“I watched my mother act all my life, and yet I wasn’t attracted to acting as such,” he recalled recently. “What attracted me was my mother’s effort, her dedication, the seriousness of the work, the desire to do something. But what that something was didn’t matter to me. It could just as well have been painting or writing or even rugby.”
Nevertheless, at the age of 41, Bardem finds himself one of the world’s most admired actors, with one Academy Award to his name — for best supporting actor in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men — and the possibility of another looming on the horizon. Leading directors regularly offer him juicy parts, and he has worked in widely varied roles with many of the most distinguished names in film, including Pedro Almodóvar, Woody Allen, Milos Forman and Terrence Malick.
“I think the best actors are those who are not only talented, but also work harder than anybody else, and that’s Javy,” said the director and painter Julian Schnabel, who gave Bardem his breakout English-language role in Before Night Falls a decade ago.
But nothing, according to Bardem, has ever tested him — physically and mentally — or required greater effort and dedication more than Biutiful, a drama, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which won Bardem the best actor award when it was first shown at Cannes last May.
In Biutiful, set entirely in Barcelona, Bardem plays Uxbal, a petty criminal and doting father of two, whose world, built around immigrant smuggling and the manufacture of fake luxury goods, begins to collapse when he learns he is seriously ill. González Iñárritu, whose previous films include 21 Grams and Babel, said he wrote the part specifically for Bardem, the first time he had ever cast a role in advance.
“Physically, Javier possesses an attraction that is tremendously magnetic and kinetic,” González Iñárritu said. “On the one hand, he has the primitive force of the minotaur, the strength of a bull crossed with a man, along with a face that contains the essence of the Mediterranean, that looks like it could be that of a Caesar on a Roman coin. But he also has the sensibility of a poet, an inner subtlety and emotional baggage, and it is those two sets of qualities that made him so particularly fitting to play this character.”
González Iñárritu shoots his films with scenes in chronological order, which is unusual in the movie business, and has been known to demand 50 or more takes from his actors. Because the scenes were shot in the order in which they play and his character has to come to terms with the possibility of his own demise, Bardem said he had to “keep holding in the emotional intensity.” Or as González Iñárritu put it, “Javier had to find a balance while surrendering totally to a role that required him to be completely charged up while showing very little, and that, emotionally, is very arduous.”
Bardem often seems to be acting intuitively, especially in critically acclaimed films in which his characters face death, like Biutiful, The Sea Inside and Before Night Falls. But he describes his work as meticulously plotted in advance and in detail.
Another sign of the seriousness with which he approaches his craft is that, despite the
growing acclaim for his body of work, he continues to study with an acting coach, Juan Carlos Corazza, an Argentine. They have worked together nearly 20 years, since the beginning of Bardem’s career. Corazza also has Bardem do exercises designed to “prepare the canvas for painting” by “identifying and stripping away the habits, clichés and artificial aspects between him and the character, so he has the courage to find a freedom in his character.”
In a sense, Bardem seems almost to have been predestined for a life as an actor. In addition to his mother, both of his maternal grandparents also were prominent actors, and one of his uncles, Juan Antonio Bardem, was a distinguished screenwriter and director (and Spanish Communist Party leader), perhaps best known for the film Death of a Cyclist.
But Bardem tried at first to resist being pulled into the family trade. He played rugby as a boy, relentlessly and passionately, which gave him the broken bones to show for it and instilled the sense of teamwork that directors uniformly praise. When it came time to choose a career, however, he initially decided to go to art school, intending to become a painter. But in his art classes he discovered that while he seemed to have talent, the only thing he wanted to draw was “faces, eyes, expressions and bodies,” not landscapes or abstract works.
He concluded that his primary interest really was how human beings express emotions. And at that point, around the age of 18, the Bardem family tradition, and all the years observing his mother, gave him something to draw on and inspire himself. “I didn’t like having to read the other characters,” he recalled. “What fascinated me was listening to her. She’d have a great script with a monologue and would begin to speak and then stop and correct herself. She’d go back to the beginning, and that’s the way it was for the entire work. So, after an hour or so of the technical aspects, the memorisation, she would fly. She knew the text, she had control, the actress would appear, and off she would go.”
The lesson he drew from that experience, he said, was that “to get to the art, one must work very hard.” He added: “Art doesn’t exist just as talent. It exists as effort, work and judgment.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Bardem said, nowadays he chooses roles based not on their size or the chances for acclaim they might offer, but on the degree of the challenge they present. That’s the kind of thing that actors always say of course. But Bardem’s track record suggests he means it.
The director Fernando León de Aranoa, a friend of Bardem’s, recalled: “When we were getting ready for Mondays in the Sun, a Spanish film about unemployed shipyard workers, he had just been nominated for an Oscar for the first time, for Before Night Falls, and every time his phone rang, it was with a proposal to be part of a production that, in terms of money and fame, was more important than mine. I thought it was logical that he would take one of those, but he said to me, ‘I really like this character’ and remained firm. That’s an honesty that I like.”