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Playing the late Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas in the biopic, Before Night Falls, has made Javier Bardem a better person, he tells Jenny Cooney Carrillo. It also got him an Oscar Nomination.

While international audiences were surprised to see actor Javier Bardem up against stars like Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe for the Best Actor Oscar earlier this year, nobody in his home country thought it was entirely unexpected. A scion of a popular acting clan in Spain, Bardem has long been hailed as the countryís best-kept secret, starring in popular Spanish films including The Ages of Lulu, High Heels (with director Pedro Almodovar), Mouth to Mouth and Live Flesh. With fellow Spaniards Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz also breaking out in Hollywood, it was icing on the cake when the 32-year-old actor caught the eye of Academy voters for his performance in Before Night Falls, directed by Julian Schnabel, in which he plays Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in a story based on the gay writerís posthumously published memoirs of the same name.

How did you feel about going to Cuba?
Iíd never been before so I was happy to go and speak with people who knew Reinaldo but it wasnít a great experience for me because in Spain we have this idea about Cuba that is very romantic. We donít know very much about what happened at that time for Reinaldo so I went there to try and figure it out in order to have a clear idea of who I was playing. My uncle is a very famous Spanish director and he spent ten years in jail because of the Franco dictatorship so I grew up in that environment and although there are many great things about Cuba, we have to avoid this thing happening again. Itís intolerance and that is what I think this movie talks about.

How do you feel about people calling you Ďthe new Antonio Banderasí?
I donít think we have very much in common besides being Spanish and having worked with Pedro Almodovar. I think all Spanish actors should be grateful to Antonio, though, because he gave us an example. When he very first came here to the States, he didnít have a reference because no Spanish actor came before him. I only met him yesterday, actually, because he invited myself and a bunch of my friends to his house to have paella, which he cooks very well. I felt like he was really happy about all these things that are happening to me, so that says a lot about him, no?

How painful was it to immerse yourself in the life of Reinaldo Arenas?
I donít believe in method acting. I just have an experience to try to understand the character in a very personal way. The isolation cell scene was difficult but the hardest part of playing Reinaldo is when you finish doing that scene, you go back to the hotel, you sleep in a nice bed and realize that what happened to you for ten hours really happened to him for a week and he couldnít leave at the end of the day. Everything that happened to me playing him for three months, he lived that life for forty-five years and that was the worst part. I think Reinaldo made me a better person. People laugh when I say that but itís true. People say, Ďbut itís only a movieí but there are certain roles that donít come to you very often that really teach you how to live life and Reinaldo is an example of many good things. After this movie, I feel much more human in a way that has been a pleasure for me.

What did you learn about him and his work when you were in Cuba?
I was ashamed when Julian first called me about the role that I didnít know who he was. When I went to talk with him in New York he gave me everything Ė books, poems, video footage and tapes, so I started looking at all that and realized I was reading for pleasure, so that was a nice approach to that character. Then I went to Cuba and there were not many people that knew him personally so it was difficult to figure out something that is not happening in Cuba nowadays. But I was lucky to talk with people who are homosexuals and they told me how hard the experience was at that time. The character of Lazaro, played by Olivier Martinez, he is alive and lives in New York and he helped me a lot because he was a very good friend. I took a video camera to him and said please tell me the way he walked and talked and that helped me a lot.

How are you handling all of this international recognition and the awards?
Itís affecting me in the sense that I am really scared. When I first read the script and after months of doubt told Julian I would play him, I never thought that this movie would race so high. When I went to Venice and got the oldest acting award in Europe, everything after that was just a present, a gift for me to do this movie. People ask me if I will move to Los Angeles now and I am not sure because what I would like to do is what I have done in Spain for twelve years, to try and find good roles to play, so it depends on whether they offer me any good roles or not. But I can tell you what I am doing is trying to just enjoy this moment!

What was it like to work with Julian Schnabel?
He is different because he is a painter, an artist, so he gives you room to improvise. He takes time to paint a painting and he takes time to shoot a movie but that also means you have to be in character 24 hours a day because you donít know what will happen next.

How did you feel about playing a homosexual character?
It was actually my third homosexual role so my girlfriend thought that was funny! Reinaldo Arenas is different in a way though because he used his homosexuality like a whip against the regime, so the body language was really important for that role because he was expressing his dissatisfaction with the body. It was not only a philosophy of life or a sexual option, it was a gun to use against the people that surrounded him. I didnít have a lot of footage of him but I studied the way he moved his hands and the way he walked and tried to pay attention to the body language, because everybody that knew him told me it was very important.

Were you ever worried about your own image?
I donít understand why itís a problem to play a homosexual. I donít find anything bad about it and I am not one but if I were, I would say it loud. I prefer to have sex than killing people in movies (laughs)! I think itís the European way of thinking and Americans are the only ones that ask me if Iím concerned to play a homosexual. He was a great human being and my only hesitation at the start was whether my own background and not being Cuban would hurt the movie. In Spain we have a problem when in a movie a character takes a gun out of his pocket. We stop the shooting and have a big discussion to ask if this is good? But when a person is having sex, I donít know why Ė maybe itís the food, the weather or something else - but itís a very Almodovarean thing, no? We all feel comfortable doing it!

Published August 30, 2001

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Before Night Falls
Aust release date: Sept 6, 2001

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