By Nina Rehfeld
September 28, 2003 - 5:19 PM PDT
In The Dancer Upstairs, Javier Bardem plays Agustín Rejas, a character he finds "more introspective, not as emotional as Reinaldo Arenas," the writer he played to critical acclaim in Before Night Falls. Bardem, still working on his English, has stumbled almost unwillingly into acting after a stint running a bar in Rio de Janeiro with his brother in the mid-90s. "We did it, it was a disaster, but it was fucking great. It was worth it."
So how was it, working with John Malkovich?
Very good and very easy. He has directed, like, a hundred plays. Ok, not a hundred, but a lot. He knows what he's doing. He knows what I'm talking about. You don't have to explain to him your fears or your limits. He knows what's in your mind. So, it was very easy and very inspiring. Because he's John Malkovich, one of the greatest actors in the world. In my opinion. So, you just watch him, listen to him and do what he wants.
What sort of direction does he give you?
We worked really hard in the weeks before shooting, but once we started the movie, he didn't say anything. Not many things. He let you pretty much free, which is great, I think. I always thought he'd be a very method sort of director, but he uses more his own intuition.
What sort of research did you do to prepare for this role?
I was familiar with some of the story, but I didn't know the Shining Path movement at all. I read some articles and watched some videos, but in the end - I mean, it's a huge philosophical, political movement. I just focused on what they wanted and didn't go very far beyond that. But of course, I needed to know who they were. I need to know everything, as much as I can - and then, forget it. But this is a very inside character. I'm usually more emotional, but that's his struggle: with his own emotions. He doesn't let himself be free. I see him as a person obsessed with having control of his life. Once the control is out of his hands, because of this love story, he's very weak.
How much did your life change after the Oscar nomination?
Nothing really changed that much. Some things, of course, but not as much as I would like and not as good as I would like. It was a beautiful time and a very hard time. It was about four or five months, talking about myself and talking about awards, which is stupid. I mean, it was an honor for me to be nominated, but to talk five months about awards? I mean, what's an award? We're making movies, not chasing awards. We all want them, of course, but we shouldn't waste so much time on them. They create a profound and dirty competition among colleagues and you forget about movies. You think only about success, success, success. I didn't like that period of time, actually. I repeat, it was a huge honor, because the actors chose me, but the campaign... my God. But it didn't change my personal life. I still live in Madrid. My dream would be to work not in Hollywood but everywhere.
But awards also help your films get seen.
Yes, certainly. Unfortunately. There are so many movies opening every Friday. You have to get the focus on yours in order to get people's attention. But then, awards aren't a gift anymore; they're a necessity. And that's the problem. It's the same in Spain.
The atmosphere on the set must have been rather heavy.
Well, it was actually pretty cool and fun and inspiring. People from different countries came to do their job and you could see how they approach the same job in their different ways. It was a way of seeing that we can communicate. I liked it.
What did you like in this character?
His purity. The struggle that he had between his heart and reason, his mind. I liked the fear of losing control. I liked the way he manages the case; his duty is not an obsession anymore. He's washing dishes, doing his housework, and at the same time, he's trying to figure out where this guy is. I like this image; it's not like in a typical movie where he would so obsessed he would do nothing else on screen but try to find this guy. He has a relationship with his daughter. He's a family man. [laughs]
How did you get on this project with John Malkovich?
I met him several years ago. He offered me the role and I was going to play the young policeman, the one played by Juan Diego Botto. Then I got older, and he said, "Ok, you'll play the detective." I mean, it was years ago, and we shot in 2000. I met him because we had a common friend in Spain. I sent him some videos and he had me audition. It was horrible. I did it and it was a disaster. I was really nervous. But he gave me another chance. And I did it even worse. And I said, "Shit. This is the end." And he said, "No. Do it again." Really, the third was... the worst one. And I said, "Ok, now I stop." And he said, "No. Read it again." He gave me so many chances. He told me, "I want you to do this." I will never forget that because if I were him, I would have fired myself. Because at that time, I didn't even speak English.
Did you ask John Malkovich why he decided he wanted you?
No. You don't want to do that. Because maybe he has doubts, you know? Once you're chosen, don't even ask. No, it's always on my mind: Why? Why me? Because he knows so many good actors all over the world that he has worked with. Why would he choose - years ago, not now, not after Before Night Falls - me? To do a role like this? He was really the first person outside of Spain to trust me. That's something I will always be grateful to him for.
How did you become an actor?
Well, I wanted to be a painter. Like every actor wants to be something else. But I'm too lazy. I should have studied more, and I didn't, which I regret now. My mother is an actress and my uncle is a director and my grandparents were actors, so here I am. It was my destiny.
Do you still paint?
No. I was very good. I'm sorry, but I have to say that. I was. But it's funny, you lose it if you don't practice. And I lost it. Maybe it can come back.
How about playing a painter?
No, I think it's very difficult to portray painters in movies. Same with writers or artists in general because they have to explain how they create their things, write their music, paint their paintings, whatever. And it can be very boring. I did a writer in Before Night Falls...
And it was very good.
It was very good. He did it very good, the director.
When you act in English, do you feel a certain barrier between --
Completely! Yes, because my experience is based on my life. Nothing new. And 95 percent of my life has happened in Spanish. I have a huge connection between my language and my own experience. The words have millions of meanings. English is only a language I have to learn. Words have a lack of emotion, a lack of meaning. There are some sentences in this movie I would never, ever be able to say in Spanish. But in English, it's ok. I can say it. I can work in the stress and the music and the tone and say it.
What was it like to work with Laura Morante?
She's great. She works really hard. She makes things very easy. She's a very smart woman. I'm really scared to talk to her because she knows a lot about art, about writing, about politics. And I'm like, "Shit. What can I talk to her about? Hey, did you see the soccer match?" I mean, it's absurd. So she's not only a beauty, but a huge talent.
Did this role make you reflect on terrorism?
Yes, of course. In my country, we are used to this. Since I was born, there's been terrorism in my country, and a person I know died because of a bomb. When I did this role, I was thinking about what terrorists and guerrillas do differently. I mean, there's no reason to kill anybody. At all. But. Guerrillas have some moral and political reasons to fight, while terrorism is completely gratuitous. It's a delicate and thin line, but... Shining Path, for example. I did understand why they did what they did. But I didn't share how they did it. I understand. They were in an oppressive country. But ETA is, in a way, absurd. They are killing innocents. And there's no reason. We're living in a fucking democracy. There's no point. I don't share any point of view with them. It's horrible. But unfortunately, I don't know how we can change that.
Watching Malkovich work, did you think you might like to direct yourself some day?
No. You have to answer too many questions every day. [laughs] Everybody puts all the responsibility on you. Too much. Maybe I'd like to make a movie with a video camera and a couple of friends. A very small, cheap thing and create a story with a script that works. That I would like, but the whole movie thing... No, no, that's too much.
What do you do when you don't work?
Nothing, that's the problem. I have to learn to create a life based on what I am besides what I do. That's one of the most common actor's problems. John, for example, doesn't have it. He has a lot of things going on when he's not working. I know a lot of actors, though, and when we don't work, we feel insecure.
How about opening another bar?
No, a bar would kill me. I mean, you have to go there. And if you go, you drink. And if you drink, you wake up late. And then you don't do anything. Until you go to the bar again. And so it goes.
Laura Morante >>>
Javier BardemLaura Morante
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A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.
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