Granted, both of these thesps heaping praise on Javier Bardem’s quietly devastating performance in BIUTIFUL are more than a little biased – Penn starred in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams,” and Affleck just wrapped a new Terrence Malick film with Bardem in Paris – but many are calling Bardem’s performance in “Biutiful” the best of his career. Unfortunately, its been shut out of the awards so far due to the heavy-handedness of the film.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a hustler and devoted single father in the latter stages of prostate cancer, who, as death draws closer, attempts to mend fences with a former love and build a future for his own children. The film is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Iñárritu (“21 Grams”) and is his first film since 2006’s “Babel,” and his first in the English language since his riveting debut feature, 2000’s “Amores Perros.” However, during the interim, he was responsible for one of the best commercials in recent memory – Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ soccer ads that aired during the 2010 World Cup.
The film also marks Bardem’s long-awaited return to Spanish language cinema – his first since 2004’s “The Sea Inside” – after a foray into Hollywood that was very hit (his Oscar-winning turn as killer Anton Chigurh in the Coen Bros. “No Country For Old Men”, as a suave painter in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or miss (“Goya’s Ghosts,” “Love in the Time of Cholera”).
MMM sat down with Javier Bardem to chat about his powerful performance in BIUTIFUL, which he calls his most difficult one to date, how his characters stay with him, and his upcoming projects.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: I understand this role affected you deeply. Can you talk about how?
JAVIER BARDEM: In many ways, I guess, it was a long shoot. It was five months. I think on a movie set you have to be always in tension; you have to create something yourself where you are totally aware, but also create relaxation in that awareness, otherwise, you’ll be a very tense actor, but you can’t ever lose the track because you never know when they are ready to shoot. To be in that state for so long with such heavy material is exhausting. It’s not that I lost certain things. Although, I lost myself in very dramatic things at all, but it’s just that you feel that, like, you see yourself disappearing more and more from what you know you are and becoming more the person that you created. That’s not to say that I was suffering what he suffered. I’m not him. But it is to say that there is no room for something else. There is no room for anything else other than being him and because you’re portraying somebody in a movie like this, like him who goes through so many personal journeys, emotional, heavy ones, there’s no way that you can escape, to be honest. So the transformation was from being an actor and trying to pretend to be someone else to becoming that person for a good three months.
MMM: So you related to the character pretty strongly?
BARDEM: I’m not him. Thank God I’m not him. But there is no way or I don’t know the way to portray that without putting yourself in that place. But that’s what we do. That’s our job. Some characters are easier. “Eat, Pray, Love” you go there and you have fun and you do a tone, the tone of the movie and some others are different. Some others are the ones that really left some marks on your skin and this is one. It’s for sure the hardest that I’ve done.
MMM: Were there parts of the city that you went into that enhanced the character for you?
BARDEM: Yeah. I live in Spain. I live in Madrid. Barcelona is like Madrid, London, Paris, New York. I mean it’s not only in Barcelona these things happen. They happen all around, but I have awareness. I had awareness of how the world is going on in those cities — about immigration and all these illegal factories that are treating people like modern slaves, but that’s intellectual. Somehow you hear it. You see it from a distance. You read about it. In this case you are obliged to live with it and so I spent, like, a good month in those places with those people, talking to them, and what’s more important listening to them. Then the experience becomes personal, becomes an emotional experience rather than an intellectual experience. That’s the difference between having comprehension about an issue or really being affected by that issue. So after the movie, of course, my awareness of the whole ambiance of those worlds is much more powerful. I wasn’t surprised because there’s a lot of things going on in the backyard of any big town and Barcelona is no different from that.
MMM: Afterwards did you want to get more involved with these people and perhaps help them in their fight?
BARDEM: Yeah, well, that’s not that easy. I mean how do you help people that are really in the middle of…no, in the bottom of their existence because we don’t allow them to have sometimes even the rights to express. So it’s not something…you can do things, but it’s about putting, for example, this movie out there and making people realize that there is something that we have to pay attention to which is the world that we create. I think our very comfortable way of life has constructed or is based in the misery of a lot of people. Just the awareness of it means a lot to them and this movie is important for that among many other things. For me, it’s important to put this out there. For example, people in Barcelona or in Spain, in the world, will see that behind those numbers that show up in the paper are people. There are people with needs and it’s important for them to say Uxbal, a Spanish person, goes through the same problem of necessity as a person from Senegal. So in the end they are both the same. So it’s not about color or race or origin. It’s about people.
MMM: Iñárritu said he wrote this material for you. Did he tell you that?
BARDEM: He told me that, but he’s also a very wise man. He said, ‘I wrote this with you in my mind, but you are free to decline it.’ There is a lot of pressure when they tell you that they wrote this with you in mind. I’m like, ‘Oh, I cannot say no to this.’ But he’s wise and he said, ‘You can do it and somebody else can do it also. I would like you to do it.’ I read it and I’m a huge fan of his work and some of the greatest actors of all time have worked with him and have done some of their best work with him. So as an actor I was really interested in the process of how this man brings out some of the best performances of some of the best actors. I know why. It’s working really hard and putting you against the wall, in a good way. He works hard. He doesn’t stop. The material and what he proposes to you is a life journey. It’s not a performance.
MMM: Can you talk about shooting chronologically and the length of the shoot, what that took out of you all?
BARDEM: Alejandro told me in the very beginning that it was going to be chronological and I thank him for that because it would be a mess otherwise. It would be impossible. There’s an arc very well described that has to happen and it sustains little details. There’s something big which is the disease going on and the effect that it has in the mind, the body, the soul, but also little details of behavior that have to do with the chronological order of being affected by that. It’s a great luxury for any actor, but I couldn’t imagine doing this any other way. I don’t know if it would’ve been impossible, but it would’ve been extremely difficult for everybody.
MMM: And working for that long a period of time? It seems like an exhausting thing, five months –
BARDEM: Yeah, it is. It’s the longest movie I’ve done so far. It has to be this one.
MMM: How do you get out of that role after being with it for so long?
BARDEM: You don’t. They say, ‘Okay. Wrap it up,’ and you say, ‘Okay. What do I do with this now?’ You have to go there and let it go out by time. There are certain roles, like, when I did ‘Before Night Falls’ or ‘The Sea Inside’, based on real people, great real people, great human beings, both of them in different ways, but great people. They sacrificed their lives in order to say something to somebody, to all of us actually, and when they say wrap it up you have to do a process of letting go. In a way you’ve been calling them towards you, like, in spirit and they show up. Beyond your belief or not, it’s about that. It’s about something that you feel, like, ‘Okay, he’s here and he allows me to do it.’ Sometimes you feel like, ‘What would he think?’ And when those things are going and you’re in love with them for what they represent it’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s also a nice thing because it’s like, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be you.’ In this case it was different. It was like we created this out of nothing, out of nowhere and it’s difficult to detach from something that you have created because it has a lot of you in there. When you do ‘Before Night Falls’ or ‘The Sea Inside’ there’s him in there. It’s a different process.
MMM: Did you physically transform throughout this movie or did you take time off to lose the weight?
BARDEM: It was a lot of diet, a lot of exercise, but also a lot of shooting that really makes you feel like losing weight.
MMM: Can you talk about working with those two kids?
BARDEM: Well, that was the first time that they were on a movie set. Alejandro and I talked very seriously. One of the most serious things that we took in this movie was, ‘We have to protect those kids. We want to make sure that those kids know in every moment that we’re doing fiction,’ because they’re going to see things. They’re going to have images like their parents having a fight with one son in the middle being pulled off. That’s very hard for a six year old. So that was exhausting because the director and I, we tried to give a lot of attention to that, but the director is directing which is a lot of things. That’s why I’m not a director. He has to answer so many questions. I was with the kids and I was trying to be there, playing with them, doing kid things, throwing balls, and then he would say action and we would get into the fiction. They would do it so easily and so well it made me think, ‘That’s the way to go.’ That’s the way that it should be, but it was hard for me because I had to be on both sides. There’s going to be a fight with my wife. It’s going to be a fucking hard scene and I have the feeling here that it’s going to be…but you have to create that fiction. And at the same time you’re doing this for them. That was very exhausting and so when I saw the kids on set I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ But at the same time it was very rewarding because – I don’t know – the purity of them, the purity of how they played the game without any weight on it. It was like, ‘Thank you,’ because they taught you how to do it.
MMM: What do you have coming up next?
BARDEM: I did a Terrence Malick movie, but I cannot speak a lot about it because I’m not allowed. And second of all, because I don’t really know, but I have to say that it was an amazing, extraordinary experience, a unique experience.
MMM: I bet you slept for a year after this film –
BARDEM: Yeah, I did. [Laughs]
BIUTIFUL is now playing in select theaters.
Not to be confused with the 1995 action film of the same name that featured Cindy Crawford’s first (and only, thankfully) starring film role (and topless scene), Doug Liman’s action flick FAIR GAME stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame Wilson, the undercover CIA operative who was outed by former George W. Bush White House official Scooter Libby.
In case you’re not familiar with the background, here goes nothing. On July 14, 2003, Washington Post journalist Robert Novak wrote a column revealing Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. He was given this information by senior ranking White House official Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was eventually convicted of was of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and two counts of perjury. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but George W. Bush commuted his sentence. The incident has popped up in the news recently as Bush makes the press rounds for his new memoir, “Decision Points.” In the book, Bush recounts that a furious Dick Cheney told him, upon learning that Bush would only be commuting Libby’s sentence and not foregoing the $250,000 fine and two years of probation,” I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.”
The film, based in part on Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir “Fair Game,” is directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) from a screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Naomi Watts stars as Plame Wilson, while Sean Penn stars as her husband, Joe Wilson.
Watts immediately established herself as an elite actress following her stunning breakthrough role as a schizophrenic in David Lynch’s 2001 film, “Mulholland Drive.” Since then, she’s also appeared in a wide range of films, including the horror flick “The Ring,” earned a Best Actress Oscar nod for the intense drama “21 Grams” (also alongside Penn), and appeared in Peter Jackson’s Hollywood blockbuster, “King Kong.”
Like Plame Wilson, Watts strikes a balance between work and motherhood. Since 2005, Watts has been in a relationship with fellow actor Liev Schreiber, and the two had their first child – a son, Alexander “Sasha” Pete, in 2007, and their second son, Samuel “Sammy” Kai, in 2008.
MMM attended the press conference for the film Fair Game, where the talented Naomi Watts chatted about embodying Valerie Plame Wilson, her post-baby boot camp, and how she balances work and family.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Naomi, obviously you getting into the skin of someone that is alive, available, how much do you take advantage of that or not take advantage of that, and then how much do you concern yourself or worry in the process of them seeing it?
NAOMI WATTS: I think when you play someone who is a true, living person it definitely ups the ante and the pressure is tenfold. Everyone in America is familiar with this story, so I felt an extra amount of pressure that I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. And the fact that Valerie was not only alive but very involved closely, she was acting as one of our CIA consultants, she was on the set frequently as the BS barometer and saying, “This is how this scene would work,” or “We wouldn’t have those signs there,” or “You wouldn’t address someone like that.” She was very hands-on. It’s not every day as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who’s truly impressive to me so I was nervous. It felt like a big undertaking, and because of her injustice, because of that level of betrayal, it was deeply important for me to somehow serve her story in the best possible way. Our relationship was formed in a very quick and small amount of time. Basically, I had a baby on December 13, I read the script on December 28, and we were filming in February. We did like a little mini-shoot to catch the end of winter in February. So it was so little time, and so many facts. Obviously, we knew the story, but it was told through the media in a fragmented way. It was about piecemealing it together and then sort of letting go of the facts and concentrating on the character and really learning her story. Who was this woman and how did she deal with this betrayal? How did her marriage, her family function; how did her lifestyle change; who did she become? It would be so easy to assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or come undone, and she did neither. And then with Sean, he actually went to Santa Fe and stayed with them for a couple of days. I couldn’t do that; I was nursing a child.
MMM: And I heard you were sent to boot camp?
WATTS: Yeah, Doug [Liman] sent me off. He was like, “No, you’re too soft and maternal. You’re going to boot camp.” I did some paramilitary training for three days.
MMM: You said one thing that Valerie certainly didn’t do is hide away or retreat or deny. I kind of think that’s exactly what she did. It’s almost like the instant the Novak story appears their whole world is transformed instantly into a battlefield. Her view seems to be, “I really don’t like these bullets and bombs. I’ve got my kids in the bunker, I’ve got my way of doing things, and I don’t want to do this.” And then she wakes up after she talks to Sam Shepard. That’s just the way it felt.
WATTS: Well I think the thing about Valerie is that if you meet her you learn very quickly that she’s not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s not an emotionally driven person. She was a brilliant covert agent and that is who she is to this day. She’s very controlled and reserved and quiet and warm, but you don’t get her all at once and she’s not easy to read. Yes, at times in playing this character it was difficult for me to wrap my head around that because I would handle it very differently than someone like her. But that’s who she is, that’s who she is through and through and she talks about it in the movie. Nothing ever broke her; she’s the one person in her training class that got through. She’s not a victim or a martyr. She absorbs things slowly and learns how to deal with them in her own way.
MMM: Naomi, could you talk about how you related personally to Valerie in terms of that you’re both mothers and you have to divide your time between a very intense career and also motherhood?
WATTS: Yeah. I had the utmost respect for her because of that and how she managed with twins and traveling all kinds of places all over the world and outrageous hours week in and week out. My job can be like that but then there are also incredible breaks. So I talked to her a lot about that, how she managed to be a professional and a mother and be really good at it. In fact, that was one of the things I learned about her just recently because I’d never really got to see her with her kids but obviously I heard her talk about them endlessly. But when she came into my hotel in Cannes and how she related to my children it was very clear in an instant that she is a natural mother, because my kids don’t really pay attention to people unless they’re holding some great, fantastic toy or something. So that balance was interesting to me, how she managed that, and definitely something that I can relate to.
MMM: Naomi, Liev told us he was also in research mode for “Salt” since he played a CIA supervisor. What was it like in your household during that period of time?
WATTS: It was very funny and very strange to have first of all, two of us shooting at the same time – that’s the first time it ever happened with us – and second of all, that we were both playing spies. But they couldn’t really have been more different; one was the classic spy story and one was based in truth and facts. So we were laughing about it; there were a lot of moments where we shared our research and watched documentaries on the CIA and compared notes, and I was talking about NOC. It was quite funny and unusual and good timing in a way, because he helped me and I helped him.
MMM: Naomi, how much did you actually know about Valerie’s story before you got called, and what were you thinking when you got to the end of the script?
WATTS: I was familiar with the story and was not following it as avidly as I wished I had at the time had I known this was going to be going on. But I was interested in it, and then it sort of just went away after the Libby trial. The next thing was getting that email from Jez Butterworth, who’s an old friend, and I said, “Listen, I just had a baby, I don’t think I’m going to read a script for a while,” and he went “Well, this is about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe and their story. Just read the first 10 pages.” Of course he was very smart, as he always is, because you couldn’t just read 10 pages of the script. It all came back to me but there was obviously a lot more information that I discovered, and again, didn’t know quite the level of responsibility in her position. Then I read her book, which the script is based on, and went into more research, and then meeting her. So I learned a lot kind of on the job, basically. But I did know the story before I got closer.
MMM: Naomi, can you talk about meeting her for the first time and what surprised you about her? And also what was this boot camp, especially after just having a baby?
WATTS: Well meeting her it took a while, because as I said, I’d just had the baby. We worked out that Santa Fe and New York door-to-door travel was 12 hours and it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. I would have liked to be able to do what Sean did and just show up and hang out for a couple of days. Be inside their home and see how things functioned, but it just didn’t happen. But what was funny, and I realized I’m really talking to a spy when she said, “Well okay. How about we meet halfway? Let’s meet at Chicago airport.” I’m who meets at an airport? Oh, a spy does. But even that became hard to do, and eventually she came to New York and we had dinner. And again, like I said before, you don’t get her all at once, so it takes time, and I’m kind of like that too. I like to read a person before I give myself away or something; I don’t know. She’s obviously someone who that’s her training. So we just were careful and easy with each other and we slowly went into it, and then finally it was like crunch time and I just presented her with a list of very confronting and personal questions. All the facts were available but really what I wanted to get into was her mindset and her psyche and how she dealt with this. And yeah, how she was almost kind of just unbelievably consistent and strong. I wanted to learn about who that person was and how she managed to function in every part of her life. Oh yeah the training. That was intense
MMM: Did Valerie speak about how she felt about having to leave her agents out there and not being able to protect them and their families?
WATTS: Well, yeah. This is what the film is about. I think it’s very strange how her life evolved. She never expected to be in the position of exposing her life story and having it turn up into a film. She loved her job, she loved what she did, and would have that back in a second if she could. Obviously deeply involved with a number of different families, assets, whatever, that she was emotionally attached to. So it was really hard for her. This is why it felt like such a huge betrayal, and going into her job as a covert agent she expected, or there’s risk of being exposed by another government, but to have it done to you by your own is such an injustice.
MMM: As you know, Valerie lived a double life. As an actress you sort of have a double life as well – your home life and your public persona. What do your kids think of what Mom and Dad do for a living? Do they understand?
WATTS: Well her kids were very young at the time.
MMM: Oh no, your kids.
WATTS: Oh. They don’t really understand it yet. There have been times when they see a photo or a flash of us on tv or something and they’ll go “Oh! Mommy!” or “Daddy!” And then we try to explain Daddy’s got to go to work or Mommy’s got to go to work now. “But I want to come!” They can come to the set and they see you. They think our work is in a trailer; that’s our office. And then actually I’m shooting a film right now called “The Impossible,” which is another true story that we all know of based on the tsunami. This one was quite difficult then coming to work for the first time because they saw Mommy in quite a bad condition. So I had to explain that these owies were just pretend, and it took a little while. We prepped it days in advance and then showed them how you can put a little bit of blood on and then you can rub it off, and now they like it too.
FAIR GAME is now playing in select theaters nationwide.