Javier Bardem has a lot of talents in his arsenal, but the most effective one might be his stare. It can terrify (as it did in his Oscar-winning role in No Country for Old Men), it can seduce (a talent put to excellent use in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), or it can convey the weight of the world, as it does in the new Alejandro González Iñárritu film Biutiful, where Bardem plays a dying father braving the Barcelona underworld to provide for his children. (Indeed, the Biutiful poster is 100 percent unadulterated Bardem stare.) Recently, Vulture sat down with Bardem and found that his gaze is just as penetrating in person, though we did manage to break him up occasionally with questions about his upcoming film with Terrence Malick, his rumored Glee cameo, and the sheer joy of smashing stuff.
I enjoyed your recent short film for the New York Times, where you got to break all those plates and glasses.
Oh, good! Yeah, that was fun. It was fast, actually. They had everything there, and I just had to break things. We didn’t have much time to do it, so we did it in, like, 40 minutes? And I broke five sets.
I would think that one of the chief pleasures of being an actor is occasionally getting to …
… break things? Yeah!
But were you too “in character” to enjoy it?
You’re actually right. That’s one of the things that I see in the performances of myself and other people, I see the actor enjoying it. Characters don’t usually enjoy breaking things, but we the actors, we’re too aware of how much we enjoy breaking them, you know?
What was it like to premiere Biutiful at Cannes? This is a very dark, gritty film, not at all glamorous, and yet you’ve got men in tuxedos and women in glittering dresses walking down a long red carpet to see it. Is there a bit of a disconnect there?
[Laughs.] Yes, but it’s not as strange a disconnect as the movie business itself. The festival is like that, but the Cannes Palais screen is amazing, one of the best in the world — to be able to see your movie there is fantastic. And also, after the movie, you have this standing ovation for ten minutes. You see people’s faces, and their bow ties are upside down … it’s like the movie really touched them!
Is this the sort of role that’s hard to shake when you go home at the end of the day?
Yeah, there are certain roles that you go there and pretend and deliver the lines and have fun, then come home for a cold drink. I say, enjoy it. But there are certain roles like this one where you have to be there and go through it all, especially when you’re holding it for five months. Movies can sometimes be very intense situations for everybody and they’re very localized — two months, two months and a half, those are the shooting schedules I’m used to. Maybe in the States, it’s different, but I’ve done only two big studio movies — with Collateral, I was only on set for six hours, and I spent a month in Bali for Eat Pray Love — but the rest of them weren’t big studio movies. I’m more used to being there for two or three months, but never five months [as with Biutiful], especially holding that emotional state. That was the hard thing to get out of.
At the same time, you have a child on the way. Do you think that will affect your decision to internalize heavy roles for half a year?
I don’t know how to control that. I think Biutiful is a turning point for me because of the experience of holding that for five months, and still today, one year and a half after shooting the movie, I’m still learning from things that happened then. If I had to face that again, how would I do it? I don’t know the answer. If I knew I had to portray someone like Uxbal again, there’s no way I could do it from the outside. You have to get in there, you have to put your hands in, you have to get wet, otherwise it’s impossible — it would be a big lie and a lack of responsibility toward the material. So the response is, do I know what I would do? No. But will not knowing take me away from roles that have that demand? No, because those are the roles that are more rewarding as an actor.
What emotional state did you have to hold for Terrence Malick’s upcoming film, The Burial, which you just shot?
That’s a different thing. It was the emotional state of not knowing what was gonna happen! [Laughs.] It was a lack of knowledge. But he’s a great man, he’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s a hunter, man. He goes out there to hunt. You have to be ready to go with him, and you have to be ready to go when he says, “Now.” Then you are there and you put yourself in front of the camera and you are in the middle of a reality that is changed into a fiction. It is a really strange situation, but he’s very good. It’s something different.
Have you seen the trailer for Malick’s next film, The Tree of Life?
I saw it yesterday.
Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s amazing. [Emmanuel Lubeski], the D.P. [director of photography], is fucking-tastic. Can I say that? “Fucking-tastic”?
Yes, and we should all say that now.
The two of them together is an amazing team. The place they put the eye is pretty amazing. You never know where [Malick] is going to put the eye, or even if you are going to end up under the eye in one of his movies. But that’s not the goal — the goal was to be on the set with him. I was very lucky.
You came close to doing Nine, and it’s rumored that you might do Glee soon. It seems like you’re looking for a project where you can sing.
I’ve sung twice in films before. Once it was in Golden Balls, a movie where I was singing Julio Iglesias, and the other was in a comedy called Mouth to Mouth, where I was singing, “Make ‘em laugh / make ‘em lauuuugh … ” But no, singing is not my strongest skill. I guess that’s why I want to do it, because I know it’s something I have to work on! [Laughs.] But the Glee situation is that Ryan [Murphy] and I talked together about it, and we had a blast imagining ideas. I don’t know if it’s gonna happen or not. I guess it’s been out there too soon? But it doesn’t depend on me.
In addition to Nine, you’ve been attached to several other films that you pulled out of at the last minute, including Minority Report, Tetro, and the Wall Street sequel. Do you still go to see those movies later on?
Of course! Some I liked more than others, but I never felt regrets. Movies are the movies that they are because many accidents happen, and one actor playing the role that [originally went to] another actor, that’s a beautiful accident. The actors are authors. I read something years ago that struck me and made me say, “Yeah, that’s true,” where an actor said, “I could have done The Godfather, but maybe The Godfather wasn’t The Godfather without Pacino and Brando.” Of course there was Coppola and the book and the blah blah blah, but it’s Pacino in Part II and what he does that makes The Godfather what it is. That’s something I have to say when I see the movie: “What would happen if I would have made it? It would have been different.” Maybe worse, maybe better, but who knows?