For five months, Javier Bardem immersed himself in the role of a cancer-stricken hustler from Barcelona’s slums for the film Biutiful. When shooting was done, he knew he had to purge himself of the darkness that his character Uxbal journeyed through. So he chose to play the hunky Felipe romancing Julia Roberts’ character Liz on the island of Bali in the film Eat Pray Love.
“I did this straight after Biutiful,” says Bardem, thoughtfully chewing on a toothpick, “I needed to go outside and be in a lighter mood, a lighter character. I needed to heal myself from the process in Biutiful. Not because I was sick, but when you do that for five months, you really need to escape from what’s inside. Otherwise, you get down. That happened to me after Biutiful. So I said, ‘Stop! Let’s go some place else.’”
Hitched: Bardem plays Roberts’ lover in Eat Pray Love.
There is a reason why 41-year-old Bardem is regarded as the Marlon Brando of this generation. The actor has dived deep within himself for characters he’s played, be it the persecuted Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls or the dignified quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro in The Sea Inside. Josh Brolin, his co-star in No Country for Old Men, remembers Bardem being creepily quiet on the sets so he could best portray the chilling Anton Chigurh with the killer pageboy haircut. That heavy-eyed performance launched him into the big league and landed him the Oscar.
Even for the soufflé-light role of the Brazilian businessman Felipe in Eat Pray Love, Bardem tortured himself over the accent. “A Portuguese friend of mine taught me how to not really f*** it up. Beyond that, what I needed to be was relaxed as a Brazilian. In Spain, we have more of a sense of weight,” says Bardem. In May, he received the Best Actor prize at the Cannes film festival for the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-directed Biutiful, for a role that required him to wear an adult diaper in a scene. Bardem did it without any qualms.
“At the end, it’s what you believe when you see the movie. It doesn’t matter if I’m suffering when I cry. The important thing is that you get emotional when I cry. I’m not saying every actor suffers. Some actors can go to even a better place in a different direction. I’m not a technical actor, I’m an emotional one. I can’t see it from the outside. But there are amazing actors who do that. I envy them,” he says, with a chuckle.
There’s self-deprecating laughter lining his words when I meet Bardem at a sprawling resort in Cancun in June. He’s rescheduled a bunch of interviews because he cannot bear to unglue himself from a live televised World Cup battle between the Portuguese soccer team and his home country Spain. In fact, when asked earlier if he’s religious, Bardem says, his voice deep with feeling, “I don’t believe in God, I believe in Al Pacino.” Then he adds, his hands clasped in prayer, “But if there really is a God, please, please help Spain today!”
When he does sit down for the interview, Bardem is relaxed and stretches his lean tall frame, sheathed in a black shirt and jeans. His brown hair is casually ruffled and there’s a light stubble on his jaw. He’s charming, funny and when he switches on that warmth, it’s simple to understand why he’s one of the sexiest men on the planet. Bardem opens up easily on whatever he’s asked, but keeps the door to his personal life shut.
A few days after our meeting, Bardem married his girlfriend, Hollywood actor Penelope Cruz, in a secret wedding in the Bahamas, and the couple recently revealed that Cruz is pregnant.
The two first met 18 years ago on the sets of Cruz’s debut film Jamon! Jamon!, a Spanish film ripe with sexual allegory. But they fell in love in 2007 as they filmed Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In a rare moment at Cannes this year, Bardem dedicated his Best Actor prize to Cruz, “My joy, my friend, my companion, my love”, and the two are now labelled by tabloids as Hollywood’s golden couple.
What adds to Bardem’s attraction is his ability to laugh at what the world terms his “sex appeal”. “I don’t see the point,” he says, grinning. “That’s why I work so hard to make people believe it! In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, when Scarlett, Penelope, Rebecca… I mean who in the world is going to believe that they are killing each other for me? Come on! But Woody Allen thought it, so I had to lose a lot of weight and become that character.”
Bardem finds it much easier to believe in the process of acting, because it is one he’s seen as a child. From a family of actors since the dawn of Spanish cinema, Bardem made his film debut as a six-year-old. His parents separated when he was young and he says he was raised by his mother and sister. “That’s why I’m not intimidated by women,” he confesses. Yet he did feel overwhelmed being Roberts’ love interest in Eat Pray Love. “But she was not judgemental of me, even though I was the new kid in town.”
Bardem may still feel like a newbie in Hollywood, but there’s already a buzz that he could win his second Oscar for Biutiful. The actor talks of the deep sense of guilt he felt as a movie star, walking the Barcelona streets and pretending to work in the slums. Critics who viewed the film at the recent Toronto film festival say his empathy has helped him nail the role.
When Bardem talks of the guilt that propelled author Elizabeth Gilbert to set out on her journey of Eat Pray Love, he might as well be speaking of his Biutiful experience. “We live in a society where having it all isn’t enough and we have to go to the roots of what it is to have nothing,” he points out. “The more society reminds us of how we have to be happy, the more depressed you get. Guilt is a major energy that makes you move ahead.”
Eat Pray Love released in theatres on Friday. Biutiful will be screened at the 12th Mumbai Film Festival which begins on 21 October. For the registration details and schedule, log on to www.mumbaifilmfest.com
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