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.