Javier Bardem remembers the time from his childhood when he realized he was a performer.
“I was playing make-believe like any other kid,” the 39-year-old actor recalled in a phone conversation from his Madrid home. “And there was a moment when something clicked inside that made me aware of myself, that allowed me to watch myself playing from the outside. Up to then play had been unconscious.
“The difference between an actor and anyone else is that awareness of the playing.”
He has been playing ever since, immersing himself in roles so disparate that a casual observer might not realize they’re all done by the same man.
“One of the great pleasures of my work is to impersonate others, to hide myself behind those guys,” Bardem said. “To fill myself with someone else.”
Bardem is pretty good at that. He has the Oscar to prove it.
For several years a favorite of the art-house crowd for his work in films like “Before Night Falls” and “The Sea Inside,” Bardem roared into the mainstream with last year’s Coen brothers hit “No Country for Old Men.” As the eerie killer Anton Chigurh he mesmerized audiences and walked off with the statuette for best supporting actor.
He has portrayed murderers, a paraplegic, a gay Cuban poet, a crazed monk during the Spanish Inquisition, a burly out-of-work shipbuilder ... and in many of his performances he has transformed himself physically, gaining or losing weight, shaving his head, growing a beard.
Now, in Woody Allen’s new comedy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (opening Friday), Bardem finally plays the sort of role you’d think would be most obvious for him.
In the comedy he’s Jose Antonio, a Latin lover and sensuous painter who finds himself flitting among three women: a couple of Americans visiting Barcelona (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) and his mercurial ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).
“It’s one of his more subtle roles,” Boston Globe critic Ty Burr said of Bardem. “He’s not doing anything funny with his hair, he’s not paralyzed ... he’s playing an almost generic European stud. But because it’s Bardem, he’s doing it with a lot more shadings than we’ve ever seen before.”
Another admirer is Nick LaSalle, who covers film for the San Francisco Chronicle: “He looks like a caveman and has the soul of an aesthete. He can be self-deprecating, and he can be brutal. He can play comedy or tragedy ... he can play a great artist or a peasant and be completely convincing in either role. He’s the whole package.”
With his bedroom eyes and broken nose (the result, he says, of a barroom sucker punch a decade ago), Bardem would seem a natural to portray sensual men. Yet he has steered away from those roles ever since his first big taste of success - playing a stud in the 1992 Spanish film “Jamon, Jamon.” After that international hit, stud roles were the only ones offered him.
Bardem vowed to hold out for meaty character roles that would challenge him and his audience.
So why play the Latin lover now?
“Well, it’s Woody Allen.”
Bardem described the Allen set as one of the most efficient he’d ever encountered.
“On Woody’s set there is no time to waste. For actors who have been in American films, where there is a lot of down time, it’s a challenge to be alert, to do the work without the luxury of too much thinking. That might make some actors nervous, but Woody gives you extremely well-constructed dialogue to work with.
“You don’t have to rewrite it to fit your conception of the character, which is often the case.
“And feeling safe with the words gives you extra time just to concentrate on the performance.”
Playing a painter wasn’t difficult. At one time Bardem hoped for a career as an artist (he also has worked odd jobs like construction worker and nightclub bouncer).
“What’s different is that Jose Antonio is an abstract artist who pours and throws paint. My own art is much more realistic. But I must say that after doing the movie I’ve gone back and picked up my brush again.”
One of the main characters in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is the city of Barcelona. Allen made much use of its parks and fantastic architecture by Antonio Gaudi. According to Bardem, he captured a real side of the city.
“Like any other big town, there are many Barcelonas,” Bardem said. “This is the one Woody wanted to examine - a nice, romantic, mellow, quiet town. And it really exists. Barcelona has that.
“Of course it doesn’t just have that. That’s the richness of any town in the world - there’s always something more to discover.”
According to Bardem, Allen zeroed in on some of the cliches associated with the city - “flamenco music, wine, sunshine” - and deconstructed them.
“Woody makes us go through the stereotypes to see the people behind those stereotypes. No matter how exotic the setting may seem, we’re really all the same - same issues, soul and common sense. Everyone is struggling.”
One of the central struggles in the film is between Jose Antonio and his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Cruz). A manic depressive who once stabbed Jose Antonio in a fit of rage, Maria Elena is a painter as well. In the film she washes up at her ex’s apartment after an absence of several years - homeless, penniless and on the verge of a breakdown.
Despite the other women in his life, Jose Antonio takes her in, feeling responsible to the woman he still loves, even though he realizes they can never again be romantically linked.
It’s a relationship that is equal parts humor and tragedy, with Cruz giving what may be her finest performance as the fiery, tormented Maria Elena.
“Woody really paid attention to those scenes,” Bardem said. “He wanted us to experiment, to push as hard as we could into extreme behavior and then, if he thought it was necessary, to bring it down a bit. He wanted those two characters to represent the instability in relationships.”
Apparently something else happened during the filming. Bardem and Cruz had been friends ever since they co-starred in “Jamon, Jamon.” But on Allen’s set, that friendship turned to love.
That at least is the story being told by the Spanish media. One source even quoted Bardem as saying that he was going to propose to Cruz on a vacation planned for this month .
Bardem isn’t commenting. Before this interview a publicist for the Weinstein company, distributor of the movie, said Bardem wouldn’t answer questions about his personal life.
It would have been odd if Bardem hadn’t become an actor. He was born in the Canary Islands to a family of actors that has been active in the Spanish film industry almost from its inception. His mother, Pilar Bardem, has appeared in more than 100 films in more than 40 years, and his siblings, Carlos and Monica, are actors as well.
That acting is the family business may explain Bardem’s matter-of-fact approach to his profession. The biggest fallout after winning the Oscar, he said, was not in how he viewed himself but in how he was viewed by others.
“I try not to let it affect me. But you discover that some people around you have changed. Some people place too much importance on it.
“Five months later things are back to normal. But the first two months were crazy and not always crazy good.
“The thing is, you have to let it go. Sure, you celebrate, enjoy the celebrity, drink a bit - but then let it go. It’s not real.
“The real thing is to get a job and do the best you can.
“The real thing is to go to the market, buy a fish and have dinner with your friends.”
Bardem said that throughout his career he had never rushed into roles. He always reads carefully and ponders the possibilities for artistic challenge.
“Just because I won an award is no reason to change. I’m reading, taking my time ... and having a life.”
BARDEM’S MANY FACES
For much of his career Javier Bardem has been a human chameleon almost unrecognizable from one role to the next.
Here are a few highlights:
“Before Night Falls” (2000): Bardem lost 30 pounds to play real-life gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who fled political and sexual persecution only to die of AIDS in the U.S.
“Mondays in the Sun” (2002): In this Spanish drama about workers displaced by the closing of a shipyard, Bardem transforms himself into a great bear of a man ... hulking, bearded, powerful. But still sensitive.
“The Sea Inside” (2004): In this right-to-die drama Bardem plays paralyzed real-life sailor Ramon Sampedro. With unflattering bald pate and sallow complexion_and unable to move anything but his head_the actor is still mesmerizing.
“No Country for Old Men” (2007): Bardem was chilling beneath an absurd Beatles ‘do as a seemingly superhuman killing machine. Some have called this a one-note performance, but look carefully: You can see flickers of emotion and intellectual curiosity beneath the intimidating exterior.