Javier Bardem has a lot of good things in his life to think about. He’s married to Penelope Cruz with a baby on the way. He’s an Oscar winner with more blockbusters and art films on the way. He’s even in talks for a guest spot on Glee. Bardem’s latest film got him thinking about all the profound themes of life and love.
Biutiful is not a happy film. It stars Bardem as Uxbal, a man dying of cancer with a psychic connection to the afterlife. In his final months, his sweatshop business runs into trouble and his bipolar ex-wife returns to complicate things with his kids. The point of the film is to make you think, and Bardem offered the press some of his thoughts. Biutiful is now playing in select cities and opens wide January 28.
Q: What attracted you to the intricacies of Uxbal’s story and what did you draw on to create this character?
Javier Bardem: Many things. The director, Alejandro [Gonzelez Inarritu], I’m a huge fan of his previous works and I knew he was going to be an amazing actor’s director based on the performances that I saw in his movies. But more important than that, because I’m not that kind of actor that gets crazy with names, I’m more about the material. The material itself, which is the script beautifully written by him, and the character which was very complex. There were so many layers to convey that I knew it was going to be a hard task but a rewarding one.
Q: When you do something so dramatic, can you help thinking people will recognize it for awards? Can you keep your performance away from those thoughts?
JB: Yes, you have to. There is no way you can pretend that that thing that you felt or that you feel is good or bad, have to be seen the same way by others. That’s being pretentious.
Q: Can a comedic happy performance be as intense as a dramatic one like this?
JB: Yes, there have been. Peter Sellers. He’s a great actor. He’s really deep. He’s really deep in his humor but he’s really deep. He’s not like fun fun. There’s a human being always in the performances, broken in some way that allows us to have a good laughter, but it’s a human being.
Q: Is it hard to do a movie dealing with death?
JB: But the performance can be read without the movie and vice versa. In this one, Alejandro and I were holding each other’s hands and were, as he said, climbing the mountain, the highest one that we ever climbed. For him it was new to have only one actor for five months. For me also it was new to have a character like this for five months. So we really had to back each other and be aware that it was a very intense journey but rewarding creatively speaking because the themes we were talking about are important to discuss. We knew about it. That’s where the whole focus was. This is worth it. It’s worth it to make this journey and here we are. We survived.
Q: After this performance, did it make you see life differently?
JB: No, not really. The good thing about being an actor, the gift of being an actor is that you are forced, beautifully forced because we choose to be forced, to see the world with different eyes. Death for Uxbal is not the same as death for Ramon Sampedro in The Sea Inside. For him it was a love story that never happened. For Uxbal it is a wakeup call for him to realize and re-evaluate his life. So you cannot get attached to what that character feels about some issues. You have to pull yourself away and be him, but you know you’re being somebody else. It is not you. So neither Ramon’s in The Sea Inside nor Uxbal’s changed my idea of death. But this being said, we all understand things intellectually. We hear the news, we see the news, we read the papers, we see people on the street and we understand the world. The actor has the obligation to experience it which is to say it’s very lucky for us to have had the chance, for me the actor, of being in that place, pretending that because in pretending, I was able to be there for real. So it’s not that I know how he feels, but I know that experience in a very emotional way which is different from knowing intellectually.
Q: When are you going to do Glee?
JB: I don't know. I don't know. I talked to Ryan [Murphy] and Ryan seems to be very excited about the idea but that was a long time ago.
Q: Is he writing you a character?
JB: I don't know anything. I swear.
Q: Will you be ready to sing?
JB: I don't know. I have to read something.
Q: How do you maintain the emotional intensity of Uxbal over a five month shoot?
JB: I don't know. I don't know how you do it. I did it. I don't know how to do it. Do you know what I mean?
Q: What are your feelings on the dark themes and the hope in Inarritu’s film?
JB: We are speaking a different language here. This is not a movie so easy to translate. It’s not. That’s his work. It’s not an easy movie to say it’s about this and then you take home this other thing. It’s more deep than that. You need to see it. You need to make the journey with it. You need to really have the courage to make the journey. And you take the journey ephemerally you’re going to bring back with you a lot of good things. But if I name them, that will downsize the journey itself.
Q: What was it like working with Inarritu?
JB: He’s one of the greatest directors of all time. I mean, he is. The way he films, the way he puts together the filming because you have to have talent to film and also to put it together. That’s what I meant also as an actor’s director, you can tear apart your heart in pieces but if the camera is not in the right place, it doesn’t matter. He knows where to put the camera, he knows how to hold a silence, he knows how to put the music in the right place. He knows how to cut, where to cut and that helps you to have the best of your performance out there. That’s how good he is.
Q: Did you have to work with the director of photography to make sure you convey everything on camera?
JB: I was doing my own stuff, but I have to say that Rodrigo Prieto, the DP, he did the whole movie with the camera on the shoulder. All of it. The camera was not ever for a second on a tripod. Never. Not even in those long sequences so I was really amazed by that and he is another master because he knows when he has to get to the face. It’s amazing. So that allows you to do your job. When you’re working with the best, it helps you to be good because then you are focusing on what you have to do, rather than where is the camera? You know that you are going through a process and you feel like that moment the camera is looking at you, you go okay, great. We are all on the same page.
Q: How do you approach this character as good or bad?
JB: I see it as a human being. I see it as a human being. I don’t believe in stereotypes. I don’t believe. I played a stereotype in Vicky Cristina Barcelona but it was a fun one and it was very well written. Behind the stereotype was something true which is the misery of him and the need of him and the childish behavior. Most of the time stereotypes are only that. There’s no behind the scenes. The world is different. The world, we are right and wrong at least 20 times a day. All of us, that’s life. This is one of them. So as an actor you can’t judge. A great actress from Spain, Victoria Abril said, “We the actors are lawyers of the characters we play. We have to defend them no matter what.”
Q: Why do you think Uxbal was surrounded by unreliable people?
JB: Well, Uxbal doesn’t have any choice. Many people don’t have a choice to choose their friends or the people they’re being manipulated by. That’s the world. Me, Javier, I have a chance. I can have judgment and choose. That’s the people he’s dealing with.
Q: Has the film changed how you view living in cities?
JB: Yeah, it’s Barcelona but it’s also the rest of the world. It’s L.A. No, I try to see different sides of the places I go to. In L.A. it’s difficult though because every time I come here is like an office. I come here to work and I go back home, so I see the L.A. that we all know but sometimes I get to get to downtown and see the L.A. that is not in the papers. Or maybe in the papers here but not in the papers around the world. With Barcelona it was the same. Spain is my country. I smell things in a different way because I know. I know the language, I know the culture, I know the place and I knew about all those things but it was only until I got the chance to be in those situations, those people, those real places. It’s where the experience of being conscious of something instead of the intellectual aspect of it. It goes to the emotional level. When you are in an emotional level of an experience, that experience is read differently. It’s like we understand how bad things could be. Well, until the moment you are there, when you feel it, you go like, “F***, this is bad.” Or good. How good it would be to be a millionaire. Then you win the lottery and you’re a millionaire and then you’re f***ed. Then a lot of those people you were mentioning would come to you, unreliable people.
Q: What happens when you win an Oscar?
JB: It’s good fun. It’s great fun. It’s a great honor. It’s a great honor, it’s a great honor, of course. It’s something you would never dream of, never. Then it happens and you’re there and you try to share it with all the people that are so meaningful to you but you don’t have the time so you have to choose which people don’t like, but they understand because that’s why they are your people because they understand.
Q: How do you pick your characters?
JB: I don't know, it happens. It’s like you feel driven. Okay, this is interesting. As I said, it’s less about playing one side kind of people rather than multi-layered people because that’s what I think the world is about. Also, I played No Country For Old Men which is only one side kind of people but the challenge there was I played it because it was the Coen Brothers in Cormac McCarthy’s book. I knew I was going to be protected and safe. It was not going to be a bang bang movie. It was something that would be translated for example in the Tommy Lee Jones characters’ last monologue he has about what do we do with this violence? When violence is lack of meaning, if violence has any meaning at all, then it’s unstoppable because we cannot cut it from the roots because we don’t know where the roots are. But, even though I knew that I had to play one color kind of guy but full of many other things that cannot be seen, but it has to be felt.
Q: Would you do another movie with the Coens?
JB: I would love to. I had great fun. I hate them but I had fun. They hurt me. Everybody thinks it was a wig. It was [my hair]. This is more attractive.