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Film: More beefcake, sir?

No thanks, says Javier Bardem. I'm ready for something just a little more serious.
MOUTH TO Mouth, Golden Balls, Live Flesh: they sound like movies you might find on the shelves of a Soho sex shop. In fact, they're all titles from the testosterone-charged filmography of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, art house stud and crotch-grabbing icon of ironic, post- Franco machismo. "Me, a sex symbol?" Bardem laughs. "The only sex symbol in Spain is Antonio Banderas.When I meet girls they just ask whether I know him. I'm jealous of Antonio."

Such protestations are charming, but not all together based on fact. In his native country the 29-year-old is already big enough to have stopped giving interviews.

But, visiting London to pick up an award for his performance as a paraplegic policeman in Pedro Almodvar's Live Flesh, Bardem has found time to plug his latest movie. Perdita Durango, a bizarre black comedy, is his first English language film, and Bardem clearly hopes that it will help boost his career on to the international level of his world-famous compatriot.

Born into a show business dynasty (his grandparents were actors, his uncle was the celebrated film-maker Juan Antonio Bardem) Javier decided not to enter the family business after being force to witness, as a child, his mother's gut-wrenching stage fright. Doing casual jobs as a waiter, a security man, a cartoonist and a stripper, he successfully dodged his vocation for several years, until he had a chance encounter with the director Bigas Lunas.

"I went with my sister to her audition but he cast me instead," he recalls apologetically. "She was very angry, but after making the film I realised that acting was the only thing for me to do."

The film was Jamn Jamn, a wildly overblown sex comedy that took the stark landscape and bloody passion of Federico Garcia Lorca's tragedies and remade them as brutal farce. As Lunas' lover-hero, Bardem ate a diet of raw meat and garlic, indulged in a spot of naked bullfighting, modelled underwear, and clubbed his rival to death with a leg of ham. Best of all, he did it straight. Bulging with muscle and oozing raw sensuality, Bardem didn't have to send up outmoded sexual stereotypes; he was one. A male Jane Russell. A walking satire.

Since then, Bardem's blunt profile - and his butch charisma - have graced a series of similarly kitsch melodramas. Now, in Perdita Durango he's Romeo Dolorosa, a good-looking Mexican devil who kidnaps a pair of blonde American kids to sacrifice them in a black magic ritual.

There's no question these days whether Bardem can do macho. The question is can he do anything else?

"It was the only thing they would give me," he sighs. "Critics, actors and audiences in Spain know I can do anything now, but it may take longer elsewhere because foreign audiences have only seen the tough guy roles."

Even then, Bardem admits he may not be able to have his beefcake and eat it, to shake off the sex symbol tag and get serious.

"These characters are not a real reflection of the Spanish male," he says, "but cinema promotes national stereotypes. Look at Banderas - he's in Hollywood but he's still doing the Latin lover thing."

For his part, Bardem aspires to the social realist, "Ken Loach is my favourite director, but films like his don't get made much in Spain," he points out. While Almodovar has never exactly plunged his hands into the kitchen sink, Live Flesh was one of his least stylised pictures and Bardem clearly relished the chance to play a character with more emotional depth.

"I was pleased with my performance," he says, "because the people in wheelchairs taught me well. They taught me how to think, how to move - everything. Those people live with a passion that is amazing." Working with Almodovar, however, was "not much fun". Describing the director's working methods, Bardem cracks an imaginary whip. "He's a perfectionist; he made me repeat one scene 38 times."

The actor's next project promises to continue his journey from phallic fantasy to reality. The film, which is about the Shining Path in Peru, will be directed by Hollywood veteran John Malkovich.

"I was nervous and shaking when I auditioned," remembers Bardem. "I completely forgot my English in front of this actor I really admire. When he was reading the other character I'd think, `wow, John Malkovich is reading for me', and then I'd go and forget to read my line again. Afterwards he said, `OK, I think you are the character and I can't believe that you did it so badly', so he gave me another 13 or 14 chances to actually get it right."

So is Bardem about to fight Banderas for the role of swarthy Hollywood love interest, or will he find success on his own terms? "To be compared to Banderas is an honour, because he's done a lot for Spanish movies," says Bardem, "but his career and what I want from my work are not the same. He's a star, a celebrity. I'd hate all that."

For now, Bardem is happy to bide his time, watching Loach and waiting for Malkovich. Oh, and he's just finished shooting another movie with Manuel Gomez Pereira. Its title? Between Your Legs.