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If you want to do American movies, you have to kill somebody and if you want to work in Europe, you have to get laid, Javier Bardem reflects, as he talks to Sue Williams about his Oscar winning role in Love In The Time of Cholera.

As the lovelorn hero of one of the most romantic novels ever turned into film, Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem is a soft-eyed giant of a man whose heartwrenching loneliness is guaranteed to melt the hardest of hearts.

Plying his forbidden sweetheart with anguished love letters, then losing her to another before trying to win her back, his desperate plight in the film version of the great literary classic Love In The Time of Cholera is as moving as that of any hero touched by tragedy.

But when you contrast that performance with his acclaimed previous turn, as the ruthless killer of No Country For Old Men, who makes us laugh with one of the worst haircuts in cinematic history even as he’s chilling us to the very bone, it’s then that the talented Mr Bardem comes even more sharply into focus.

“Sometimes my success is very surprising to me,” muses Javier, in his heavily Spanish-accented English, as a huge grin spreads over his face, as he talks (at the Cannes Film Festival). “I never thought this would work out so well for me. But it just keeps on getting better. I think I am very lucky.”

Yet while Javier, 39, might still be very much the modest outsider among the Hollywood set, he’s getting harder to ignore all the time. For Love In The Time of Cholera, the first adaptation of the magnificent 50-year Colombian epic by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he even snatched the lead role from under the nose of Johnny Depp. He’s then gone on to make the role completely his own, having to age from 24 to 74 in the space of just over two hours.

"The responsibility and challenge is huge"

“The responsibility and challenge is huge,” says Javier. “My character represents the ultimate love, the ultimate need of sharing love with somebody in a very peculiar, deep and pure way. And a movie like this is so complex and so full of detail; you really have to give everything. You cannot hold anything back for yourself.”

Luckily, Javier has spent his whole life taking on such challenging roles, ever since he was first discovered by the world beyond his native Spain playing opposite Penelope Cruz is the charming 1992 comedy Jamon, Jamon. Since then, he’s gone on to play some of the toughest roles ever written, ranging from his Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated performance as a gay, dying Cuban poet in Before Night Falls to a paraplegic waiting to die in the Oscar-winning The Sea Inside, which also saw him nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

“Who would have ever thought people would want to see a movie about a man who wants to die for two hours?” laughs Javier, his left eyebrow rising quizzically. “I never expected people to want to see this movie, and then to have it so well received … It’s just astonishing.”

It’s a similar story with his most recent triumph too, the film version of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country For Old Men, in which his brutal character Chigurh becomes, in his hands, the absolute embodiment of human evil, killing anyone who gets in his way without the slightest hesitation.

“It was difficult,” he confesses, about the role that saw him winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and the Golden Globe. “It was a very dark place. Afterwards, I would go back to my hotel room and roll on the floor and shout and spit to put that guy away. It sounds a little weird but you don’t want him to stay with you. It’s not that you’d become violent, but it’s his disattachment that felt so dangerous for me.”

He hesitates, and looks out into the bright sunshine where the festival crowds are lining up for a repeat showing of the film, holidaymakers stroll along the Croisette and boats bob on the glittering sea beyond. “You know, I tried to make it a mix of The Terminator and Robert Mitchum,” Javier smiles. “But I was still glad when it was over. The crew bought me a chocolate cake – my favourite – on the last day of shooting. But on the top, it was decorated with every person I had killed in the movie, and there were something like 20 decorations. That brought it home!”

The film’s callous violence was not only disturbing for audiences, however. “It is violent and I have problems with that,” Javier admits. “But if you want to do American movies, I’ve learnt that you have to kill somebody. By the same token, if you want to work in Europe, you have to get laid.”

That’s certainly proved true with his next film, Love In The Time of Cholera, directed by Mike Newell (Donnie Basco, Enchanted April) and filmed in Cartagena, with Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Liev Schreiber, Benjamin Bratt and John Leguizamo. As a telegraph boy turned successful river shipping magnate, Javier’s character ends up having more than 600 sexual encounters as he waits for his one true love to realise he’s the one for her.

“Through the journey of a whole life trying to find this person, he has a lot of different experiences,” he says. “Some are fun, some are sad, some are difficult, some are easy, but at the end, he can never forget this person. His struggle is with his own faith that some day, maybe, he will have a chance to get close to her.”

"this funny, self-effacing chameleon of a man who never seems to take anything seriously"

In the meantime, audiences also long to get closer to Javier, this funny, self-effacing chameleon of a man who never seems to take anything seriously – and certainly not himself. Even ending up an actor was an accident, despite the fact that his whole family is involved in the industry.

His mother, for instance, is Pilar Bardem, a respected actress who has worked continuously from the mid-60s to the present day, and his uncle was Juan Antonio Bardem, one of Spain’s most celebrated directors, jailed by the Franco regime when his Death of A Cyclist won the critics prize in Cannes. Even his grandparents are well-known in the film industry.

It was exactly for that reason that Javier, born in Spain’s Canary Islands, decided not to act. Instead, he studied painting in the Escuela de Arte Y Officios Art School, and took on small roles on TV merely to pay for his canvasses and paints.

“I saw my mum doing theatre, my uncle doing movies, and my grandpa doing theatre and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that’,” admits Javier. “I thought it was insane. Ninety per cent of them don’t have a job.

“So I decided to study painting instead, then I just worked as an extra to get money to keep on painting. Then they give me more and more roles, for money. I started enjoying it, it was good. My mother said to me, ‘No, Javier, don’t do that! Don’t go there!’ But I did. And out of respect for my family name, once I go there, I have to work hard. I still paint, but not so much now. I’ve lost it.”

After a small role in Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels, Javier’s career really kicked off, with his work since including a vast number of award-winning films like John Malkovich’s directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs, Mondays in the Sun, Michael Mann’s Collateral and Goya’s Ghosts opposite Natalie Portman.

His success in both No Country and Cholera has now sent his star soaring ever upwards, as he’s chased by both the best of American and European directors. He also worked with Woody Allen on the romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, alongside Scarlett Johansson and old friend Penelope Cruz, about a painter in a relationship with two American tourists.

“It has always been a dream of mine to work with him,” says Javier, shaking his head in bewilderment at his good fortune. “First, the Coens, then him.” From there, he went on to star in the title role of Killing Pablo, a thriller about the notorious Columbian drugs gangster Pablo Escobar, with Christian Bale, and then on to the Francis Ford Coppola written and directed-drama Tetro about the rivalries of an Italian migrant family, with Matt Dillon.

"success can be just as perilous as failure"

So while it’s not likely that Javier will ever become one of the 90 per cent of unemployed actors, he’s determined not to take this fabulous windfall of work for granted. For sometimes, he says, success can be just as perilous as failure. “We all want to be successful and loved by people, and for them to love your work,” he says, pushing a lock of dark hair – now properly styled far from the Prince Valiant cut of No Country – back off his forehead.

“That’s so nice for the heart, but you have to stay away from that as much as failure. You have to think of yourself in this job. It’s very easy to step out of your own mind and self and be what other people want you to be. I’ve seen that happen with others and it’s dangerous. You have to remain true to yourself. That’s my true ambition.”

Published June 5, 2008


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