“Look upon your work!”
In “Skyfall,” Javier Bardem as the vengeance-driven villain known as Silva demands this of spy chief M (Judi Dench) and James Bond (Daniel Craig) in a devilish baritone as he twists a dental mouthpiece dripping with saliva out of his jaw, to reveal the rotted tooth or two that remain in his head, while his face caves in and one eye bulges like Quasimodo’s.
And to think that some of us revere Bardem partly for his continental good looks.
“Your work cannot come from your vanity,” the actor, recognized last week with a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for the performance, says via phone from London. “It’s more about, ‘How do I help this story by portraying the character as it needs to be, on every level, for this story to be told?’”
In “Skyfall,” directed by Sam Mendes, Silva is a former MI6 operative whose betrayal by the organization led him to ingest hydrogen cyanide while in captivity. “It didn’t kill him, but it destroyed him,” says Bardem of Silva’s suicide attempt. “That’s the main idea that Sam and I worked with — he’s rotting inside, spiritually, emotionally, physically.”
It also left the cruelly disfigured Silva bent on murdering M to set things straight. Bardem says that made the Bond villain somewhat easier to play than Anton Chigurh, the coin-flipping, marauding force of evil in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” for which he won an Academy Award in 2008.
“Chigurh was more of a statement of violence in the world, more of an idea,” he said. “But Silva is a man who had a very anguishing experience that he wants to fix, and that is more relatable to all of us.”
Still, Bardem gets a chance to play an elegant maniac in this role too, making his entrance in a white dinner jacket, spouting metaphors about rats eating each other like some off-kilter Ricardo Montalban, and then making a convincing homoerotic pass at Bond while the latter is tied to a chair.
“He’s this smooth, weird-looking blond person who wants to be perceived as this angel — even if it’s an angel of death — because that’s the opposite of how he feels inside,” says Bardem.
He avoided consciously referencing other villains for the role — including the Bond gallery of baddies — but he allows that he may have been influenced, at least subliminally, by John Malkovich’s unsettling portrait of a clever assassin in 1993’s “In the Line of Fire.” “What he did with that was so unexpected, so risky, so underplayed and uncomfortable. I think it was a masterpiece,” says Bardem, who was later directed by Malkovich in the crime thriller “The Dancer Upstairs” (2002). “The great performers always open a path for you, like a beacon that you unconsciously follow, even if you aren’t able to reach that level.”
The Spanish actor is more typically drawn toward smaller, specialized movie projects. Making the leap to a huge-budget Bond movie caused him considerable apprehension. But working with Mendes allayed these fears. “I didn’t feel rushed; it was like a meal that was very delightful and well-cooked. I thought, ‘Wow, a movie as big as this can be creatively exciting?’”
Next up, he’ll appear with Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and wife Penélope Cruz in the highly anticipated crime thriller “The Counselor,” directed by Ridley Scott.
“It’s a very powerful, character-driven story,” Bardem says of the plot, which involves an attorney (Fassbender) who attempts to dabble in drug profiteering without getting pulled all the way in.
As in “No Country” and “Skyfall,” Bardem will once again sport an attention-getting hairdo in it — this one black and spiky, like some over-dyed spawn from the scalps of producer Brian Grazer and the Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
So, is playing such convincing creeps a dangerous occupation? What if they stick with you? “As actors we have the room to express as many sides of our nature as we are able or willing to show. There is no danger in that,” he says. “You can get lost, of course. You have to know how to come back. The difference between a person with mental problems and an artist is that only the second one has a two-way ticket.”