Tough guy or sensitive soul, Javier Bardem can play anyone. He talks about Farsi, keeping work in perspective and his love for Penélope Cruz
Señor Bardem, You’ve portrayed legendary baddies in movies like Skyfall and No Country for Old Men. What’s more your style, playing the average guy or the villain?
The two are worlds apart, but I always try to understand a character’s motivation. The fact that people always do things for a reason is one of the things that makes this job so enjoyable. I started studying human behavior as a kid, the only difference being that I expressed myself by painting. But I already felt the urge to understand humanity.
You went to art school, but you never attended acting school …
I always wanted to understand the stories behind the faces. I was never interested in colors and shapes, and I never painted a still life, only faces. The powers of observation that a portrait requires fits with my perspective on life: How a person talks, moves, deals with others, behaves – this is what fascinates me. That’s why I became an actor.
Does the soul life of a 007 villain interest you as well?
There are many aspects about Silva that would provide a good starting point: His mother betrayed him, he felt like a child who’d been banished from his home and felt the kind of jealousy for Bond that he might for a big brother. It sounds so dazzling, playing a Bond baddie, but I saw him as a person whose broken childhood and the fear he felt as a child explain the anger and hate that he feels today.
Are popcorn movies, pirate sagas and Hollywood a world away when you are shooting in the Spanish provinces – as you did for Everybody Knows – with two-times Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi from Iran?
I really love entertaining teenagers! But working with Farhadi was a totally different experience. He shows such sensitivity toward his actors and his stories speak a universal language of truth, loyalty, authenticity – and always of love. Love builds us up, only love makes us truly feel alive.
What insights into your culture were you able to give Farhadi while shooting in Torrelaguna near Madrid? Anything to do with food or cooking?
Asghar already knew a lot about us. He came to live in Spain for six months, studied our mentality and even wrote the script in Spanish. All I had to explain to him was why the Spanish wear their tie around their forehead when they’re drunk – and that we have plenty of other similarly absurd customs!
What did you learn from him?
I was surprised to hear Asghar often say the work baleh, which sounds exactly like the Spanish vale. And I found out that it means “yes” or “okay” in Farsi, too. So I speak a little Farsi! Every morning, Asghar would quote a work by the Persian poet Rumi that had a bearing on the scene we were playing – wonderful! We were all madly in love with this man. I would shoot another film with him straight away if the opportunity arose.
Speaking of love: You have made four films with your wife Penélope Cruz. Did they dictate the rhythm of your relationship?
The first time we worked together, on Jamón Jamón, she was just 16 years old and I was 21. Incredibly young, right? Then it was another 16 years before we made Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona together. But we weren’t a couple then …
… but you fell in love on set. How did that happen?
Well … something takes place, nothing obvious, nothing specific. We both felt a kind of buzz and thought, “That’s odd …” But we had a job to do. We got married straight after!
Our reality as a family is more important than any fiction, any story
Now you have two children, one seven and the other five. What is the most amazing thing about being a father?
How quickly you learn to live in the moment. My kids don’t let me sit around thinking. When I’m with them, there’s no space for anything else. They take my full attention! Every moment has its own surprises. That’s the best of it: You have no expectations but are constantly bowled over by what your kids come up with.
Is working with Penélope different for you now?
We are both adults who know that our reality is more important that fiction, than any story. Our kids want to experience me as their dad, not as a character. And they don’t want to see Penélope as the distraught Laura she plays in Everybody Knows, but as their mom.
Is it hard to separate your work from your private life?
We decided to draw a line between our work and our family. We have both learned to set our characters aside in the evening, and it’s actually improved our work because now we have such an appetite for the role when we are on set. But once the scene is in the can, that’s that. I don’t need to keep on chewing over my character’s experience like a cow.
In Everybody Knows, Penélope plays a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped, and you play her ex-husband who supports her through the crisis. How does it affect you to see Penélope suffering, even if it is “only” for the movie?
In front of the camera, she goes through a painful process for art’s sake. But it was her decision! I respect that kind of work, can give her the space she needs to do it and will always be there for her if she needs help.
That’s a twofold declaration of love – to your wife and your job.
An actor’s work is a very personal thing; it’s like psychotherapy. And I am a huge fan of therapy! I am in therapy myself and can only recommend it. As an actor, it helps you to bring out a very vulnerable part of yourself that you don’t have to bury away safely afterwards.