Special to The Times

JAVIER BARDEM seems an unlikely chameleon. The handsome, muscular former Spanish national rugby team player with the broken nose should be easy to pick out of a lineup. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the widely acclaimed actor is his staggering versatility. After establishing hunky leading man credentials in his native Spain, he earned an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his portrayal of a fey Cuban dissident in “Before Night Falls” and was a prematurely aged, highly articulate quadriplegic in the Oscar-winning “The Sea Inside.” Now, in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men,” Bardem is a psychopathic killer, while in Mike Newell’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” audiences watch him age more than 50 years as an almost invisible man who can’t give up on the love of his life.

Your transformations for roles are certainly notable.

Body language says a lot. And I like that. I like to really have fun with portraying people that are not like me. They are watching the world from a different perspective. It allows you to really pull yourself away for a little bit, for like three months, to leave yourself on the hanger, in the closet, and be someone else for three months, and then you go back to yourself and you say, “OK, here I am, the boring one.” Kind of a vacation from Javier.

Yes, exactly, which we all need! Especially if you are Javier. Hopefully your character in “No Country” is very different from you. What kind of physical choices did you make for him?


The physical interpretation of the character was totally wide open from the book because the only description he gives, Cormac McCarthy, is he has blue lapis eyes. Which I don’t have. But we tried to find what those blue lapis eyes mean, which is coldness, kind of a dead look, kind of a shark on the attack. It’s quite scary to see that because you cannot really get into anybody’s soul if you’re not able to get into his eyes.

He belongs to somewhere else. I’m not saying from outer space but belongs mentally to someplace else. So you don’t know if he’s cuckoo or if he’s sane with some kind of very strong codes. I always saw him like a tree trunk. Something you hit, but it never bends. Kind of one piece of a man.

In “Cholera,” you’re a completely different guy.

Of course, we had the book; there’s amazing, beautiful, thousands, hundreds, I would say, of the [details] beautifully described. But then you want to jump off the cliff and you say, ‘I need one key here.’ And I talked to Garcia Marquez on the phone, which was like a dream for me, and he said, “Well, if I have to tell you something, I always imagined him as someone who would never raise his voice, and that he walks the world like a stray dog. Like someone has beaten him so hard that he wants to approach you, but at the same time has the fear of being beaten again.” Which gives you this . . . [sympathetically] ‘Oh, come here’ from the women. That’s what I tried to portray, someone who is like a ghost, putting himself in the shadowy place rather than the light.

You’ve said that “No Country” is about “this huge wave of violence that the world has been taken by.” Can you elaborate on that?

I think that we are generally numb about that. . . . Something really horrible has to happen for it to take our attention. And our attention will be taken for a couple of hours, two or three days at most. Because we are getting used to really being surrounded by it. And we realize that we cannot stop it. The movie talks about it, it’s no world for old men, no world for old ethics, when things were happening for a reason and once you know the reason you can stop it or avoid it.

I think my character is a logical reaction to the characters’ violent actions. People think that through violence we can fix situations, and the only thing that does is to bring more violence into our lives. And I am that violence. “OK, you called for me? Here I am. Now you’re going to know what violence is.” And once I appear -- violence itself -- nothing is fixable, everything is destroyed. What does it mean to the viewing public to have a violent film be about violence, especially a film in which the violence is occasionally thrilling?

That was one of the things that I had to talk to the Coens about. I think what makes the difference between an action movie and a movie with gravitas is what’s behind that violence. And in this case, “No Country,” I think the gravitas is there because there’s a philosophy behind it and a statement.

But yes, I had my concerns about the violent situations. It’s graphic, it’s very well shot, it’s very well put together. But when you see it -- Josh Brolin [his quarry in the film] said, ‘When you see it, you want to go back and hug your children.’ In some other violent movies you think it’s fun, it’s enjoyable. But at the end of this movie everyone is really [affected] by what they saw and the destruction they saw, not only from the outside but the insides of the characters -- how broken they all are.