Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz in Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” was controversial from the start, with many criticizing casting the Spaniard Bardem to play a Cuban-American icon. (“That’s what I do for a living,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in December. “Try to be people that I’m not.”) On Tuesday, after that portrayal won Bardem his fourth Oscar nomination, he defended himself against concerns that he was taking roles away from minority actors via remarks picked up by Spain’s daily newspaper El Pais.
To translate: “Let’s talk about the Spanish minorities,” Bardem said during a February 8 press conference in Madrid to discuss the nomination. “How many Spanish characters exist in international cinema? None. There are Latin American characters. I know what I’m talking about when I talk about minorities. And we need to support minorities, but we also have to support those of us who are minorities as well, faced with representing other minorities.”
Hollywood is in a constant conversation about whitewashing and authentic casting, but to Bardem’s point representing only Spaniards would leave him with few portrayals. Like any actor, he is always hunting for a meaty role and the opportunity to play someone as complex as Arnaz as directed by Aaron Sorkin is rare.
Hollywood also has a long history of viewing Spanish-speaking actors and all Spanish-speaking cultures as interchangeable, whether Spain itself or Argentina or Mexico or Colombia or Cuba. Hollywood productions do lack roles that delve into the people and culture of Spain, which has an extraordinarily rich history and represents 47 million residents, 17 autonomous regions, and nine languages in addition to the dominant Spanish.
But to compare the want and need to have movie characters from Spain, a single country, to that of wanting representation for Latin America, risks reducing a region comprising 663 million people over 20 countries — and so many more ethnic groups, including Indigenous cultures, and languages within — to a cultural monolith.
Being a minority is more than numbers; Hollywood also does a poor job of representing 46 million Argentines, and you can say the same beyond Latin American and around the world too: where are the 32 million Malaysians in Hollywood films? However, to be a minority is to account for not only data but also the prejudice, discrimination, and oppression these individuals experience. Fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar, coming of age as a gay man in the time of dictator Francisco Franco, was a member of a minority group; Bardem is not.
Certainly, Bardem has experienced marginalization in Hollywood; it’s a rite of passage for anyone who doesn’t look or sound like most American actors. Last December, he called attention to discrimination based on people’s accents, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Why does this conversation happen with people with accents? ‘You have your accent. That’s where you belong.’ That’s tricky. Where is that conversation with English-speaking people doing things like ‘The Last Duel,’ where they were supposed to be French people in the Middle Ages? That’s fine. But me, with my Spanish accent, being Cuban? What I mean is, if we want to open the can of worms, let’s open it for everyone.”
Fair enough — why is it okay for American Matt Damon to play act as a French knight using a portentous, vaguely British accent? Or for Jared Leto to do whatever he did in “House of Gucci”? Bardem told THR that when he came to Hollywood, he hoped his accent and background wouldn’t define him. “It’s the energy of someone that has to belong,” he said. “And make everybody understand that just because he’s a foreigner, he doesn’t have to be put in a box.”
Bardem’s body of work is an extraordinary example of avoiding those boxes. He has been able to negotiate race and nationality in a manner not unlike the ethnically ambiguous roles that shape Vin Diesel’s or Dwayne Johnson’s careers while achieving award recognition that neither has touched. Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” — which won Bardem his first Oscar — is not coded as either Latinx or Spanish. He was Bond villain Raoul Silva in “Skyfall” and Fremen leader Stilgar in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” a character, like all of the Fremen, clearly coded as MENA (Middle Eastern and North African). Meanwhile, many roles coded as Latinx continue to play into stereotypes.
Last year was a landmark for Latinx representation in film, from “In the Heights” to “Encanto” to Best Supporting Actress nominee Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story,” whose lineage is Puerto Rican, white, African American, and Italian but who says she doesn’t identify with any specific ethnicity. Hollywood still has a very, very long way to go toward properly reflecting the diversity of the world we live in. To view minorities as just a numbers game is to do a disservice to real representation and the efforts to achieve it.