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.
Yes, we’ve already heard Woody Allen’s whine incessantly about how shooting in New York is too expensive, despite the new incentives offering $420 million per year in tax breaks for films shot here and the fact that he shot the underwhelming black comedy “Whatever Works” in the Big Apple a little over a year ago. Woody’s big “return to New York City” following his trio of London films – “Match Point” (solid), “Scoop” (awful) and “Cassandra’s Dream” (awful) – and pleasant return to form “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” was a dud, grossing just north of $5 million domestically.
So, the tireless Oscar-winning writer-director has opted to cross the Atlantic one more time in search of that “Match Point” magic. Shot in London, Allen’s latest is the heinously-titled YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER. The film continues along the nihilistic path laid forth in “Whatever Works” and premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Initially, Nicole Kidman was cast in one of the lead roles, but she dropped out in favor of the film “Rabbit Hole,” and was replaced by relative newcomer Lucy Punch. “Stranger” also landed in the headlines earlier in the year, when it was reported that a brief cameo by France’s first lady Carla Bruni took 35 takes to film.
STRANGER follows two married couples – Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin) – whose various anxieties lead them astray. Alfie leaves Helena to romance a younger prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), Helena starts seeing the recent widower, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Grifiths), Sally starts crushing on her terribly handsome art gallery owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), and Roy becomes smitten with a mysterious woman named Dia (Freida Pinto). Naturally, all these affairs spell trouble. Entertainment Weekly said of the film: “The film is notable, if that’s the word, for being the first movie Allen has made in London that is every bit as bad as his most awful New York comedies, like ‘Anything Else’ and ‘Melinda and Melinda.’” Yikes.
MMM attended the New York press conference for Woody Allen’s latest, where the celebrated filmmaker chatted about nihilism, filming in Europe, and his desire to make a classic film.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Somebody once asked what “Interiors” was about and you said: “The spiritual turmoil, the floating unrest that can only be traceable to their choices in life, and how a lover can posses the loved one as an object to control. There’s something of me in all the characters.” Does that apply to this film?
WOODY ALLEN: This film was an attempt to deal with the same subject but to deal with it in a more comic way than “Interiors” was. The subject matter is still the same thing, it’s still the inability of people to relate to one another, of people needing some kind of certainty in life, people deluding themselves into some sense that there is purpose to life or that there is some extra meaning to life when in fact it’s a meaningless experience, and yet in the end even faith in anything at all is better than no faith at all. These are all the same subjects as “Interiors,” but here the characters play them with more humor. It’s still serious but it’s played with more humor. I was reminded, I was talking to someone just before, years ago I was on television with Billy Graham and I was taking this bleak outlook position and Billy Graham was saying to me that even if I was right and he was wrong and there was no meaning to life and it was a bleak experience and there is no god or no afterlife or no hope or anything, that he would still have a better life than me because he believed differently. And that even if he was 100% wrong our lives would both be completed and I would have had a miserable life wallowing in bleak outlook, and he would have had a wonderful life, confident that there was more. So that was one of the main themes of this picture, that someone like Gemma could be deluded as I felt Billy Graham was deluded, and that she would have a better life than someone like Josh, who’s more scientific minded and had a more realistic view of life but was going to have a more miserable life.
MMM: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a romantic comedy into a classic?
ALLEN: A classic is a de facto experience. You find that over the years that certain comedies, romantic comedies or comedies last, they endure, they remain fun to see 10 years later, 20, 50 years later. And other romantic comedies which were delightful for people at the time are not. When I was a boy I went to see many films that were delightful romantic comedies with June Allyson, Esther Williams, and Gloria DeHaven and all these people, and they were delightful and I loved them and they were fine, but they’re just kind of gone, vanished. And there were others that I saw, “Shop Around the Corner,” something like that, which year after year remains just a wonderful film to see. And you look up after many years and you find that the thing has become a classic because it’s meaningful to people and alive decade after decade.
MMM: When you’re filming in Europe, when you’re filming in Spain, when you’re filming in England, I wonder how much your choice of location changes your writing process or the way you view your characters.
ALLEN: It does, it’s meaningful because it’s a movie and you’re watching it, and when you’re sitting in the room writing the script you’re alone in your bedroom and it’s nothing. But then you get out there and I’m constantly rewriting the script for the locations. A good example of that is “Annie Hall.” I wrote the character lives in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, and his father’s a cab driver, and then I was with my art director and we were scouting in Brooklyn and we saw this apartment under the Cyclone, under the rollercoaster, and I thought it was great. And so I quickly rewrote that he was born in an apartment underneath the rollercoaster and his father was not a cab driver, his father worked in Coney Island and had a concession, and the whole thing was changed completely. I’ve done that a hundred times over the years because you can’t anticipate in the room the riches that you come across when you’re location hunting for a movie.
MMM: First of all, could you talk a little bit about Antonio Banderas? It’s rare that you include a Hispanic actor in some of your movies, and it looks like you’re very excited about having him in the movie. And then number two, I was reading in the production notes that Naomi Watts had never met you until she walked in and I think you just exchanged a brief hello and then she began acting. Do you feel that’s the best way to bring the best performances out of the actor, or at one point would you want to do some rehearsal beforehand?
ALLEN: First Antonio Banderas. I needed someone for this part that was European, charming, very good looking, of a certain age, and inherently sort of a nice guy, a lovely person who projected that, and he came to mind. We talked about it and he came to mind as someone that would be perfect for that part because he’s exactly that; he’s charming, he’s a lovely person, he projects that niceness, that decency, and he’s a lovely actor. It was a very fortuitous choice for me.
MMM: And the other question?
ALLEN: The other question. I myself don’t like to speak to the actors at all. I like to hire great people and let them do their thing. I don’t like to speak to them, I don’t want to have lunch with them, I don’t want to have to socialize with them, I don’t like to hear their ideas. Josh wanted to play this part in a wheelchair. He called up and asked – this is what you get when you’re the director. So of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair, but when you talk to actors they’re thinking about acting. They decide to play it as a hunchback and they’re going to grow a beard and they’re going to do all kinds of things to affect a limp, so the less I speak to the actors the better. And I always hire great people and I don’t want to impose my preconceived notions on them. They know how to play it; Lucy knew how to play it, that was a character she created. I wrote the character but what you’re seeing on the screen is her creation; she moved like that, spoke like that. I didn’t know the nuances of that when I wrote it, I just wrote the cold lines in the room. The same for Gemma; these people infuse it with what’s made them wonderful actors and actresses, and so the less I have to speak with them the better. I didn’t know Naomi Watts at all. She was a wonderful actor for years in movies, beautiful, and I saw no reason to meet her. She had nothing to say to me and what am I going to tell her? She knows how to act and she read the part, she said she was going to do it so she must know what it is, and she came in that morning and said “Hello,” the usual exchange of insincerities, “I’m a great fan of your movies and I love all your films,” “Yes, and I love all your films,” and all that nonsense, and she had her hardest scene in the picture. She just started off cold and did the scene when she confronts Gemma and wants the money for her business and Gemma’s not going to give her the money because the medium has advised her not to. And that was a very, very strongly acted scene between the two women. Gemma I had worked with for the prior week or two but Naomi I hadn’t even met her. And she came right in and did it, she was completely professional and great, and for me that’s the best way to work. I don’t like to meet the actor and have a lot of conferences and talk about their sub-life and their off-screen life and their back stories and all that nonsense, because it never means anything and they never know why they’re good. They think they’re great because they’re doing all this extra work when in fact when they wake up in the morning they’re Jack Nicholson or they’re Robert De Niro or they’re Josh Brolin and it’s built in. But they think it’s all this other stuff but it’s not; they’d be great if they didn’t think about their part or if they did think about it. I hope you’re digesting this.
MMM: With regard to location, were there any changes in the script here because of locations you found? With regard to the input of the actors, were there any changes because of what the actors provided you with? And then with regard to your initial statement on nihilism and Billy Graham, if in fact there’s nothing to believe in why make films? And in your own particular career, after all you’ve achieved, is there anything that you have a burning desire to achieve in the future?
ALLEN: The first thing is in this picture there were instances where we would see locations and rewrite for those locations. We didn’t change the script as radically as that “Annie Hall” example I gave you, but we would change things depending on the neighborhoods that we found in London where the characters lived. We’d find a pretty place for them to walk and we’d switch the scene for that, and this happened fairly frequently in the picture. The characters evolve in the picture and I wanted and encouraged them to improvise. Lucy very frequently would want to say what she wanted to say and she’d make up her own joke or make up her own line and it was always better than mine because it was organic, it came from the actor who feels the character. And Josh would want to talk like Josh a lot, like he felt the character was at the time, and I encouraged all the performers to do that and they did in the movie. And sometimes some of the best moments are contributed by the actors being creative on their own with their own improvisations. I work all the time because it’s a great distraction and it keeps me from sitting home and obsessing morbidly. If I just got up in the morning and had no place to go and was retired or something I would be sitting there and I would be thinking of the same thing that Anthony Hopkins thought of when he woke up in the middle of the night. You start thinking gee, what is the purpose of life, and why are we all finite, and why do we get old and die, and is there nothing out there, and why is it so tragic, and why do our loved ones perish, and why do we degenerate? So who wants to think about that stuff? So I’m thinking about gee, if I call Josh Brolin will he be available for this? I don’t know Lucy; will she be able to do this as great as I think she will? And is Gemma the perfect person for this? These are all problems that you can solve and it makes you feel that you have some control of your life, and if you don’t solve them, if it turns out that one of them is wrong and Josh is wrong for the part, or Lucy’s wrong, or Gemma’s wrong or something, that’s the worse that happens. You have a bad movie but you don’t die. So that’s why I keep making movies.
MMM: And if there’s a desire to achieve something you have not yet achieved?
ALLEN: Yeah, I’d like to make a great movie. I’ve made many movies, I think I’ve made some good movies, I never felt I’ve made a great movie. If you think about the truly great movies, if you think about “Rashoman” and “The Bicycle Thief,” and “8 ½” and “Grand Illusion,” I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that could be on a program with those films. I’m not saying this out of false modesty or self-deprecation or anything; realistically, those are really enormous achievements and I’d like to make something like that, that would be fun. But you can’t set out to do that; you get lucky and if you work enough maybe one of them turns out to be terrific. But so far that hasn’t happened.
MMM: You mentioned uncertainty as a theme and one family has a lot of financial problems, the other, the Hopkins-Punch relationship has some extreme class contrast, and I was wondering if the current economic crisis was on your mind at all?
ALLEN: It hasn’t been on my mind because I haven’t been in the cross hairs of it. I’ve been in show business. I’m not a poor factory worker who’s been laid off. My mortgage hasn’t been foreclosed. So I haven’t really been affected by it as profoundly as many people have tragically been. But I felt that the movie was about uncertainty. Josh’s character wrote a book in the movie called “The Uncertainty Principle,” based on the Heisenberg Principle, and I felt everybody was searching for certainty. Gemma wanted a certain certainty; she wanted to know what the future held. Anthony Hopkins wanted certainty; he wanted to know that he was not going to get old, that his life was not over. And Josh was uncertain as to whether that guy would ever get up out of his coma or not. Was he going to be unmasked as a plagiarist or was he not? All the characters in the movie were constantly searching for certainty, and I thought originally of calling the film “The Uncertainty Principle,” but I felt that would sound too much like homework to the audience and they would not show up. So I called it “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” which I felt was a juicier title. Oddly enough, in foreign countries they don’t have that phrase and it’s been a problem to translate the title in European countries because they don’t have the cliché, it’s not a fortuneteller’s cliché. And in Russia, I’m told, the death figure, the tall dark stranger, is a woman. In Russia, the grim reaper figure is a woman, and so “you will meet a tall dark stranger” certainly has no meaning there, and we’ve been changing the title in various European countries, coming as close as we can.
MMM: Woody, you have it down to a science that you write half the year, you shoot half the year, and you come out with a new movie each year. I was wondering what are the advantages and disadvantages of that routine and also if you’ve ever fanaticized about pulling a Stanley Kubrick and spending years obsessing over one project.
ALLEN: I don’t know. I’m a completely different kind of person. Kubrick was a great artist and a perfectionist, and he always wanted the exact right thing, he did a million takes, and everything had to be perfect. I’m an imperfectionist. I don’t really care that much about the work. I write quickly, I’m careless, I shoot carelessly. If the characters are working and I have a dinner engagement I don’t do 20 takes, I do five takes and go home, I want to go to dinner. I don’t have the same dedication to my art that he has, so I would never do that. But there is an advantage in having a routine, in working with the same people with you can, and writing as a regular thing, and filming as a regular thing. That routine pays off for you; you get a lot of productivity that way, rather than just sitting around just waiting for inspiration and waiting for the perfect thing to happen. I would be much less productive that way.
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is currently in theaters in limited release.