TORONTO — Remember “Nine”?
Javier Bardem does. He was set to star in Rob Marshall’s 2009 musical as the harried, Fellini-inspired director who sidled up to slinky sexpots Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren. It was the epitome of Hollywood musical flash, and a role, after much agony, that Bardem let go — and that Daniel Day-Lewis took instead.
And why the agony? It was over a screenplay that came along at the same time, called “Biutiful,” one that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican filmmaker of “21 Grams” and “Babel,” had written with Bardem in mind.
“It scared me,” says the actor, faced with deciding between the two projects. “I had this strong psychological and emotional response to the material. ... And I had to read it three times, because I recognized in those pages that this is not a job of going to the set, saying the lines, and going back home. It’s a journey, it’s a commitment ... a personal, emotional, psychological commitment. And physical, too.”
Bardem, of course, made that commitment. “Biutiful” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the Spanish star shared the best-actor prize. “Biutiful” moved audiences to tears at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where this interview took place. His friend and “Eat Pray Love” costar Julia Roberts has been busy lobbying Oscar voters on the movie’s, and Bardem’s, behalf. And last week, he was honored with a nomination when the best-actor contenders were announced. “Biutiful” also received a nod for best foreign language film.
And it is, without doubt, an extraordinary performance. Bardem plays Uxbal, a Barcelona black marketeer who traffics in illegal workers — Senegalese street vendors, Chinese laborers — and who has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He has two children whom he loves deeply, and an ex-wife who is a drugged-out, boozed-up mess. Uxbal is also capable of communing with the dead — he has a psychic gift, both a blessing and a curse. And in the time he has left, he must try to put his life in order.
“Javier is very similar in nature to Uxbal,” says Inarritu, interviewed separately in Toronto in the fall. “Javier is very physical, very strong, like an ancient Roman, like a Greek, with those features of all humanity ... ‘the minotaur,’ I called him. But he has a poet’s soul, he has a very fragile spirit. That combination was very similar to the things I needed of the character that I wanted to explore.”
If Bardem was creepy and comically menacing as the death-dealing Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” — a performance that won him the supporting-actor Oscar in 2008 — his work in “Biutiful” is something else. To say that an actor inhabits a character has become something of a cliche, but Bardem, with his heavy-lidded eyes and grief-heavy soul, drills down to the very core of Uxbal’s world in “Biutiful.” He is tough. He is haunted. He is loving. He is afraid. It’s staggering work.
“This story is like a Greek tragedy,” says Bardem, who speaks softly, in earnest but occasionally clumsy English. “Those plays were written by wise philosophers, to bring ideas to the audience and wake them up. And the major voice of those plays are the gods, who appear ... in the play to remind the human beings of their weaknesses. Throwing at them the storms, the thunder, the earthquakes, the plagues, for them to overcome them and find themselves. ...
“And here in this movie, it’s the same, but there are no gods. Death itself is the reminder. It’s like, ‘I’m here and you better fix your life, because there are so many things that are wrong.’ That’s why he has this gift, knowing what is there after death. Knowing what it means to be dead, for him to be more aware of his duties in life.
“So, I think it’s a movie that reminds us of all life’s tragedies ... and to find in ourselves the need of simple, emotional compassion and love and care. Don’t let the flame be extinguished. It should be glowing all the time, to warm the kids, to warm the community, to warm your little place. Like, don’t let the cold” — and here he makes a whooshing sound — “extinguish it, blow it out.”
Bardem married his countrywoman and frequent costar Cruz last summer — the two had first worked together in 1992’s burning-hot “Jamon jamon,” and began a relationship while working on Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (a very different view of the city, compared to “Biutiful”) in 2007. Two weeks ago it was announced that the couple had had a baby boy.
And so, Bardem, who also received an Academy Award nomination in 2000 for his portrayal of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls,” is not simply a much-respected film “worker,” as he has described himself. He’s become a celebrity, stalked by the paparazzi, caught ambling down sidewalks and dining in cafes with Cruz, immortalized in US Weekly, ¡Hola! and tmz.com. With homes in Los Angeles and Madrid, and directors and studios vying to employ him, Bardem is generously compensated, enjoying a hugely successful career.
Which made it even trickier playing Uxbal, a man who moves among a city’s underclass. To prepare for his role in “Biutiful,” Bardem visited shadowy corners of Barcelona where undocumented foreigners live and work in desperate, often dangerous conditions. Fear and poverty were palpable.
“It was shocking — I saw 60 immigrants in a room, sleeping,” he says, acknowledging, too, that he couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. His problems paled in comparison.
“Yeah, I felt guilty,” he says, but trying to maintain perspective. “We have the right to be facing our own problems and we cannot feel guilty because we have different problems than other people. ...
“If I compare my problems to a person that lives in a war zone, it’s nothing. OK, but you still have your problem. So be nice to yourself. You have the right to have those problems. But when you approach the real life of those people ... they are not numbers anymore, or ghosts — things that you hear about or you see on TV. ... When you talk to them, the thing that really kills inside is this (awareness of this) random grace that exists in the world.
“Like, we are just a geographical accident. Because I was born in Spain in the year that I was born, in the circumstances of my family, I am what I am. But you see yourself in all of them, saying I could be that one, or that one, or that one. And then the experience becomes emotional and physical, rather than a theoretical experience. ...
“We live in a world where everything (is) theoretical, everything is witnessed from a distance. It’s in the Internet, it’s in the newspapers, it’s in the news. But when it comes this close to you, there’s no way you can protect (yourself) through cynicism. And then you have to surrender to the fact that you are a lucky bastard, and then you have to be responsible for that luck. ...
“It doesn’t mean save the world, it means just like be aware of that, and be responsible of that, and own your actions. Your little day-by-day actions.
“And that’s a lot. By the same thing, that’s what this movie talks about: Uxbal doesn’t want to change a thing, he just wants to make sure that those kids get the legacy of the compassion, that’s all, this tiny thing — which is a big thing.”