Javier Bardem dedicated his No Country for Old Men Oscar to a frequent co-star. “Mom this is for you,” the emotional actor said. “This is for your grandparents, for your parents, Rafael and Matilde, this is for the actors of Spain, who have brought, like you, dignity and pride to our job.”
You see, Bardem, the first Spaniard to win an acting Academy Award, comes from a long line of actors. His performing arts lineage stretches back nearly a hundred years but it wasn’t always a given that he would join the family business.
His first acting gig came at age six and even though he continued to work on TV and in films he studied to be a painter. He put down the brush, however, when he realized he’d never be a great artist and tried his hand at writing, construction and even stripping (but only for one night).
His road to Hollywood began at age twenty with an offer to appear alongside his mother Pilar Bardem in the movie Las edades de Lulú. She advised him to take the role seriously and take acting classes. He did, and never looked back.
The young Bardem appeared on TV, worked with Pedro Almodovar, certainly a rite of passage for all future Spanish superstars, and found fame with Jamon, Jamon, a film co-starring his future wife, Penelope Cruz.
If not for the persistence of John Malkovich however, English language audiences may never have discovered the Spanish star. In 1997 Malkovich was planning his directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs. He offered the lead to Bardem who turned it down because he didn’t feel confident acting in English. Continuing to work in Spain, Bardem made two dozen films, collected awards like Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for The Sea Inside and become the first Spanish actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Before Night Falls.
The part made him an international superstar—Al Pacino even left a message on his answering machine praising the performance and Francis Ford Coppola compared him to Robert de Niro.
Meanwhile Malkovich finally had the money to make The Dancer Upstairs, and by this time, 2002, Bardem had becoming fluent in English—he says he sang along with AC/DC to learn the language—and felt confident enough to take on a major English speaking role.
Of course, Hollywood came calling—he turned down the Witwer role in Minority Report which eventually went to Colin Farrell—and he finally made his Hollywood debut in a cameo appearance as a crime lord who hires Tom Cruise to dispatch some troublesome witnesses in the thriller Collateral.
He made his strongest impression as No Country for Old Men’s sociopathic assassin, Anton Chigurh. Entertainment Weekly called him one of the “50 Most Vile Villains in Movie History.”
Then he switched gears, playing a comedic role in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, a part which made him a Hollywood romantic lead, on screen and off. Reunited with his old Jamon Jamon co-star Penelope Cruz in Allen’s film they quietly started dating in 2007. The couple kept a low profile—when asked about their relationship in 2009 all Cruz would say is, “He’s a friend and the best actor in the world.”—but married in 2010 in front of family members during an intimate ceremony at a friend’s Bahamian home. In January 2011 the actress gave birth to their son, Leo.
Professionally Bardem also kept busy. In 2010 he proved he could do it all. In the same calendar year he released two movies back to back, Eat Pray Love, a big budget romance and Biutiful, a gritty Spanish language drama that cemented his rep as the movie’s most versatile leading man.
Speaking with him the night before Biutiful made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival I asked if his preparation process varies from role to role.
“I think it is the same process but of course there is more weight in this,” he said. “There is more emotional weight than in Eat Pray Love because the character has to carry a lot of things with him but I think at the end it is about trying to understand who the person is, being honest and trying to put that on the screen.”
Biutiful’s story of a low-level criminal in Barcelona trying to put his life together in light of unbearable guilt over a tragic accident and a death sentence from his doctor grabbed Bardem right away.
“Most of the scripts [I get] are very boring,” he told me. “They are the worst reading material you can have. When you are in to too many scripts you don’t read a good book for a long time and you realize you need to get a good book and lose yourself in those words. In this case [the script] had an emotional impact on me.”
Biutiful offered up one of the biggest challenges of his career. “To take a man that you are not actually liking from the first moment [and make an audience] understand that behind that is a man who really needs compassion, who really needs to love. That is the challenge.”
Biutiful which airs on TMN this month, earned Bardem his third Oscar nomination. He calls the movie a “a gift” and acknowledged to me that his performance wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“I think he is one of the greatest actor’s directors,” he said, adding that Iñárritu provided a detailed, written character sketch before shooting began.
“When he handed that great work to me I was pleased because I am lazy. It helps you to more or less have the image. We work with imagination so we have to understand who [the character is]. Even if the others don’t get it you need to know where you are when he says action, otherwise you are up in the air.”