Four years ago, after Javier Bardem walked off with a host of best actor awards and became the first Spaniard to be nominated for an Oscar in that category, Hollywood came calling. His unforgettable turn as a gay Cuban writer coping with political suppression and AIDS in Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” propelled the sleepy-eyed sex symbol from “zero to 100 miles per hour,” as he puts it -- virtually overnight.
While many of his countrymen had gone the Latin lover route or played ethnic sidekicks in cop movies, Bardem sidestepped the celebrity trap. Tempting as it was to work with director Steven Spielberg, he turned down the role eventually played by Colin Farrell in “Minority Report” for fear that his English would slow the banter.
Instead, he put on 30 pounds in 2002 to portray a struggling dockworker in the acclaimed “Mondays in the Sun,” Spain’s foreign-language Oscar entry. The same year, he played a detective trying to keep his soul clean in John Malkovich’s directorial debut, “The Dancer Upstairs.”
Born in the Canary Islands and a resident of Madrid, the actor is a superstar in his homeland, signing on to projects roughly every two years. Most recently, he accepted a cameo as a drug dealer in “Collateral” so he could work with director Michael Mann for a day. While he doesn’t mind traveling to Los Angeles to shoot, he says, he’s not “brave” enough to move here. Not just because of the movie-centric culture and requisite game-playing but because he has no driver’s license. (“I am frightened of cars more than planes,” he says.)
Bardem’s heroes are not the outsized characters endemic to celluloid but everyday folk trying to stay afloat in the face of trying circumstances. In Fine Line Features’ “The Sea Inside,” due for release Dec. 17, the impediments were so severe that the protagonist is fighting to die. With $25 million in ticket sales, the movie is the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year and the country’s entry in the best foreign-language film race. Four million people have seen “Sea Inside” in Spain alone, reviving the nation’s euthanasia debate. On the Hollywood front, there’s Oscar buzz surrounding the picture and Bardem’s performance.
Based on the true story of poet Ramon Sampedro, the $13-million film deals with a quadriplegic who spent 30 years in bed after a diving accident. He’s drawn to an attractive attorney (Belen Rueda) who supports his cause as well as to a divorced neighbor (Lola Duenas) who’s trying to convince him that life is worth living. Despite the infusion of love, however, the charismatic Sampedro stands firm. In a case that captured the imagination of the public, he failed to get legal approval for assisted suicide. In 1998, a friend reported finding him dead in bed and an autopsy revealed traces of cyanide.
Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival in September, the film took the jury grand prize and Bardem was voted best actor. In his mind, it’s a movie about a man’s determination to regain the freedom denied him by institutions.
“The movie is about medicine, religion and government -- who owns your life?” says the 35-year-old actor, digging into a Cobb salad at a Beverly Hills hotel at the start of a promotional tour. “The three of them want to serve the cake of your destiny. I support Sampedro’s desire to pass away -- and I admire those who want to keep living. Life doesn’t have the same meaning for everybody -- it’s not either/or, good/evil as our leaders want us to believe.
“Is it ‘mercy’ to make someone suffer because I decide he should live?” the actor continues, running his fingers through floppy brown hair. Alluding to Sampedro’s book, “Letters From Hell,” he adds: “The man philosophized about life and death, sex, family, law, church on the level of Dostoevsky. We’re not talking about a teenager who feels misunderstood.”
The youngest member of a Spanish acting dynasty, Bardem was his only choice to play the 55-year-old invalid, director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others”) recalls. No matter that he wasn’t age appropriate or that he made his name in a spate of sexy, brawny roles in the early 1990s. “When he delivers, Javier has amazing magnetism,” says the 32-year-old director, who also co-wrote, co-produced, scored and edited the film. “Like Sampedro, he manages to be seductive, using only his eyes and his voice. He’s both instinctive and prepared, mad and disciplined, which was needed for the role. Every day for three months, Javier had five hours of makeup before lying motionless in bed for 10 more hours. Even between takes, he couldn’t move much because it would disrupt continuity.
The actor used a machine that simulated the expulsion of gas to add a touch of levity, Amenabar recalls. “He has a great sense of humor and kept us all laughing.”
Bardem had portrayed a paralyzed policeman in Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” (1997), but Sampedro’s plight was different. In summer 2003, the detail-obsessed actor spent weeks speaking with doctors and quadriplegics in a Spanish hospital. He learned about labored breathing and the need to speak in short, direct sentences. Externals also informed the characterization. After his head and eyebrows were shaved, makeup designer Jo Allen (“The Hours”) applied layers of burning liquid to age his skin. It was then that he began to understand “from experience rather than theory,” the actor says, a smidgen of what Sampedro endured. And when he looked at his older self with glasses, he recalls with a smile, he saw his late father’s face.
If his English was once a stumbling block, that is no longer the case. After years of study, Bardem’s vocabulary is expansive, his delivery accented but fluid. There’s a principled quality to the actor, a refusal to soften his edges. Accepting the Goya, Spain’s version of the Oscar, for “Mondays in the Sun,” he sprinkled his thank yous with criticism of the U.S.-Iraq war, urging the government to follow the will of the people and withdraw all Spanish troops.
The celebrity factor
Oscar speculation, however flattering, is not his subject of choice. Being nominated is always an honor, Bardem begins gamely -- though strings are always attached.
“Actors, like political candidates, have to work for the votes,” he says. “In return the movies get seen. Awards are about marketing more than quality -- and if you remember that, you’re safe. One of the pitfalls of acting is taking yourself too seriously, making it less about the process than ego .... I also dislike the celebrity factor -- there’s no richness in being recognized.... I won’t make a plumber fix every tap I see after the job is done. But people think we belong to them off camera or offstage.”
Acting, as it happens, was never a goal -- though grandfather Rafael, grandmother Matilde, uncle Juan Antonio and mother Pilar were in the business. Though he appeared in his first film “El Picaro” (“The Scoundrels”) at age 5, drawing was his love. While studying art in Madrid, he appeared in a TV serial at age 13 to make pocket money. Five years later, he committed to the craft, finally convinced it was a good fit. “The Ages of Lulu” (1990) began his career in earnest and the offbeat 1992 comedy “Jamon, Jamon” brought him acting awards. Bardem has appeared in more than 20 movies, some with his mother and siblings, Carlos and Monica. Nominated for six Goyas, he’s walked off with three.
Growing up around actors, Bardem saw the downside of the profession -- his mother, a respected artist, taking on part-time jobs to make ends meet -- but feeling so alive and fulfilled when a part came her way.
“My mother told me to keep doing it as long as I love it,” he recalls. “After that, it’s not worth it, she said. And when I don’t know what to do, she suggested I breathe. Actors tend to forget that when we’re focused on something more interesting.”
Many actors seek the approbation of a “mommy” or “daddy” when starting a film, Bardem maintains. “We are looking to hear how great we are because we did our homework,” he says. “With an actor like John Malkovich behind the camera, I went even further. Going for approval is always a mistake because it can block the freedom and joy of acting. John recognized that and tried to put that energy in the right direction.”
Malkovich for his part was taken with Bardem’s “old-fashioned movie star” aura and “his big handsome broken face” -- a look dating to the time a guy walked up to him when he was 20 and -- without provocation -- punched him in the nose. That mix of strength and sensitivity has led to comparisons with Marlon Brando. “He looks like a boxer who reads poetry,” Malkovich has observed.
There’s talk that the actor will be starring in two more bio-pictures: one about the rebel leader Che Guevara and another on Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar, but Bardem replies there’s nothing concrete to report.
A more distinct possibility: “The Last Face,” Erin Dignam’s tale of two relief workers in western Africa who have an unexpected love affair. Should the project go through, he’d costar with Robin Wright Penn.
Although colleagues such as Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”) and Antonio Banderas (“Evita”) compete for the same Latino roles, Bardem notes, each offers something different.
“They’re on a level I’m not,” he says. “They live here, have careers here -- they have amazing curricula vitae. I’m just a foreign actor who lives in Spain and can barely talk English. My agent won’t like me saying that.”
Between jobs he strives for normalcy. More difficult than it sounds, he says, because actors inherently are “freaks.” Declining to reveal details of his personal life, he shifts the conversation toward “balance.”
“Rather than setting goals, I think about the next minute,” he says, taking a last sip of tap water. “The only absolute is death, so we better enjoy life. My mother had it right: ‘Let’s breathe, man. Let’s breathe.’ ”