black and white photo with a prostitute in a brothel in the frontier.

And Joel and Ethan Coen brought that picture to me, and they said: We want this. And the photo actually was very blurry, and I said: I don't know what you mean. They said: You'll know. You'll know soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: So they put me in the makeup and hair trailer, and the hairdresser, which is a great, great man, he did this horrible haircut on my hair, with my hair.

And there was no mirror. So I turn, and I look at them, and they were laughing so hard that one of them fell off on the floor, ha, ha, ha, ha. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: But again, it's the Coen brothers. It so brilliant idea. I mean, it's so brilliant. I mean, I knew that they gave me 50 percent of my character with that haircut. It was their idea.

DAVIES: Right, and for people who haven't see it, it's - you have long hair. It's not particularly stylish. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it the lost Beatle from hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: That's a good one.

DAVIES: Right. So let's hear just a little bit of you in this character. We have a clip here from the film, and for those who haven't seen it, the plot involves, there was a bunch of drug dealers, and there was a shootout, and this guy who happens to be a welder, who's played by Josh Brolin, comes upon a satchel full of drug money and is running.

And your character, Anton Chigurh, is trying to track him down. And what we're going to listen to is a phone call between you and this guy who has the money, and one of the things that is referred to in the call is that you know where his wife lives and is headed to Odessa, Texas, and the clear intimation is that you will kill his wife if he doesn't bring you the money.

So let's just listen to this conversation. This is our guest, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin in "No Country for Old Men."

(Soundbite of movie, "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You need to come see me.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (Actor): (As Llewelyn Moss) Who is this?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You know who it is. You need to talk to me.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) I don't need to talk to you.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I think you do. Do you know where I'm going?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Why would I care where you're going?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I know where you are.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Yeah? Where am I?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You're in the hospital across the river, but that's not where I'm going. Do you know where I'm going?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Yeah, I know where you're going.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) All right.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) You know she won't be there.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) It doesn't make any difference where she is.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) So what are you going up there for?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You know how this is going to turn out, don't you?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Nope.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I think you do. So this is what I'll offer: You bring me the money, and I'll let her go. Otherwise, she's accountable the same as you. That's the best deal you're going to get. I won't tell you, you can save yourself because you can't.

DAVIES: And that's one of the 10 scariest guys I've ever seen in a movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: That's our guest, Javier Bardem from the film, the Coen brothers' film, "No Country for Old Men."

You know, your character, Anton Chigurh, we don't really know anything about him in the film, and I gather in the novel, the Cormac McCarthy novel, he's also not so clearly defined.

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Did you have a back-story in your head that told you how he became what he was?

Mr. BARDEM: That's a very funny and very interesting question. No, I didn't, and actually, that's one of the things I love to do the most, to create a story, a back-story, in my head that will help me to understand what I'm doing.

But in this case, I've prepared a role with my acting teacher, Juan Carlos Corazza, which he's been my acting teacher since 22 years ago. And, of course, once - when I go there with Juan Carlos, with my acting teacher, I go based on the idea that the Coens wanted me to do. It's not something that he will direct me how to do it, and then I will go to a set and do what I want, no. It's like I took two good actors, they tell me what they want, I go there to the laboratory, try different things, come back to them, and they choose what they want.

And I was working with Juan Carlos, and we found, like, there is no way there's a back-story, and that's the great thing. He's not a human being. There is no back-story. He is a symbol. He is a symbolic idea of violence. He is a man that comes out of nowhere and goes to nowhere at the end. So he's death himself. He's violence himself.

And that's why we wanted to create this thing where you are not sure what is him, if he's a man or a machine or a Biblical plague or what. And that was funny to do but also very delicate to not cross past the line, and in that, the Coens had a lot to say because they were directing me on the set in a very, very, very subtle way but also without losing a sense of humor.

DAVIES: Sense of humor, huh?

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah, that look, that way of walking, that way of throwing one line here and there, that's something that the Coens were, I mean, they were pushing me - not pushing me, like, asking me to do. And sometimes I would go, like: Why, why? You don't need that. You don't need - why, why would he do that? And they were laughing. And they'd say: You'll know. You'll know when you see the movie.

DAVIES: Can you think of an example of one of those things that you said why do you want me to do that, and then it made sense later?

Mr. BARDEM: I don't know. There's a scene where I go to the trailer park, and I ask for Josh Brolin's character, and there's this woman there, and then I ask where he is, and she says: I cannot give that information.

And then I naturally look at her, and I went away, and they said no, no, no. You look at her, and you stay there for two minutes. And I was, like, what? Yes, we want you to look at her and stare at her for two minutes, I mean without blinking. I said okay, I'll do that.

And I thought at the moment it was a little bit too forced, you know, too pushy. But no, they knew exactly. And that's one of the moments where I think, and I know, people love the most, with that look. So that's - those are the things that the Coens know how to do the best.

DAVIES: Yeah, I remember that scene, too, and she says: Sir, we can't give out no information. And you just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly.

DAVIES: You stare right back at her.

We're speaking with Javier Bardem.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to my interview with Spanish actor Javier Bardem recorded in February when his film "Biutiful" was released. It's now out on DVD.

You became a really leading actor in Spanish cinema. Did you aspire to act in English then at all?

Mr. BARDEM: Well, I'm 42 years old so I guess my generation, we all grew up with "Taxi Driver" and "Apocalypse Now" and great performances done in English, along with some of the great performance also in Italy, France and, of course, Spain, which I had the chance to work with some of them. But no, I never thought about going out of Spain and working in a foreign language ever, because that was totally out of my radar, no? It's like no, that's not going to happen. But it happened. That's the weirdest thing and if you ask me why I can't tell you.

There is this lovely man called Julian Schnabel, which I love and I adore, who had the guts to say I want you to do "Before Night Falls" and everybody around was like, why? Why? Who is that guy? Why? Why? Why him? But he said well, because I like him because he saw some of my movies in Spain. At that time I didn't speak any English and he said we are 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. I will never forget it and we worked hard and we made it and I guess that brought some attention.

DAVIES: You really didn't speak English before getting into that movie?

Mr. BARDEM: No. I mean just hello and give me a glass of water. That's all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: I'm always saying that I know how to curse very well because I learn English listening to AC/DC.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: So I'm a huge fan of AC/DC, and so I was translating the lyrics so I know how to curse.

DAVIES: You have to start somewhere, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly.

DAVIES: Well, we should just pause a minute on this film because it was a real important one for you. "Before Night Falls" directed by Julian Schnabel, it's -you play the poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas who...

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...was a gay man persecuted in Cuba during the revolution. It kind of takes us through the '60s, through the Mariel boatlift when you, his character, ends up in New York and gets AIDS.

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: I mean, it's a really dramatic role. And one of the things that's fascinating to me about it is that it takes place in, Cuba but much of the dialogue is in English. How is acting in English different from acting in Spanish for you?

Mr. BARDEM: It's a different - it's a totally different situation and it's like here, I'm trying to express myself and share some opinions and be relaxed and there's this office in my brain full of people working at the same time that I'm talking to you trying to not, be wrong with the intonation, with the words and so it's very exhausting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: The office is translating. Right. Okay.

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly. If I speak Spanish that office is closed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: There's nobody in the office. I mean I'm fine by my own.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You got to work with Woody Allen on "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." How did you get that role?

Mr. BARDEM: Well, 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: And I said, okay. Whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: And then I read it. I read it and I thought it was fun and it was very, very, I don't know, smart because it's about the stereotypes and the people behind those stereotypes. And then he called me back and said, do you like it? And I said, yes. Okay, you are on. It was that easy.

DAVIES: So let's listen to a clip. This is a moment early in the film. You play this romantic painter, Juan Antonio, who approaches these two young American women who are in Barcelona, played here by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson and make a pretty forward proposal. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) American?

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (Actress): (as Cristina) I'm Cristina and this is my friend Vicky.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) What color are your eyes?

Ms. JOHANSSON (Actress): (as Cristina) They're blue.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I'd like to invite you both to come with me to Oviedo.

Ms. REBECCA HALL (Actress): (as Vicky) To come where?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) To Oviedo for the weekend. We leave in one hour.

(Soundbite of glass clinking)

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) Where is Oviedo?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) A very short flight.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) By plane?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Mm-hmm.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) What's in Oviedo?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I go to see a sculpture that is very inspiring to me, very beautiful sculpture. You'll love it.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Oh right. You're asking us to fly to Oviedo and back?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) No. We'll spend the weekend. I mean I'll show you around the city and we'll eat well, we'll drink good wine, we'll make love.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Yeah. Who exactly is going to make love?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Hopefully the three of us.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) Oh, my god.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I'll get your bill.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Jesus, this guy. He doesn't beat around the bush. Look, Senor, maybe in a different life.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain and this is a chance for something special.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Javier Bardem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...putting moves on Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

You dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Have you ever done anything like that in real life?

Mr. BARDEM: No way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Actually, I was shooting that scene and I say who in the world, who in the world is going to believe this? But Woody Allen did it right. I guess some people thought it was funny and those two girls were crazy enough to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right. And then off goes romantic triangles, quadrangles and entangles.

Mr. BARDEM: I think it's a great movie and because it's really about, I was saying before about the stereotypes, about the cliches, the Spanish cliche and the American cliche, actually and the people behind those cliches - that basically, we are all the same, we have the same fears, needs. And the way it's put together I think it was very fun but also very pointed, and very delightful to watch.

DAVIES: Right. And Penelope Cruz comes in in a terrific performance. Some people probably saw this as an antidote to the Anton Chigurh character where you're this, you know, psychopathic killer in "No Country for Old Men." Did you see it that way at all?

Mr. BARDEM: Not really. No, no, I don't see - I don't have a plan. I don't have a plan in my head. I mean if things happen, things have a meaning to you then you do it and there's no way that you can do a next step based on the previous one. That doesn't work that way in my opinion. I mean Woody Allen gave me this call, he showed me this. I thought it was going to be fun and a great cast, Barcelona and I said well, why not? Let's do it. And once again, Woody Allen was shooting one take, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: ...it's a different experience, for 30 takes to one take and no reversals, so it was kind of jumping off the cliff for me. Because the scenes are very long and there's no cut so it was very challenging and also very and rewarding.

DAVIES: Yeah, I was going to ask you how he was different from some of the great international directors you've worked with. That's one way. One take, huh?

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah. Yeah. One take and no rehearsal and I don't know if I ever came to him and said I would like to speak about my character but I think I did that and he looked at me like I kill someone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Like what? What is that? I said no, don't worry, I won't bother you again.

DAVIES: Really? You just...

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: You give me your interpretation and it will work, uh?

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly. He's one of those who says I do the cast and I do the cast because I know you can play it so don't come to me and bother me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: ...with your method questions, but in a very funny way. And, of course, it's Woody Allen so, of course, you say, of course, Mr. Allen. Whatever you want.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Actor Javier Bardem recorded in February. He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in the film "Biutiful." It's now out on DVD.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new comedy "Bad Teacher."

This is FRESH AIR.

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