On film, Javier Bardem is a direct guy.
In his Oscar-winning turn in “No Country for Old Men,” he shows no hesitation in shooting people in the head with a cattle gun. And in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” he’s just as forthright, if not equally lethal.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Joan Pera
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 15 Aug 2008 (Limited release); 2008)
Early in the film, his Juan Antonio, a dashing painter, spots two strangers (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) across a Barcelona restaurant and heads over to their table. And rather than spew the usual chit-chat and ice breakers, within a few minutes he asks the friends if they would like to join him on a trip to the Spanish town of Oviedo, where they’ll take in the sites and restaurants before ending up in a sandwich of their own making.
If anyone could pull off this kind of talk, Bardem would seem to be the man to do it. But during a recent phone conversation from his home in Madrid, the 39-year-old actor said that’s where he and his character part ways.
“Those who know me know that there is no money in the world that you could pay me for me to go up to a table where there are two beautiful women and invite them to come with me to Oviedo,” he says. “That’s why you want to be an actor - you want to live lives that you know would be impossible.
“It’s like I’d never kill anyone like my character in ‘No Country for Old Men,’ but my killer side of me is already satisfied.”
And yet, his most celebrated roles outside of “No Country’s” Anton Chigurh are based on true stories. In 2004’s “The Sea Inside,” he portrays Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic fighting for the right to end his life. And in 2000’s “Before Night Falls,” for which he received his first Academy Award nomination, he inhabits the life of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.
While Bardem has shown a knack for inhabiting the lives of other real people, he guards his own personal life closely. One of the major selling points of “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is its pairing of perhaps Spain’s two most popular actors as Penelope Cruz plays his ex-wife/muse. Their chemistry onscreen is undeniable as one minute they passionately argue while the next they confide to others how much they care for each other.
If the Internet and tabloids are to be believed, that plausible connection may be fed by their off-screen coupling (those pictures of them on vacation last year are tough to deny). If that’s the case, Bardem would rather not say - a publicist for the film passed along the message that any questions concerning Cruz would lead to a swift ending of the interview.
Which is not to say that all of his off-screen interests were off limits. It’s clear in hearing him talk that he’s a devoted fan of Allen’s work, and the chance to make a movie with him in his native country (he still calls Madrid home) proved an irresistible package deal.
“The thought of him coming to Spain and making a movie here I thought could be a great experience, like it was,” he says. “I loved the script, and there wasn’t much to talk about - it was like, ‘OK, where do I have to go?’”
Next up on his wish list is a return to Spanish-language films, something he says he’s “dying to do.” He’s made close to two dozen of them with some of Spain’s top directors, including Bigas Luna (1992’s “Jamon, Jamon,” his first pairing with Cruz) and Pedro Almodovar (1997’s “Trembling Flesh,” also joined by Cruz).
But in a strange way, his Oscar win and English-language success may be standing in the way of that happening.
“It’s funny, when you go and work outside of your country, when you come back, even if I live here, some people might think that I live in the States. Some people might think that I am impossible to reach. Some think that I might be a millionaire that earns a lot of money in movies so they can’t afford me,” he says. “So they have a lot of reasons - and some of them may find me a really horrible actor and some of them may find me very old - there are many reasons for people not to call me.
“But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do it. Actually, it is what I want to do.”
So attention all directors: If you are looking for an actor with leading-man looks, palatable charisma and Oscar credentials to shoot a movie in Spanish, you know who to call.