Every awards season is rife with injustices, but one in particular stands out so far this year. Javier Bardem's performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's haunted, crushing tone poem "Biutiful" is a towering achievement, a magnificent performance that should comfortably sit on every list of the great acting accomplishments of the year. Without saying much – Jesse Eisenberg likely spouts more words in the opening three minutes of "The Social Network" than Bardem does in the whole of "Biutiful" – Bardem subtly evokes and embodies a world-weary Everyman living with a ticking clock and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Guillermo del Toro has called Bardem's performance "monumental"; Sean Penn said it's the best thing he's seen since Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris." "When I saw 'King's Speech,' I thought Colin Firth gave the best performance I'd seen in a couple of years," Ben Affleck told me at a party for "The Town" a couple of weeks ago. "Then I saw 'Biutiful.'" He shook his head. "Javier is on another level from the rest of us."
Memo to Academy members: SAG and Globe voters blew it, badly. Don’t you do the same.
(Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
When you appeared at theWrap screening series with "Biutiful," you took a moment at first to "let people breathe," as you said, and then you lightened the mood. Was that deliberate?
Yeah. I know what they've gone though, and I respect that. I want them to breathe, and I want them to enjoy. And little by little they start to warm up and realize that they’ve gone though a real emotional experience, a psychological experience, almost a physical experience. And also, through the humor they detach themselves a little bit from what they saw.
People's faces don’t lie. You can tell the experience that they’ve already had, and after that moment of breathing that you need to give, then they jump with questions that come from a different point of view. It's like, they need to express themselves, they need to share the journey that they had with the other audience members.
Certainly it's a movie that sticks with you, not one where you walk out and say, "That was entertaining."
No, no, no. I think it is not easy to do one of those. I've been working for 22 years, and I've done a lot of things. Some of them were watchable, some of them just okay, some of them were mediocre, and I was even lucky enough to be in some good movies. But to find material that really speaks at that level to people is not easy.
You've said that it took you three of four readings of the script before you got it. What was it about the script that finally did connect with you?
Most of the time as an actor, you think, I know what this is, I know how to get there. Or wow, this is interesting, how would I get there? This one, it was like, I don’t know how to do this. This is something beyond performing. Some other actors would do this performing, and they would be great. But me, I don’t know how to do this without being that guy.
Why is that?
There are just so many things that he is carrying on himself. Every time that my character goes into a room, what he's bringing behind him is huge. And that is the key to this role. You have to come through that door carrying what you have been told, what you just saw, what you just felt. And those things are the ones that are more difficult to perform. You have to go into your room and create all of them by yourself, so that when they say action you are not just an actor that stepped out of the trailer, you are a man who has been going through something.
He doesn't have many big emotional moments or big speeches. He's usually the quietest person in the room.
Does that create challenges for you?
Yeah. The challenge is how to put all the things that we're talking about within the skin, the organism, rather than in the words or in the hands. He's carrying that at a deeper level, and we have to see that in the silences, in the way he walks, in the way he looks, in the way he breathes, rather than in what he says.
Because he's trying not to be caught by his circumstances. He's trying to fight them. So what we see externally is the opposite of what he's feeling. That's one of the great challenges of performing this character. He's not a man who says, "F___, you know what happened to me?" There's one scene where he does that, but most of the time he's hiding, hiding, hiding. He's saying, "I can overcome this, I can do this." But his body is doing the opposite, and that's the great challenge.
He's been described as an Everyman. Do you see him that way?
That sounds to me like a cologne. [commercial pitchman voice:] "Uxbal! He's everyman!" But I think that's why he reaches so many people, because he is Everyman in a way. He is us. He is us in the sense that he gives the worst and the best of what a human being can do in those extreme situations, and we see ourselves in that.
You talked the other night about wanting to keep the actors who played your kids aware that it was just a movie, just pretend. It strikes me that in a way that's a connection to the character, who's also trying to protect and shield his kids from the darkness that's enveloping his own life.
That's true. Good point. [pause] Very good point, my friend. Yep. And I didn’t realize it until this very moment, in L.A., one year and a half later. If I would have known before … Man, where were you?
Sorry I couldn't have been there to help you out.
I guess that was working on me unconsciously. Like, I was acting with the kids from a very logical point of view, as an adult taking care of kids and telling them, "This is fiction, this is a game, we're going to have fun." But on the other hand I was also influenced to build my relationship with them based on the relationship in the movie, which is, "I'm going to cover you, I'm going to protect you, you are going to be fine."
What was first? I don’t know. Was it the old professional adult talking that to those non-professional kids, or was the character saying that to his own kids? I don’t know. We do things unconsciously all the time.
Is it true you took "Eat Pray Love" to recover from "Biutiful?"
Yeah. For such a long time, almost eight months plus many months after, I was someplace else. It took me a good while to come back to my own self and say, okay, this is me. Me, with my wishes, my needs, my desires, my failures, my wrongs and rights. Welcome back to myself. And once I got into my own place, they asked me, "You want to go to Bali?" "Yeah, man!" It was that easy. "Who is it?"" Ryan [Murphy], Julia [Roberts]." "Let's go, man!"
It was like a present that I give to myself. And it was healing, to do something different after inhabiting this world and this character for such a long time. To do something that has to do with joy. Because there was a moment in "Biutiful" when it was very confusing. Really, I thought, what am I doing here? It was hard. There was no room for myself. It was is a frightening thing: I was portraying him, and he became me. All the actors want that to happen, but when it happens at the level where it happened to me, it's shocking.
Did that experience change your view of acting?
I think from now on everything's going to be different for me, in the sense of learning how to go to those places from a different point of view, from a different place. I'm still on the run, I'm still learning. That's why I always go back to my acting school. I like my craft, I like my job. But after "Biutiful" it's different, and I have to understand things that happened there.
It has to do with how you create something from the pleasure and from the pain. Pain is always in the process of creating. Pain is present every time you have to be creative, but that's different than being taken over by the pain and only the pain. In the last third of "Bituful," I was someplace that was not good, not pleasant, and not worth it. You can't be creative when you are stuck, or blocked by your pain. You have to welcome it, allow it, but go beyond that to do something that is bigger than that, rather than get stuck in your own s___. I think I achieved that, but there was a danger that the work would become about me, Javier Bardem, having a bad time. And I had to get out of there and be Uxbal.
What effect did winning the Oscar for "No Country for Old Men" have on your life or career?
I felt grateful and honored, but I didn't feel proud when I did it. I felt proud when I finished 'Biutiful" – like, "f___, I did it!" From the beginning, I committed myself to do it, and after you do that and you know how hard it is, you say to yourself, I've done it, I survived and I'm proud of that. But I didn’t feel proud of an Oscar, because I never said to myself, I want to win an Oscar. I mean, I was watching the Oscars with my father when I was 10 or something. Bob Hope was hosting, and it was in black and white. It was a far, far, far away galaxy from where I was. And when you put your feet on that stage, it doesn’t make sense.
But yeah, it changed the scenario in terms of offers that came in, and I guess it brings attention to your work. You get drunk for 48 hours with your people, you thank them, and then you put the Oscar in its place. And you don’t look at him too often.
I think that's the grace of it. I've never, ever imagined the good things that have happened to me. I've been able to work with the Coens, Woody Allen, I've been recognized with an Oscar. Never in my life did I look for that. And maybe because I never looked for it, it happened. I'm always trying to put my focus on the work, and I guess that's the thing that I have to say to others, if I can: Put the focus on the right things, man. And if those other things have to happen, they’ll happen. And if they don't have to happen, they won't happen.
(Oscar photo by Greg Harbaugh/AMPAS)