Between appearances in Pedro Almodóvar's High Heels and Live Flesh, Javier Bardem turned in a breakout performance in Jamón, jamón. American audiences warmed to Bardem's Oscar-nominated performance as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, followed by turns in Mondays in the Sun, John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs, and Michael Mann's Collateral. In The Sea Inside, Bardem plays real-life euthanasia advocate Ramón Sampedro and, in the process, furthers the case that he's Spain's greatest living actor (though you won't hear it from him). I spoke to Bardem on November 19, 2004 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
Groucho: Well, it's an honor to meet you. I'm looking forward to talking to you about your craft.
Javier Bardem: A craft? What's a craft?
G: Well, I know you hesitate to call acting an art. I'm actually curious about that because...
JB: Well, I guess acting—it's a job, and art is something that belongs to talent, and only a few actors are artists. Very few. People who are able to really construct and make—and bring diamonds from the places they go with their performances. I would say Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, I mean those are—Daniel Day-Lewis, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni. That's why those people are who they are, because they are—Brando. In Spain...Fernando Rey. Amazing people.
G: Yeah, well I think you're very humble, but I would put you...
G: ...in that category.
JB: Thank you very much. But I'm working at it for—to have the dream that one day I could be there.
JB: Something that—that puts me on, no?
G: Right, yeah, that's a very good attitude...I think many, if not most, leading actors in film are very protective of their image and perhaps even vain.
G: And I know that's something that you resist very much. Especially in a role like in The Sea Inside, you feel a very strong responsibility—as you did with Before Night Falls—to the person who you're portraying. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JB: Yeah. Well I guess, as soon as I get older, I realize how limited I am. How much I have to be, not only aware of that, but comfortable with it. So playing something that I'm not is ridiculous. If I would consider myself even—even a little bit handsome, which I'm not—and I'm fine with it; I'm not saying for you to tell me how beautiful I am...
G: (Laughs.) Right.
JB: I don't need that—I would be a model. I would work on it as a model. But I guess they would throw me out of the agency with this face that I have.
JB: So. Because why I'm an actor—because I have a need [to] express myself through different characters and at the same time have a chance to see the world with different points of view, may I agree or may I not agree with them. So, what's better than that? It's like [you] live different lives in order to understand yours, your own. So, I'm so crazy about going as far as those roles ask me to go because then I will understand more, and I will enjoy more, and if I'm lucky enough, I will make people believe more of what they see.
JB: In this case, uh, it's not something about you, it's something about how do we do for people to believe that I'm fifty-five, fifty-six. And then we surrender ourselves with the best people. I mean, Jo Allen, the make-up artist—he has done an amazing job, no?
G: Yeah, yeah.
JB: It's amazing. And there's no digital retouch on that. I mean, what you saw is what—the way [it] was shot.
JB: It's amazing. And then you feel confident about that, and there was not ever any vanity moment about that. It's—I'm so happy to be able to be gifted by a role like this that—I mean to think about that, it's really cheap. I really [feel] sorry for other actors and actresses that are stuck on that because they won't ever be able to go ahead.
G: Yeah. I wanted to ask you specifically about the makeup. Can you describe how your face was transformed—you know, what parts were changed? It reminds me of Orson Welles, who really loved to use prosthetics to change his facial expression.
JB: Well, Orson Welles, that's major awards. She was—this woman was putting me there in this torture for five hours from five to six hours every day. And I could not move because that makeup has to be set up with your muscles completely relaxed. And I could not sleep because those materials were very hot, in the first place, and then she would hair-dry with very cool air. So you cannot really relax in that condition. But what I, after five hour[s], when I stand up and I look myself in the mirror, I go, "Okay she did the fifty percent of my performance already. Now I have to own, I have to own—not only own, but deserve this makeup. I have to fulfill this makeup with my job. With my veracity, or whatever. And that was the job that I have to do, and sometimes it was difficult because I felt like I was not reaching the point that I have to reach as an actor, but the makeup was still there. And you, you feel like, like you have to fulfill that. You have to really be involved in what you're doing in order to make people not disconnect between what they see physically and what they feel emotionally.
G: Yeah, not only did you have to get into the mindset of a handicapped character, but it was a sort of handicap for you as an actor—
G: The limit in movement, 'cause you are such a physical actor in your development of the character. How did that physical transformation, including the different way of breathing, inform your understanding of the man?
JB: That was a very good point because I went to the hospital for three weeks, and I was talking to doctors and people in the same circumstances. Doctors were very helpful because they were pointing at me things that we were watching on a TV, documentary footage of an interview of Ramón, and when they told me about the lack of muscle on the diaphragm, that was like a—so important for me because then we hold the air when we talk. We hold the diaphragm and we can talk for, I don't know, maybe minutes. He could not. He could only speak with one breath. So that made you—that gives you an idea of how fast he has to talk, but in a way how picky he has to be with what he say[s], with the words he choose[s], and when he talks. So he's very direct. Like his, like his wish of dying, he['s] like, I don't want to waste my time; I don't want anybody to waste it. I can have fun, I can enjoy being with you, I can listen to you, I can talk to you, but I won't waste my time just talking because I can't; it's very tiring for me. That was very important for the character. And the body thing is about being relaxed, and breathe deeply, and try to put the energy in the right place, which is the voice and the look, and try to express emotions, but not huge emotions, just little emotions because that would be easier to control with your face. Otherwise you feel overwhelmed by the emotion that you are going to miss the body, too. Like he did in himself. He was doing exercise every day, meditation exercise, like when the movie starts, in order to control emotions because he feels anger, or like the panic attack he had in the movie, or whatever. He will feel very miserable, we found. We thought the chance to express or to move or to just—if it's only for doing like that (slaps hands). Like "Fuck!" He can't, and then he will feel very [much like a] prisoner.
G: Yeah. You mentioned that the relaxation being important. Stanislavsky said relaxation, and concentration is the other one.
G: How do you maintain that concentration on the film set when there is so much waiting? How do you keep your energy: do you relax during that break, or do you stay in character?
JB: I have always remembered something that William Hurt said, that says, when I act—something like that, I don't know if it's literally, but when, he said, when I act, I try to feel my toes.
JB: And it's so good. It's—because it's true. If you—if you're really to feel your toes and the temperature of your toes, maybe because they are cold or warm or they're sweating or it's nice and comfortable while your shoes, or you're just being standing still and very tense and it hurts your toes, or whatever. You are so much in contact with that, with your body, with you standing on the ground, that that makes you breathe realistically. No[t] breathe—[Bardem inhales, exhales heavily]—fake in the breathing in order to relax yourself, but breathe realistically. And if you are there, then I guess the next step is to trust in what it may come, because when we are present, we don't know what's going to happen next because we are not projecting, and we are not manipulating [the] future. We are present, and then everything can come...it's the pleasure of acting, like you don't know what is going to be next. Even if you know the lines and where you have to go, to what point of the scene you have to reach, it's about trusting. Trusting that there is something that is going to work for you as long as you pay attention to yourself. And instead of searching for the things, let the things go out from your side, from your inside. Which they—they are all there. Why? Because you have done your homework. You've studied the character, you've asked a lot of questions, you've been there. Do you have certain age, and do you know things that are going to help you to go through the journey? So in order to be concentrate[d], it's—for me it's very important—two things: one is to be relaxing and breathing and being calm. And second of all, use a humor, the sense of humor in order to relax. Some people relax through read, some other people likes to hear music, I—sometimes I wants to play games, or make jokes in order to relax and let the tension out.
G: Sure. You mentioned the importance of trust, and certainly the director is primary in having that, the trust that you need to do your best work. How did Alejandro Amenábar do that for you on this film?
JB: Well, I think he had a very good time, this time working with actors because I would say that most of them are—their first movie for all of them. Most of them. Which is amazing. And I felt so honored to work with actors and actresses like them in this movie because I'm always trying to make the directors and producers to see that there are a great amount of actors, man, out there that are unemployed. And if you, like somebody did with me a long time ago, if you were to trust in somebody, that person is gonna give you a lot. And of course you have to make auditions and try to find the best one, between all of them, but it's about the role, and also the lines that he has to say and the director who's portraying that, that movie. And then you would have an actor, an actress, so willing to give everything for that, that when we were shooting this movie, you felt like so much energy of all of them really willing to go as far as Alejandro wanted them to go. And at the same time protecting their characters. They won't ever do something for their own benefits, for their own exhibition of their skills, for their own chance for them to make an exhibition so they can be hired right after that movie. In next movies. No, they were there for the characters. So when there were a moment where they think they were doing too much or too less for the character, they will—all they come back again to the roots of what the character is and work from there again. And when you are surrounded by people like this, you just have to be on their—on their side. On their—follow them.
G: Mm-hm. It strikes me: the nature of those scenes, you being, y'know, the core of energy—
G: You're giving out energy to them, and them to you, and there's no dissipation of that focus by moving around.
JB: Exactly. And the beautiful thing of that is that because it was so tiresome, time, because you have to be there six hours and then you shoot for ten, eleven hours, then you go back home to sleep. Another bed, and then you stay like that for six days. And some days, I would lie down and I would say, "Okay, what are we shooting today?" because I didn't even have time to see the schedule. "Listen, okay, who's coming today?" Let's say, Lola Dueñas, the actress who plays Rosa, the girl who helps him. And you say, "Okay, whew. What scene is this?" "The scene that she asks you for keep on living." "Okay," then you go through the lines, because I know the lines, wherever, and then you start to create the mood, and I say, "Well, this is great," because every actor that come—gets into this room has a different energy.
JB: So my job is like what Ramón Sampedro['s] job was, which is to deal with that energy, to—he cannot move; he can't escape from that.
JB: So if (Bardem stands) in this moment, one man comes and says, "What the fuck are you doing? You fuckin'—you fuckin' body, piece of shit." The guy, he cannot do anything. He has to deal with that. He cannot say, "Oh, hey," and escape.
JB: So, he's like—for me, it was like to relax and say, "Okay, let's see what area she or he brings with." And then she, for example, was—I call her hurricane Dueñas. Cause she was wow! Like, so brisk and so alive. And then you feel how that change[s] you, and my world was trying to deal with that—with that energy and to do it mine, like Ramón Sampedro would do. Like bring those areas to my area which is peaceful mood, tolerance, and loving.
G: And when he does become defensive, the words are his defense.
JB: That fight with the brother. That day, I felt threatened. That day, I was on the bed, and he came with this violent energy, and he's such a great actor. I felt really threatened. I was shitting on my pants because I said, "Fuck." It was the first time I realize[d] how easy it was to hurt Ramón Sampedro, or somebody in these conditions. Like if he wants to start to pee in my face, I could not do anything.
JB: And that, I felt in that situation, and my whole idea of how that scene should play changed in a second when he came into the set. Because I never thought that. And then my thing was trying to defend and to calm him down with the voice and feel very low, very low, and very low. And to make him see, like he's wrong, make him low, but at the same time fake that—fake that it's not affecting me. Because if he knows that he's affecting me, then he will be more powerful. And he can be out of control with that power.
JB: That was good.
G: It's interesting because there's a greater stature in an economy of movement, too. You take on a more, yeah, calming presence. And of course that's natural for him.
G: You've been beginning to expand your work in Hollywood. And I wanted to ask what that means to you, the...
G: ...the idea of working in Hollywood.
JB: You mean about Collateral?
G: Sure, Collateral, and are you going to be doing Che with Steven Soderbergh, or is that—?
JB: Those movies—Che, Killing Pablo, and The Last Face—are not real. I mean, they're a thing that are going—they're up in the air, but I haven't heard from them, and in a way—in a weird way—my name get[s] attached to those projects. Because, yes, they have talked to me about it, but I haven't read any script or anything.
JB: So my only American thing that I would say was Collateral because Before Night Falls was kind of very independent. American-produced, but it's—John Malkovich [Ed.: The Dancer Upstairs] was a Spanish production with a Spanish crew, all that.
JB: Collateral is the only one that I have to take a plane and go to L.A. to shoot it.
G: Right, right.
JB: It's not something that upsets me. It's something that it happens—if it happens, it's because I feel related and attached to the project, but sometimes—most of the times, I don't find anything interesting because I like people. I like human beings with contradictions and struggles, different colors. I like what every actor would like. But I guess, not only here, but in Spain, and—[it] is very difficult to write a good script, and so far I don't have the need of working, because I'm not millionaire, but I can make a living. So I will wait and I will do some other things. Which I will—which is nothing interesting to do, because I will do nothing.
JB: Like I do in normal life. I don't have hobbies or whatever that I would like to do. It's like—I go to an acting school, that's true. Every year I go like four or five months.
JB: That's the place—I have been there for thirteen years.
G: Have you ever thought of, or do you ever paint anymore?
JB: Not really. I mean, I lose it. I lost it because I haven't been painting for a long time. I mean here and there, but not as much as you have to do if you want to really create something or be comfortable with. It's a pity, but it's the way it is.
G: Sure. It does strike me that there is some similarity between the art of painting and what you do as an actor. I think you sometimes paint with your body. You were talking about, in one interview I read, for Santa in...
G: ...Mondays in the Sun, that you saw him as a weighty character, a heavy character.
G: And so that that informed what you wanted to—
JB: That—that character I draw in, like in the middle of pages. Before I—when I was reading the script, that image came to my mind. I start to draw him and draw him and draw him and draw him, different positions of him sitting down, walking, he in the toilet, him having a drink, him sit down on the theater, which I don't think he will ever go.
JB: But in, like, different circumstances to see, because his weight, his moral—his ethic, not moral—ethic weight was so big, and at the same time, he was so outspoken that if you'd play that character in a normal weight or even a thin weight, you will feel like he's a loser in a way, like he's complaining. No, you have to balance that with a—with a heavy weight also, with a—in a look that is about a man who, who—I don't know how to say it—who's comfortable in his own weight. It's like, he's not complaining; he does have something to say.
G: Yeah. Oh, I wanted to ask you, before we're out of time here: in Live Flesh you played a character who was in a wheelchair, and a very interesting contrast to Ramón Sampedro. How did you understand—we've talked about it some—but the thought process in dealing with that challenge and how you might meet that challenge, God forbid, you know?
JB: The great thing about this is what I tell you before. I have a job that I love it and they pay me for that, but the most rewarding thing is that I learn, and now, after being, at that time with Live Flesh, three months, day by day, and that was something that I inexorably have to do this, that is something I want to do, with basketball players in wheelchairs doing different things...and also having the chance to meet people, like Ramón Sampedro, now I have a very good landscape of what that situation could be. Could be, because I'm not in that situation, so you never know, but—. And I respect both of those sides. It's like fanaticism and so many solutions like church are fanatical about the idea of anything that goes against life itself, or life doesn't have the same meaning for you that for some other people. Life is a treasure for those who are ready to overcome and want to overcome their circumstances to get a life. And that is—have my admiration and my support, and also I support those who feel their life's miserable and they want to finish with it. I mean, who am I to tell them that they are wrong? So, they also are—they also have my support and my admiration, and we are not talking about teenagers that are depressed because they feel misunderstood, and they jump out of the balcony. That's a tragedy. Because you know that that thing will change in their minds.
JB: This, this is not going to change: you leave it or you are living with it. Some people can, some people cannot. Those who cannot, they want to pass away. It's their life.
G: Well, thank you very much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
JB: Thank you very much, my friend.
[For Groucho's review of The Sea Inside, click here.]