This interview was originally published prior to "Biutiful"'s theatrical release last December. Javier Bardem has since gone on to garner an Oscar nomination for his work in the drama.
For over two decades Spain's hottest male export, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, has used his imposing figure, roguish good looks, and bracing machismo to play a slew of varied roles that showcase his penchant for taking risks. The three he's likely best known for - Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls;" a man who endured a 30-year campaign to fight for his right to die in Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside;" and one of the most terrifying serial killers ever committed to screen in Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" - no doubt took a great deal of skill to pull off. But as he revealed to indieWIRE in New York, his most challenging projects to date were no match for what director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had in store for Bardem when he approached him to head his existential scorcher of a drama, "Biutiful."
"When I first read the script, I realized it was a life journey," Bardem recalled of his initial impression. "What he was proposing to me was not a role. It was like, forget about doing things or showing your skills. This is something else. This is about jumping in the abyss."
Bardem's gamble paid off. Earlier this year the Cannes Film Festival awarded him their Best Actor award for his soul-baring turn, with many critics hailing it as a career best for the already heavily-lauded actor.
Unlike Inarritu's three previous films ("Babel," "21 Grams," and "Amores Perros"), "Biutiful" centers on a sole character, and not around a crop of people brought together through one event. Set in the gritty underbelly of Barcelona, seldom explored on screen, "Biutiful" tracks the free fall of Uxbal (Bardem), a street criminal and devoted single father of two who grapples with his many demons after learning he has terminal cancer.
"At first I tried to read it and see what I could achieve as the actor," Bardem said of "Biutiful"'s script. "But there was a moment when I was reading it and my attention just faded away, and it was just feeling and feeling and feeling, like the head stopped thinking, and my body was reacting emotionally, sensitively, and also psychologically to what I was reading. This is not a role where you go, deliver the lines, and go back home to have a cold drink, go to sleep, and say, 'yes, this is fun.' This is something else. This is a different commitment."
To allow Bardem to fully immerse himself in the thorny world of Uxbal, Innaritu made the bold move to shoot the film chronologically (a "gift" according to the actor) despite the myriad locations needed to tell the intricate story. During the early stages of filming, Bardem said he and Innaritu made a combined effort to lighten the mood on set by not taking things too seriously in between takes. But as the shoot waned on, so did the moments of levity that punctuated those first few weeks.
"After two months of shooting [chronologically] it was impossible," explained Bardem. "This huge drama took place within me. It was a five month shoot, six days per week, 12 to 14 hours per day. I didn't know how to detach, and bring different perspectives about it."
In order to unwind and leave behind Uxbal after production had wrapped, Bardem did something he does every year: he went to acting school. For the past 20 years, Bardem's retreated for two or three months at a time to a place he warmly refers to as a "laboratory for actors" back in Spain.
"You feel like you are growing, and you are leaving behind all these things that are attached to your performances," Bardem said of the process he goes through at the school. "It's like a purging. It's like a painter going to the studio, and working with color and brushes. I need to do this in order to paint something."
This time around, Bardem retreated to warm up his acting chops before embarking on Terrence Malick's as-of-yet untitled romantic drama, which Bardem finished shooting a month ago opposite a massive ensemble cast that includes the likes of Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, and Amanda Peet. Bardem wouldn't elaborate on the film's plot or the role he plays in it, but did recall the experience of shooting with the renowned director as "amazing," one that reminded him of acting school in many ways.
"You have to be 24 hours alert [with Malick]," Bardem said. "You never know what's going to happen. Everything is totally unexpected."
And as for now? Bardem, looking relieved, said he is looking forward to potentially taking a much needed break to get caught up on his reading, and, more importantly, to spend time with his wife Penelope Cruz who's pregnant with their first child. An imminent excursion back to the actor's laboratory doesn't seem to be in the cards.
Previous 2011 Oscar Nominee Profiles:
"Blue Valentine" Actress Michelle Williams
"Incendies" Director Denis Villeneuve
"The Social Network" Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
"True Grit" Actress Hailee Steinfeld
"Waste Land" Director Lucy Walker
"Winter's Bone" Actress Jennifer Lawrence
"127 Hours" Actor James Franco
"The Fighter" Actress Amy Adams