Who knew Bardem was so cheeky? So I made a note of his witty little quip in my journal and he shot me a look. “Are you going to write that?” he asked, as if surprised that I was there for any other reason other than to take note of his every word. This is when, without thinking at all, I replied, “Oh, but I am,” and shot him a knowing look right back. “Let me see that!” he said, as he went for my notepad. Who also knew that Bardem could be so playful? And here he was, playing with me.
I was actually quite happy to see that Bardem still had the ability to laugh after playing in BIUTIFUL. In it, he plays Uxbal, a father of two who is estranged from his unstable wife, is involved with a number of illegal activities that exploit those who are even less fortunate than he is and, for reasons unbeknownst to him, he has the ability to communicate with the recently departed, if their souls still linger in unrest. As if that wasn’t enough to balance, he also learns at the on-set of the film that he has prostate cancer and not very long to live. Iñárritu’s first turn as both a writer and director is a haunting, evocative experience that leaves an indelible mark on all who see it, but what kind of scars did it leave on those who were in it?
“For me it was very important to learn to detach myself from what I was doing. Otherwise, you get lost in your own thing,” Bardem confides about his process. Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? How do you do it? How do you get so lost in this character and yet still manage to find your way back afterward? “Getting lost doesn’t help creativity at all. It is not about feeling what you’re doing; it is about pretending like you’re feeling what you’re doing. Some days are harder than others, of course.”
Bardem is no stranger to difficult roles. He has been perfecting the art of playing complex characters ever since he first appeared on Hollywood’s radar with an Oscar-nominated lead turn in Julian Schnabel’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, the first acting nomination in Oscar history for a Spanish actor (Bardem is from the Canary Islands). He went on to win the Oscar for his unforgettable supporting turn in the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (the first acting Oscar win for a Spanish actor). In fact, it wasn’t until playing in Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA that audiences actually got the chance to see Bardem loosen up a little. Incidentally, this is where he met his now wife and mother of his first child, and Academy Award winner herself, Penelope Cruz. The couple recently had their first child together, little Leo Encinas Cruz. A few days he was born, Bardem received his third Oscar nomination, as Best Actor for BIUTIFUL, a feat that many thought he would not be able to pull off.
Bardem is never to be underestimated though. The layers he brings to his performances are delicately nuanced and clearly leave lasting impressions. How does he find these convincing facets inside himself? “I think it’s on the page,” he explains. “When you do the wrong character, there is no way you can do it good. 50% of a good performance is the character that you are portraying. If he is well constructed, then you have 50% of a good performance already, just doing the lines. Then you have to add the other 50% on your own.”
Bardem is not only modest but apparently a realist as well, giving credit where credit is due. In this case, that would be for his director, Iñárritu. The two have been friends for almost ten years and have talked about working together all that time because they have a great respect for each other and each other’s work. (Iñárritu likens Bardem to a minotaur even!) “I am an admirer of his. You see all these amazing performances in his movies and you wonder what happens there,” Bardem proclaims. “With Alejandro, the material is so powerful that you really have to commit. It’s going to be a journey and you have to be aware of that.”
In recent years, Bardem seems to be allowing the journeys he takes to be a little less emotionally consuming, or at the very least he seems to be oscillating between more relaxed fare and films like BIUTIFUL. He appeared opposite Julia Roberts, a friend who helped campaign for his current Oscar nod, in Ryan Murphy’s summer hit, EAT PRAY LOVE, which he shot immediately after BIUTIFUL (“Take me to Bali!” he said when he put Uxbal to bed.) The contrast has allowed him to see the importance of incorporating both the light and the dark into his life. “As much as you have to bring some seriousness to a comedy set, you have to bring some laughter to a drama like BIUTIFUL. It is the balance that always makes things more enjoyable.”
This balance has Bardem attached to a number of upcoming projects, as varied as a new Terrence Malick film and a potential villain role in the next James Bond movie. Either way, Bardem will bring his almost signature brand of intensity to any project he takes on, just as long as he doesn’t have to die this time. “My mother doesn’t like that very much. She always asks, ‘Are you dying in this one?’”
Even if he does, BIUTIFUL teaches us that death is not an ending. It is just the beginning of a long, hard road ahead. I'm not sure if that is meant to be uplifting but if anyone can find the hope in that, it will be Bardem.