24 Nov 2002: Spain’s hottest talent Javier Bardem talks about how John Malkovich persuaded him to play a middle-aged cop in his debut political thriller.

Javier Bardem is lying on the floor of a rather grand suite in The Savoy groaning. Flowing black leather coat, black Lacoste polo shirt, tight grey jeans, brown hiking boots. He has just flown in from Los Angeles, is jet-lagged and in a silly mood. One minute he is looking out onto the River Thames and talking perfectly seriously to his agent, the next he has exaggerated a stumble over her handbag and fallen dramatically to the ground. Bardem lies sprawled next to a pile of posters for John Malkovich’s directorial film debut, The Dancer Upstairs, which display his face. But while the image on the poster is of a solemn policeman with short, neat hair and a moustache, a man who could easily be in his forties, the actor lying on the floor has shoulder length, wavy hair, is clean- shaven and just 33. The PR for the film company looks at him and asks if he’d like to sign some posters while he’s down there.

  1. The Dancer Upstairs
  2. Production year: 2002
  3. Country: Rest of the world
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 124 mins
  6. Directors: John Malkovich
  7. Cast: Javier Bardem, Juan Diego Botto, Laura Morante
  8. More on this film

It’s probably a little strange being Spain’s leading actor, the only Spanish actor to have been nominated for an Oscar. Javier Bardem grew up in Madrid in a family of actors, played rugby for Spain, decided he would rather paint, earned money for his studies as an extra, was offered the lead as a handsome stud in Jamón, Jamón and discovered that acting was indeed in his blood. That was over a decade ago; since then, Bardem has worked with Pedro Almodóvar in High Heels and Live Flesh, received a hatful of awards for Spanish films and, in 2001, was nominated for an Oscar alongside Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe and Ed Harris for Best Actor. Bardem’s passionate portrayal of the persecuted homosexual Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary epic Before Night Falls may not have won him an Oscar but it did establish him as a world-class actor. Not one for superlatives, Dennis Hopper enthused at the time that it was ‘the performance of the year and perhaps many years’.

Collapsed on a stripy sofa in the Savoy suite, Bardem rearranges his big frame, pushes his floppy hair out of his eyes and lights a cigarette. ‘You know Benicio Del Toro turned down the role of Arenas, so Julian offered it to me, he explains in thickly accented but excellent English. ‘I never thought Before Night Falls would reach a wide audience because it was an independent movie. My goal in acting has always been to be honest, to be real. I’m not particularly interested in being rewarded or awarded, so I was keen to use Before Night Falls as a kind of rehearsal, because it was my first English-language film. I wanted to see if I could be honest and real in another language.’

Given that Bardem thought he was simply experimenting with the role of Arenas, he did an incredible job; after all, the character was not only communicating in English but was Cuban, gay and dying of Aids. He smiles. ‘I don’t have a problem kissing other guys in a film; if I was gay, I’d say it. I hate this double morality where you have to hide what your sexual preference is.’

Five years ago, before Javier Bardem had even been offered the lead in Before Night Falls, John Malkovich phoned him during a visit to Madrid. Bardem didn’t know what to say – partly because he was in awe of the Hollywood star but mainly because he knew only a few words of English. However, Malkovich managed to explain why he was calling: he thought Bardem was the best actor in Europe and wanted him to star in his adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel, The Dancer Upstairs.

Loosely based on the 1992 manhunt for Abimael Guzman, the leader of Peru’s notorious guerrilla organisation, The Shining Path, the film is set in an unnamed South American country threatened by a violent terrorist movement. Bardem’s character, Agustin Rejas, is a policeman responsible for finding the elusive guerrilla leader, Ezequiel. An honest cop who feels his duty is to restore some stability to his country, he is not only appalled by the guerrilla violence but also troubled by the corruption of the government.

A political thriller and a love story, The Dancer Upstairs is an ambitious debut for Malkovich, despite the fact that he has directed more than 50 plays for the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Filmed in Spain, Ecuador and Portugal, it is beautifully shot, tells a compelling story and certainly doesn’t glamorise Latin America. At a recent question-and-answer session at Bafta, Malkovich was at pains to point out that he ‘hates gringo films: I go places and people are never that exotic, they’re just people’.

And yet the film lacks a certain poetry and lyricism, perhaps because it is made in English. Might it have felt more authentic had it been made in Spanish? Bardem, who shines once more despite the language issue, reaches for another cigarette and looks as though he might agree but only says: ‘Hmmm.’ Obviously Malkovich wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, but look at the success of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También: neither suffered from subtitles. Bardem sighs. ‘I was only approached to do The Dancer Upstairs in English so it wasn’t a matter of choice for me. But I can see that it would’ve been a different movie, yes.’

However, he found Malkovich a delight to work with, especially after the intensity of his experiences with Pedro Almodóvar. ‘Pedro has this very personal universe in his mind and he wants to recreate it, no matter what. So you have to surrender, you have to take his hand and make the journey with him. He’s very smart and very funny – you can laugh for hours and hours with that guy – but he really tells you every second what to do.’

He smiles. ‘John wasn’t always pressurising me, telling me what to do. But he was always behind me and when I went wrong, he’d give me a small clue that would make me fly. So important, so profound, so specific. He also taught me that you can’t know everything about your character; as in life, there aren’t always answers. I think John is a great director. Very smart, very subtle. I’m the opposite: I’m not very smart, I’m not very subtle.’ He smiles, aware that he’s too great an actor to get away with being so self-deprecating. ‘I’m more temperamental. That’s why we’re good friends, I think, because we’re opposites.’

Unlike his compatriots Antonio Banderos and Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem has little interest in Hollywood. He is certain that he would be miserable in such a brutally competitive environment; he would fear taking on average roles. ‘Acting is a crazy job. You have to wake up at 6am and create a fiction: OK, today I’m a killer who’s going to rape a girl and then shoot my father. You have to get into that person’s mind. You’d better be challenged by that role. Or else you just can’t defend something that’s absurd.’ Bardem takes the process of acting seriously, but remains unimpressed by the attendant circus. He bought a couple of restaurants in Madrid in case his acting career falters or in case it all gets too much; when nominated for the Oscar, he was mobbed every time he left the house.

‘What is fame? Fame doesn’t give you any shit. I was losing my mind when I was nominated. Spain is a very hysterical country, people wouldn’t stop hugging me.’ Yet, having watched his mother, Pilar Bardem, struggle through long periods of unemployment as an actor, he was determined not to take what he calls his ‘gift’ for granted. And he recognises the freedom he has; his uncle, Juan Antonio Bardem, who died earlier on this month, was jailed during Franco’s reign for making films critical of the dictatorship. ‘It was impressive to see my uncle’s burial because he was very important in the transition from Franco’s Spain to democracy, says Bardem. ‘It was emotional for me to see how people respected him as a political figure and as a political cinematographer.’

Although he has no interest in following in his uncle’s footsteps and directing – he jokes that he has enough trouble dealing with his own ego, let alone a whole cast of egos – Bardem can’t help but take some of the family’s politics with him into acting. It’s why he wanted to be involved in The Dancer Upstairs, believing that it reflects the times we live in: ‘The film shows there aren’t good guys and bad guys, though try telling that to Sheriff Bush and his comrade Mr Blair; they think they are good guys in a bad Western, out to kill the bad guys.’

It is also why he’s so excited about his next Spanish film, Fernando León de Aranoa’s Los Lunes Al Sol, (Mondays in the Sun); he thinks it says something worth saying. ‘It’s about five unemployed friends trying to survive in the north of Spain. It’s a bit Ken Loach. It won best movie at the San Sebastian Film Festival and was chosen to represent our country at the Oscars instead of the Almodóvar movie. That’s a huge thing.’

Javier Bardem lights a cigarette, sinks into the sofa and closes his eyes. ‘I love acting but I struggle to be ambitious. I’m taking my time now and that’s just fine. I don’t have the anxiety of achieving anything in particular. Richer? More famous? More awards? Cool. Great. But not for me, thanks.’

· The Dancer Upstairs will be screened at the ICA at The Mall in London at 7pm next Sunday in aid of the Index on Censorship and it goes on general release on 5 December. For information and tickets call 020 7278 2313. Los Lunes Al Sol is released next year.