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Javier Bardem on His Evolving Chemistry With Penélope Cruz

Javier Bardem. Photo: Arnold Jerocki/Getty Images

Javier Bardem’s most famous role may have required the chilly stoicism of a killer, but the actor has made his name on passions that run hot. He’s spent most of his career painstakingly deconstructing the stereotypical image of the Spanish lover clenching a rose between his teeth, with roles that seriously consider male anguish otherwise found primarily in melodrama. That was the modus operandi for both collaborations with offscreen wife Penélope Cruz, first as a pair of tempestuous artists in Vicky Cristina Barcelona back in 2008, and now the mystery Everybody Knows.

In the latest film from Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, Bardem plays a vineyard owner whose path crosses with his old flame Cruz when she visits with her new family. But because this is a Farhadi movie, a tragedy soon visits the dramatis personae to unearth years of buried secrets, lies, and shames. The gradual parceling-out of crucial information brings Bardem and Cruz’s characters closer together, ultimately forcing them to confront the history they’ve repressed in a series of charged two-hander scenes. It will come as a surprise to no one that two of the most gorgeous people on the face of the earth who spend their free time being in love have a natural chemistry with explosive potential.

Bardem got on the phone with Vulture for a brief survey of his recent work: learning from Farhadi on the set of Everybody Knows, his personal interpretation of mother!, why he wouldn’t take back his role in the movie laughed out of Cannes for anything in the world, and his evolving relationship with Cruz.

Am I right to assume that you were interested in this movie first as an opportunity to work with Asghar Farhadi?
Of course. We first met while he was doing promotion in the States for A Separation. Like many actors, I was immediately shocked and intrigued by the power of his work. Years later, when I got word that he’s casting for a movie in Spain, I was really rooting for him to choose me!

His background is in directing for the theater, and I’m curious about whether that makes itself known in the way he runs a set.
I would say that he goes beyond theater or cinema. He has to have a different approach to performance in every single thing he does, whether a play or film. He’s into working very closely with each actor to think through every aspect of a role, from characterization down to specific motivations to behaviors. He is a sensitive, intelligent man and that comes through in this technique. All the input he brings in creates a rich performance, which you can see on the screen or the stage.

So it was more of a process, of finding the character together? Was there a gap between your reading of the script at first and the final product?
No, I don’t think so, because the way Asghar works, he would feed us little treatments before the full script. He would explain the story of the characters and what he was trying to convey, so by the time we had the actual script, we knew a lot about what he wanted. Penélope and I knew exactly the way to go. The thing is, how do you get there? Before you act, these are all only ideas. Asghar helped us tremendously by establishing the best circumstances an actor can have on set to jump into the fiction. That is what I found very valuable about the way he works, that he approaches the performer as the key piece of the puzzle. This is not a vanity contest, about who’s more important than others. The way he tells stories, he builds from the words, the relationships, the gestures, and the reactions. This is what he does best.

He’s careful with the actors he chooses. He fosters an environment where everyone, ten or 12 or 15 actors at a time, can be relaxed enough to create and experiment, while at the same time jammed into high-pressure scenes. He does not disturb your personal process, he recognizes that everyone has their own process, but he guides it.

It’s been over ten years since you and Penélope did Vicky Cristina Barcelona together, during which time you’ve gotten married. Has your chemistry evolved over time?
I think so. Life has changed. We have grown. [Chuckles.] We’ve grown up. Everything is different once you’re family. That is the priority, as it should be. We’re no exception from that. We work as hard as we can, but we recognize how hard we can work depends on each other’s needs. It’s important not to be confused by fiction. Fiction is fiction, reality is its own thing. When you’re younger — because we’ve worked together many times over the years, we met when I was 21 and she was 16 — you tend to confuse one for the other, or mix them. Now, I’m going to be 50 in a few weeks, and I don’t do this anymore. She’s the same way. You must always know when you’re working on a level of re-creation, outside of real life. Penélope and I, we have to protect the “us.”

As an actor, you haven’t been afraid to take work that resists easy audience interpretation. I’m thinking of mother!, which inspired a lot of different interpretations at the time of its release. Do you have one yourself?
I’m drawn to a sort of bravery. To offer this piece of work to the public like [director] Darren [Aronofsky] did was a brave thing, and I thought it was brave of a big studio to give it such a wide opening. And yes, from there, everything was open to interpretation. That’s what we do for a living; that’s the art form! Music, film, literature, these should all inspire conversation, if not argument.

My interpretation is the very same one I had the first time I sat down with Darren, when he explained his plan to me. At the time, I saw it as a symbolic story about what we are as a population, as a human race that’s come out of nowhere to consume so much of mother Earth in every way possible. We destroying it, while she’s giving and giving. We’re spoiled by the fact that she’s a giver, and think it will be this way forever. It’s not going to be forever. We need to be reminded that there’s a limit, and that we must contemplate the limits of our own harm on the climate and the planet. We release forces to destroy one another that only end up destroying ourselves. Extinction would be the only fate. Darren expresses that beautifully and brutally. He conceives from the gut, not from the mind.

What he wanted was for people to react, and he got it. Everybody reacted. Some were positive, some were negative, but everybody reacted. Everybody had an opinion. For him, that’s success.

An actor who’s willing to take risks has to accept that sometimes, they don’t pay off. I was at the premiere of The Last Face in Cannes back in 2016; how do you process an experience like that?
It’s just one of those things that happens. Great original material, great team behind the camera and in front, great everything. Then things turn out the way you least expected. That’s a part of being an actor. I’ve made my peace with that. That movie, The Last Face, is as important to my career as No Country For Old Men. Every choice you’ve made has led you to the present. Everything is there for the same reason, so that you can learn something. Making the movie was so intense. We were there for three months, almost four months, in some very far away places playing emotionally draining scenes. We felt incredible moments while working hard. I don’t have a doubt about doing this. But it turned out the way it turned out, and that’s okay! It’s fine! You never know if it’s going to work or not. It doesn’t matter what you think it’ll be like, you give your all. No actor knows whether a movie’s going to turn out great or bad. No one knows! No one has a clue what’s good not until it’s finished, and sometimes not even then. The sensation an actor’s looking for is like the excitement of gambling, of putting everything on one color and one number and not knowing whether it’ll land on red or black. That’s beautiful.

You signed on to play Frankenstein’s monster in a series Universal had planned, though the fate of that project is now unclear. How did you intend to approach the character?
Of course he is an iconic character, dictated by fragility and purity. He is like a giant baby boy, imprisoned in a body of scars. A destroyed body, with the only violence in him having been inflicted on him by humanity. This strikes me as relevant for many people, who have an unfortunate condition that can be seen and judged by others. People react to that first, rather than what is inside a sickness. Being imprisoned within something you’re not — this makes Frankenstein’s creature lovable, or worthy of love. That being said, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that project. I’d still like to do it.

Javier Bardem on His Evolving Chemistry With Penélope Cruz