Not since Victor Mature was at the height of his career in the '40s has there been a male star of such bold sensuality as Spain's Javier Bardem. Both men possess such large dark eyes, strong noses and flaring lips that the combination is almost too much of a good thing. Yet both early on in their careers learned how to turn their physical charisma to advantage in a wide range of roles. And off-screen both have a terrific sense of humor, especially about themselves.
In person Bardem, who makes his English-language film debut in "Perdita Durango," now in post-production, recalls the Jean-Paul Belmondo of 25 years ago. Bardem is clearly aware of his impact upon people, but like Belmondo he takes a disarmingly boyish, almost abashed pleasure and delight in being himself.
A year ago, Bardem came to town to promote "Mouth to Mouth," a giddy farce in which he plays a struggling actor who takes a job in a phone sex agency with unexpected consequences. As it turned out, Miramax felt it had to wait over a year before releasing it last week, not because of its quality, but because these days it is so tough to find the best slot in which to launch a foreign film, even as one as funny and entertaining as this one.
"I'm so glad this film is finally opening in the States," said Bardem over the phone from Madrid. "This film was completely different for me. It was the first time I did a real comedy, and it was a different kind of acting for me. I think it's harder, more difficult to play comedy. Comedy is so fragile. I was considered in my country a person with no sense of humor until this director, Manuel Gomez Pereira, gave me a chance. People could see this guy has a heart."
Chatting in the sun by a West Hollywood hotel pool in which he had no time to swim in five days, Bardem admitted a year ago that at that time he had had no Hollywood offers. "I would like to work here, of course. If it happens, it happens, but my roots will always be in Spain."
In the past year, however, he has completed not only "Perdita Durango" but also Pedro Almodovar's "Live Flesh" and is readying to star in "The Dancer Upstairs," a fictional film inspired by the terrorist activities of Peru's Shining Path movement, and to be directed by John Malkovich.
Bardem, 28, was born into a distinguished acting family. His grandparents, Rafael and Matilda Bardem, were famous stage actors who did occasional films. His mother, Pilar Bardem, has a busy career on stage as well as screen, and he compares his actress sister, Monica, to Kathy Bates. (He describes his late father as a scientist and a jack-of-all-trades; his older brother is a novelist.)
The best-known Bardem, until Javier came along, is his still-active uncle, Juan Antonio Bardem, long one of Spain's major directors, whose courageous depiction of life under Franco in the 1950s, notably "The Death of a Cyclist" (1955) and "Calle Mayor" (1966), secured his international reputation while enraging the government.
For nine years, Bardem has been with Cristina Pales, who works at the Canadian consulate in Madrid. "We met on a trip to Barcelona, and we didn't like each other at first--you know how it is," he said. "She takes me down to earth; she likes nothing about my work. I like that she's very jealous, but I don't want to make her suffer! I want to have children, but now is not the right moment--I'm too busy."
In less than a decade, Bardem has appeared in nine plays, 10 films and a TV series and collected 14 awards for his performances. "I love the stage," he said. "If you have a great day in the theater, it's the most beautiful experience in the world; it means that something happened that was real and true. The theater is the only way to know how much of an actor you are--cinema is the only place a bad actor can be made to look good."
Bardem, however, has been making a strong impression on the screen ever since Bigas Luna cast him as an exceptionally savage male hustler, a supporting role, in his steamy 1990 "The Ages of Lulu." After Bardem took another small role in Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels," Luna in 1992 cast him in his dark, outrageous sex farce "Jamon Jamon," which brought Bardem international acclaim as a trucker who delivers hams for a living, dreams of bullfighting and winds up an underwear model.
"He gives you the chance to be his friend," Bardem said of Luna. "He's one of my closest friends. He's a human being before he's a director. He was the first person who put trust in me. I owe him a lot of things--for example, my career! It's all because of him."
A dark comedy, "Perdita Durango" was directed by Alex de la Iglesia and written by "Wild at Heart's" Barry Gifford and based on a true incident. It teams Bardem with Rosie Perez as a pair of crooks who kidnap some young Americans intended as human sacrifices in a black magic ritual.
"My first experience in English was not so difficult as I thought it would be," said Bardem, over the phone. "We shot in Mexico, and almost everyone on the crew was either Spanish or Mexican, and they were very helpful. I'm studying English eight hours a day because when I act I want to be free to be myself when I do 'The Dancer Upstairs.'
"With Rosie Perez, it was the first time I worked with somebody who was a star, and she has been very nice to me. She is the kind of actor who can do what the director wants her to do in an instant. 'Perdita Durango' will be shown at the San Sebastian festival to an audience of 4,000.
"It was a very, very nice experience except for one thing: a problem with the special effects. In one scene, more explosives were set off than we needed, and five people were burned--myself, my brother, who is also in the film, and three technicians. I am all right now, but I got a really bad burn on my left arm, and there is some scarring.
"There is no main actor in 'Live Flesh,' but five actors of equal importance. I play a handicapped man in a wheelchair, playing basketball in the Barcelona Para-Olympics. It's a love story with me and my wife and the guy who shot me and put me in the wheelchair." I just saw the film, and I liked it. I did like working with Almodovar again. He's very hard, but he's very clever and smart, very clear in what he wants."
Almodovar, responding to questions via fax, describes "Live Flesh" as "a drama, baroque and sensual. A fatal destiny floats above the characters, as in the classic tragedies or the old thrillers from the '40s and '50s.
"Since 'High Heels,' Javier has become a much more serious actor, more conscious of his craft. He is disciplined and obsessive," Almodovar said. "He needs to control the smallest detail of his character. He is a temperamental actor. He has a very strong physical presence, and I am not referring to the fact that he is an attractive guy. I mean that when he is on the screen you know something is going to happen."
"I am very, very happy," Bardem said. "I got a present from God, who set it down on my shoulders, when John Malkovich gave me the main role in 'The Dancer Upstairs.' I play an ex-lawyer now working as a policeman for the government. It is based on a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, and he and Malkovich wrote the screenplay. We start shooting in Lisbon in November, and I think it will be the most exciting experience in my life to be directed by a great actor like Malkovich."