There is no character more haunting in 2007’s celluloid slate than methodical murderer Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. The bowl-cutted killer is brought to death-mongering life in a chillingly sparse performance by Javier Bardem, who’s able to convince filmgoers that mortal payback might just be a defendable moral stance, even when it involves cattle slaughtering machinery.
But while this masterful, Golden Globe-winning role introduced most Americans to Bardem, it was just the latest in a string of tremendous performances for the Spanish actor. Particularly powerful are his portrayals of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in 2000’s Before Night Falls (which got him a Best Actor nomination for the Oscar) and as the quadriplegic euthanasia advocate Ram³n Sampedro in 2004’s The Sea Inside (which won best foreign film at the Oscars).
This is some serious work for an actor who’s not yet 40, and good money says he’ll walk home with the Oscar for Best Actor in some future role. He shared a few minutes of his time with me last week.
Is it tough being a Spanish-speaking actor taking on English-speaking roles? I’m obviously more comfortable now than three or four years ago. It was very difficult for me to speak then, but now I am much more comfortable. Also, I guess I have my experience in English, which is to say, it’s not about the struggle of speaking a foreign language-though it is that, too-it’s about how you can bring life into empty words that don’t mean anything to you because you haven’t had experience in the language. Before that, the dialogue is just mumbling words and sounds that lack meaning. But when you have enough time to experience your life in that language, then the language has a different dimension. You can put life into those words. So now, yes, I am able to bring some life with the language.
You seem to play entirely different people in every film: a monster who kills people (No Country for Old Men), a saintly man who wants to kill himself (The Sea Inside), a victim who tries to escape death at every turn (Before Night Falls). (Laughs.) Killing is always around.
How do you come into these roles? It’s a matter of trying to find something that you want to share with the viewer. There is something that has been said about this or is being said about that material that you are interested in saying and sharing with people. That’s all. That will depend on your taste. I guess I try to do the movies I like to see, and sometimes you get it wrong, and it’s a failure, and sometimes you get lucky, and people like it.
In doing all these distinct roles, people are left wondering, “Who is the real Javier Bardem?” There are parts of me in every one of them, and at the same time, I’m not any one of them. I’m not very much into bringing the character to your own self. I would like to one day be that kind of actor who could really move away from himself to step inside the character’s behavior, so he doesn’t necessarily need to bring himself in every character. Those are the actors I really admire-Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, people who can really step out of themselves and bring something new. But that is not easy to do. The first thing you do is to choose the characters you play. Your characters allow you to do that.
You seem to play a lot of poets, or at least people who write. Are you a writer yourself? No. I wish I could do it, but : . It’s funny, when I did Before Night Falls, I started to write to try to understand what is in a writer’s mind, which is not the mind of a painter or an actor or a musician. I started to write, and I thought it was genius. Then, when the movie was over, I read it and said, “What is this piece of crap? This is the worst thing ever!” I was so much into the role of thinking I was Reinaldo Arenas, who was a genius. So no, to answer your question, I don’t write, unfortunately.
You also play roles related to personal freedom. Do you have strong beliefs about that? I guess we all believe that we live in the right world, in the first world. But we’re not aware of what’s behind us or around us, which are those second, and third, and fourth, and fifth different worlds, which have been spoiled for us to have this first world. So I guess at the end, freedom is to really be able to not connect with any world in specific, but with the whole of it, not to be married with any one specifically, but with the people in it. And not necessarily with the people who make the rules, but with the people who suffer the consequences. Freedom is a very difficult word and, of course, it’s a difficult thing to achieve. But it’s what we all look for-freedom in our work, freedom in our relationships, freedom in ourselves to be just who we really are, and not to fake or pretend to be what we are not in order to please others. I like characters who go through that struggle, because we all go through that struggle. That’s a good answer, eh? For a guy who doesn’t speak English?
Do you see yourself as opening doors for others in cinema? I really feel I came through a door that Luis Bu±uel, Pedro Almod³var, and Antonio Banderas have opened for all the Spaniards. We’re allowed now to come here and work, which is good, because one of the great things about what is called “American Cinema” is that it allows a lot of people from the outside to come here and share their talent. You see the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards, and five out of six winners were foreigners. : That’s pretty good. I don’t see any other film industry that would allow that. That’s a good thing about this American industry.
Javier Bardem will be presented with the Montecito Award on Monday, January 28, at 8 p.m. in the Arlington Theatre. Visit sbiff.org or call 963-0761.