By Mack Chico
Oscar winner Javier Bardem sat down recently with The New York Times for this exlusive interview touching upon fame, the Oscar and how he feels about his country.
At the Oscars last February, you won Best Supporting Actor for your portrayal of the ultimate bad guy, Anton Chigurh, in ‘‘No Country for Old Men,’’ directed by the Coen brothers. Now you are starring as the ultimate ladies’ man in Woody Allen’s ‘‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’’ Which is the more difficult role to play?
This is the first time in 20 years that I’m playing a leading man in a romantic comedy. It was a conscious decision: in my early career I waited for more complex roles to come, knowing that they might not ever come. The complexity of Chigurh was a kind of dream — the Coen brothers are my favorite directors of all time. On that movie, I was the only foreigner. And Chigurh really comes out of nowhere, which helped with the character, but it was a little isolating. In ‘‘Vicky Cristina,’’ I’m with these three beauties. I was afraid no one in the audience would believe they’d ever be with me. I was in the makeup trailer saying, ‘‘You better work a miracle.’’
How deeply do you imagine your characters before you play them?
I want to understand everything about that mind. With Chigurh, I saw him as a man with a mission that was beyond his control. Someone chose his fate for him. I thought of him as a man who never had sex. He doesn’t like human fluids, even his own. [Pauses] I don’t want to get into too many details, but I even imagined how Chigurh would masturbate. For the Woody Allen movie, I don’t have to imagine such things because the character is very sexual, but for Chigurh, it was important to think about how he relates to other people, even sexually. So, I think he will masturbate once per month in the dark and with a pillow. Very clean.
You grew up in Madrid, loving American as well as Spanish films.
That’s true: I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Al Pacino. The other day I was watching ‘‘Dog Day Afternoon’’ again, and I see a man who is so true, so interesting and I understand more about the world from his performance. And you go, ‘‘C’mon, it’s only acting.’’ Well, wouldn’t you say that a good book or a good painting allows you to see the world in a different way? When I see a great performance, I feel more alive.
Did you always feel this drawn to movies?
I started my career early. When I was 6, my mother, who is a well-known actress in Spain, cast me in a movie for television. It was a little moment where a guy puts a gun to my head and I have to laugh, but when I laugh, I’m also supposed to cry. I liked it immediately. When I was 13, I did theater for two months. Actually, I think my very first time onstage was when I was an altar boy. You have your moment there — it’s just Christ and you. [Laughs] As a kid, I felt happy onstage, but beforehand I would think, What am I doing here? I should be in the playground with my friends. I’m the same today: we actors are lazy. I like to take a year off between films. Some actors need to work for the money, but money is not a priority for me. I don’t have the need for a lot of cars or houses. Since I am a tomato in the market, I have a price. They have to pay the price, but money is not my biggest priority.
In Spain, they often are judgmental about their actors finding success in America. After you won the Oscar, how were you treated back home?
The Spanish are tough. They criticize my work and say I sold out. You want to say, ‘‘Stop it — you’re a bunch of stupid people.’’ But you are never going to be liked by everybody. After the Oscars, I came back to Madrid, where I live. I wanted to get back to the real world. After something like the awards, you’ve changed a little bit, but everyone around you has changed tremendously. You have to bring them back — you have to show that you are the same stupid, limited guy and not this kind of golden boy.
Are you receiving lots of scripts where you would play a villain?
No more bad boys. But I don’t see Chigurh as evil. You don’t have to like the characters you play, but you have to understand them and you must always defend them. Every actor wants to get to a point where you allow yourself to be taken by somebody else. That is the pleasure of it.
In ‘‘Vicky Cristina,’’ you have scenes with Penélope Cruz in Spanish. Does Woody Allen speak Spanish?
He told us what he wanted us to say and then we improvised, and after a while he’d say, ‘‘Cut.’’ We’d say, ‘‘Do you like it?’’ And he’d say, ‘‘I don’t know. I guess so.’’ It would be as if I was acting in Chinese — how would I know if I was good or not?
How has fame changed your life?
Mostly, it’s the same. I put on a hat and dark glasses and I can walk anywhere. But there are still questions which invade your privacy. I don’t really know why people need to know personal details about other people’s lives. It’s out of control. For a lot of people, the press is now the enemy.
Chigurh represented a departure for you — you famously told the Coens that you would happily take the part even though you hate violence, had never fired a gun and were uncomfortable speaking English.
And I don’t drive a car! They weren’t concerned. When you act, you learn things. Before ‘‘No Country,’’ I had never held a gun and now I can drive a car. When I was doing Chigurh, my English became so good that I was dreaming in English. Actors don’t learn because they want to know — we learn because we have to learn. I wish I would play a cook, so I could learn to make something worth eating.
You play a painter in ‘‘Vicky Cristina.’’ Did you have to learn to paint?
No, from the ages of 19 to 23, I studied painting. Initially, I worked as an extra in movies to get money to keep painting. Now I paint very secretly. Before playing this part, I asked Julian Schnabel [who directed Bardem in ‘‘Before Night Falls’’] if he feels fear when he faces a blank canvas. He said, ‘‘Fear of what?’’ [Laughs] That was the character!