That the 38-year-old Spanish actor Javier Bardem can make the calmest hearts beat faster is more or less beyond dispute. From his first movie roles in the early 1990s, playing macho, priapic lugs in risqu comedies such as Jamon, Jamon and Huevos de Oro (Golden Balls), he exhibited an unapologetic sexual energy. Bardem didn't just make love to the camera, he whisked it off on a whirlwind night of depravity, then dumped it in the morning for its slutty younger sister.
For those unfamiliar with his work and searching for evidence of this ravenous demeanour, his new picture, No Country for Old Men, is not the best place to start.
Not that there is anything wrong with his performance; in fact, the accolades are already trickling in for this agonising thriller from the Coen brothers, with US critics already predicting that Bardem will be in the running for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar night next month. (He's no stranger there, having been nominated for Best Actor in 2000 for his portrayal of the gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls.)
Rather, Bardem will still make audience's hearts beat faster, just not in a pleasurable way. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's sinewy novel, No Country for Old Men concerns an ordinary Joe who stumbles upon $2m in the bloody aftermath of a desert massacre, and decides to keep it which is where Bardem comes in as the sinister Anton Chigurh. In Chigurh, he has created a cinematic ghoul to eclipse Hannibal Lecter.
What concerns me as I'm shown into his London hotel suite is that he might have seen fit to retain his character's hairdo. This is a full-on scare-cut that goes beyond the merely unflattering— Chigurh's glossy, unyielding bob frames the actor's features in such a way that he resembles a po-faced knight glaring out from under his visor. "The Coens had this idea of how they wanted my hair cut," explains Bardem in his measured, thickly accented English. "It was pretty funny. Well, they were laughing their asses off. I wasn't laughing so much because I knew I'd have to live with it for three months. But it really helped me discover how to play Chigurh. This almost mathematical haircut gives the impression that the guy is ordered but also insane. There must be something broken or out of sync in his mind for him to wear that hairstyle and think it's normal."
There is almost nothing of Chigurh visible in the polite, reflective 38-year-old sitting before me. The dark bob has been replaced by lightly tousled brown hair, and the warm eyes are not at all the pitiless holes that make you dread his every close-up in No Country for Old Men. He is so icy in the film, especially when faced with people pleading for their lives, that I suggest there must be a hint of that behaviour somewhere inside him. "Totally," he agrees. "Actors are lucky: we get to express ourselves fully in our work. But the bad thing is we have to confront the ghosts, the badness inside us, and not be afraid of that. Of course, I haven't killed anyone, but when I did in this film I needed to face up to the violence that I bring with me."
A former rugby player for the Spanish national team, Bardem is renowned for the intense, passionate physicality he displayed in Before Night Falls. John Malkovich, who directed him in the political thriller The Dancer Upstairs (2002), has described him as possessing "the strength and power of a bull, like a young Grard Depardieu, but with a very masculine fragility underneath". So it's interesting that his character in No Country for Old Men is the latest in a string of roles he has chosen that inhibit his natural strengths. First there was Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh (1997), in which Bardem played a sexually insecure cop confined to a wheelchair after taking a bullet. He was even more remarkable in The Sea Inside (2005), where his role as the real-life quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro, who lobbied for the right to kill himself, required him to age 20 years and spend the entire film bedridden. But No Country for Old Men shows this dynamic actor at his most emotionally frugal.
"The goal was to do the absolute minimum," he says. "Actors get scared that they won't be able to show the character if they stay still and I put myself at the top of that list. It has to do with vanity, with making an exhibition of yourself. But Chigurh is an icon, a symbol of violence, so I had to focus on that, rather than explaining or excusing it."
Bardem brings up his disdain for the vanity of his profession so often that I wonder how he can bear to take a compliment, let alone share his house with the four Goya awards (the Spanish Oscars) he has amassed alongside various other accolades. What a kick in the teeth it must have been for him to hear Francis Ford Coppola proclaim him recently to be the cream of his profession.
"I read that," he says, staring at his feet. "Actually, I had it blown up and put on my bedroom wall. I'm thinking of getting it made into a billboard. What do you think? I've already got 100 T-shirts with the quote printed on." He is clearly on a roll, and enjoying sending himself up. I guess it's easier than enjoying the praise. "No, it was great to hear," he says, protesting slightly, "though I don't know why he would ever say that. But eventually you have to take down the billboard, put the T-shirts away, and act like it never happened."
Being raised among a family of actors—his mother, uncle, grandfather and two siblings are all performers has helped Bardem maintain this concentration on his craft, and not get too highfalutin. He has also steadfastly avoided settling into a niche, staying several steps ahead of the roles earmarked for him by unimaginative casting directors. He could have had a career playing feckless studs after Jamon, Jamon, but chose to stretch himself. And he could have had his pick of Spanish parts for all eternity, but decided to take on a new language for Before Night Falls: "The differences between my Spanish acting and my English acting are fewer now," he notes, "but I'll never be as comfortable in English. I just don't have the depth of history that I have with my own language."
And there's little chance he'll settle down to a lucrative career as a Hollywood villain after No Country for Old Men. His upcoming roles couldn't be more different from Chigurh: he'll next be seen as Florentino in an adaptation of Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, before starring opposite his girlfriend, Penlope Cruz, in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The only danger now is that awards season is gathering momentum, and Bardem looks set to be a leading beneficiary. "You want your work to be liked, but at the same time you can't let it all become about approval," he says. "Awards feed the ego, and you don't want that. You must protect the acting at all costs."
'No Country for Old Men' will be in UK cinemas from 18 January
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