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Entertainment & Arts

The ‘soulful gravitas’ of Javier Bardem

Colin Firth may be winning all the key awards this season, but when it comes to generating praise and passion in the lead actor race, it’s hard to beat Javier Bardem.

Sean Penn called Bardem’s acting in the bleak, Spanish-language drama “Biutiful” “the first on this level of soulful gravitas since Marlon Brando in ‘Last Tango in Paris.’” Julia Roberts campaigned for her “Eat Pray Love” costar last month, hosting an industry screening of “Biutiful” to raise awareness for a movie she called “a hidden little jewel.” And Miranda Richardson sang his praises in last week’s issue of The Envelope.

About the only person not completely taken with Bardem’s work is Bardem himself. During a leisurely talk in his publicist’s office in Hollywood, the 41-year-old actor reflected on the lessons he learned while immersing himself in his “Biutiful” character, an experience he likened to “going into the pool and almost drowning because you can’t find the exit.”

“And that’s not acting,” Bardem says. “That’s something else that doesn’t add anything but craziness. And that’s something I learned in ‘Biutiful,’ because I never had the weight such as this for so long. Sometimes I see the movie and I go, ‘Hmmm … where was I? I don’t see myself there.’ And that losing yourself usually is a dream of any actor, but when it goes against your health, it is not worth it.”

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Lest you misunderstand, Bardem loves “Biutiful.” It resulted in his third Oscar nomination, following “Before Night Falls” and his win for playing the weirdly coiffed killing machine in the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men.” And, because the film’s in his native tongue, he says the nod for “Biutiful” is the one that means the most. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely satisfied with his own work in it. Bardem is a restless actor, committed enough to growth that he still devotes at least three months a year to taking classes with his acting coach of 20 years.

And when Bardem watches “Biutiful,” he sees an actor not always in control. Perhaps that’s understandable. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, Bardem plays Uxbal, a Barcelona lowlife trafficking in illegal laborers. Things are not going well in the workplace. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer, which is a problem, since he has two young children and an estranged wife who is bipolar. As an added burden, Uxbal can also communicate with the recently departed, though that ability offers him little comfort toward his own imminent journey to the afterlife.

“Biutiful” is, as Bardem notes, a “heavy fiction.” He spent three months preparing for it, including a six-week stint hanging around Barcelona factories that employ illegal immigrants and then an additional five months shooting it chronologically, breaking only for Christmas. As you might suspect, he wasn’t exactly full of the holiday spirit that year.

“As you know, with Christmas, there’s the constant reminder of ‘you have to be happy,’ ‘it’s the greatest time of the year,’” Bardem says. “I’m thankful for my family and friends being there and giving me their warmth, but I couldn’t give it back. I was retaining it because I had to put it someplace else.”

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In the two years since “Biutiful” wrapped, Bardem has thought a lot about his methodology and decided that it’s neither creative nor the life of an artist. By the end of the film, he was so weak and exhausted that emotion would pour from him immediately, and, once a scene was finished, he’d think, “That doesn’t make sense. Why did you do that?” Interestingly, these are among the scenes that have won Bardem acclaim. And he thinks they’re the worst part of the movie.

“We always have to remember that the audience likes emotions a little too much,” Bardem says. “But emotions are the easiest thing to portray. Emotions have too much value for a performer. When we see somebody crying, we think, ‘Ah, what a great actor.’ No. It’s not about how you cry. It’s about making the audience touched by what you’re doing, what you’re saying, the way you’re acting. Otherwise, it’s a very self-absorbed thing of, ‘Look what I’m able to do for you guys.’ And I don’t like that.”

Bardem has made two films since “Biutiful.” Playing Roberts’ romantic interest in “Eat Pray Love” wasn’t like jumping into an abyss, right? “No,” Bardem says. Pause. “That was a different abyss. It was the abyss of doing something you haven’t done before. ‘Am I going to be safe?’” Short answer: Yes. He had a good time motoring around Bali on a boat with Roberts.

And he just finished playing a priest in Terrence Malick’s next movie, the one that will follow “The Tree of Life.” But Bardem can’t share any details because of the Malick-imposed code of secrecy and because he really doesn’t know whether he’ll be the star or even in the film at all, once Malick finishes editing the movie.

Bardem’s personal code of secrecy prevents him from sharing details of the son he and wife Penélope Cruz just welcomed into the world. But, he allows, being a father will naturally change his approach to acting and strengthen his resolve to leave his work on the set or, as he puts it, to “jump in the pool, swim and then get out, dry off and be your own temperature again.”

An offer to play the bad guy in the next James Bond movie would seem a natural fit in this new methodology.

“But who knows?” he says mischievously, “maybe I will go back home saying, ‘I have the world in my hands.’” Bardem laughs. “Evil can be very seductive.”

calendar@latimes.com


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