Javier Bardem: A darker shade of male

His roles are synonymous with muscles, machismo and meat. Roger Clarke asks him about his latest â¿“ as a gay Cuban writer
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Javier Bardem is a nearly-handsome man: that sexily broken boxer's nose from an unprovoked assault in a nightclub 10 years ago, marred by a worrying mole on the side of the right nostril (unsuccessfully covered up by some kind of chalky foundation cosmetic). And he's too thin; having lost a lot of weight to play the Oscar-nominated role of Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls ­ sensationally, the first Spanish actor to get within reach of that dwarfish trophy ­ he doesn't seem to have put it back on. He's actually a little hunched, his hair looks lank, and he has laid out a fan of cigarettes to light up during the course of our 25 minutes together.

His sleepy eyes betoken, I have to say, an intelligence unusual in his profession. He is Mr Masculine with a touch of "the other" about him ­ maybe it's feminine, maybe it's just simply non-masculine, something more archaic and vague. This Latin machismo thing hangs about him, though, like a kind of psychic aftershave: his whole career has been a study of its mixture of hormonal overkill and unexpected top-notes and subtleties.

This career is literally before us ­ he's just grabbed a pile of biographical information I'd printed out from the internet and is scanning it avidly ("Don't you look at your stuff on the internet?" "No, never"). His early career, after playing rugby for Spain, was as a straight-up movie stud. His role in Jamòn, Jamòn in 1992 was a masterclass in comely charcuterie, an arrival that saw him punningly surrounded by hocks of preserved Serrano ham as he acted with his socks off. As to his follow-up: walk into any big store selling videos and there you'll see Bardem on the cover of his second film with Bigas Lunas, the bawdy 1993 Spanish comedy Goldenballs, suited up, legs apart, his hand vulgarly seizing something extraordinary in his trousers that looks like a missing dirigible from a Zeppelin movie. Anyhow, as Bardem takes a drag on a cigarette and scans the internet movie database entry, down from "born in the Canary Islands in 1969", "youngest of a family of actors", and so on, he gets to a strange category of pseudonyms entitled "sometimes credited as". "But this is the name of my character in Goldenballs," he says in a puzzled tone. Javier Bardem, sometimes credited as Benito González ­ the cartoon-like machoman obsessed with building a phallic skyscraper in Benidorm. I suppose it's better than being remembered as the meat-muffin in Jamòn, Jamòn or the paraplegic cop in Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh (a role he hated, for a director he found it difficult to work with).

But from now on, he's going to be known ­ especially in America ­ not as his alter-ego González, but as his alter-ego, the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. You've probably read something somewhere about When Night Falls, which has rarely been out of the papers since the Oscar hoo-ha at the beginning of the year. Arenas was a novelist who was repeatedly imprisoned by the Fidel Castro regime for both his sexual dissidence and his status as an intellectual. Eventually chucked out of his native country by Castro, Arenas found himself a stateless person in a chilly, late-Eighties New York, slowly dying of Aids. I was intrigued by how this was dealt with in the film. Arenas records in his autobiography how angry he was to be ignored by the New York intelligentsia as he died in poverty. New York intelligentsia, it has to be said, like Julian Schnabel ­ off drinking champagne in Warholian haunt Mr Chow's in downtown Manhattan, while Arenas scrabbled together enough dollars to buy the odd dose of anti-viral drugs before committing suicide.

Bardem seems aware of this incongruity, this rather ill-tasting irony. "We did more of the New York phase than ends up in the movie," he insists. "When I agreed to do the movie, I insisted that we show Arenas's disillusionment with America, that this is not the land of freedom like you want to tell us ­ oh, no. But finally, we didn't have time. Didn't have time to show how he became that figure in New York, very angry."

It's tough to fit an entire life into a two-hour drama. But all the same, Schnabel in some senses bottled out on a deal that might have pointed a finger at his own smart-set. No time to film in New York? Really? After all, Bardem found plenty of time to hang out in New York with Arenas's surviving partner, Lazaro Gomez Carilles. "I spent one-and-a-half months with Lazaro, taking two hours a day to study how Arenas walked and talked," he says.

Olivier Martinez plays Lazaro in the movie, and there's a very alarming scene in which Lazaro assists with Arenas's suicide by putting an "I Love New York" carrier bag over his head to suffocate the fatally-drugged man. Wasn't this an admission of a crime? A murder? What were they thinking? Bardem insists that this is purely poetic licence. "Lazaro turned the key and came into the apartment and Reinaldo was already dead. But Reinaldo had always insisted, 'make sure I'm dead, I don't want to be revived in the hospital'. So we put it in, as a present to Reinaldo."

Hmm. This macabre visual trousseau aside ­ an over-inflated image of art sabotaged by side-walk trash ­ Bardem's true gift to Arenas is probably to have made him well-known to the widest possible public. But at what price? I ask Bardem about the toning down of Arenas's sexual adventuring, so explicitly detailed in the autobiography, so glaringly absent from the film.

"Maybe we could have had more of the sexual behaviour, I don't know," he says, flicking his cigarette into the ashtray. "But when we screened the movie for 2,000 people in the Castro Village ­ basically, the gay community ­ one guy stood up and said he'd wanted to see more sex in the movie. But you should have seen the reaction of the rest, the other 1,999 people, they were going to kill him. They said, are you nuts or what? If you want sex, you have the porno movies. Here we're trying to normalise it, trying to make non-homosexuals realise that just because a guy follows a different sexual option, you are not allowed to kill him!"

I'm uncomfortable with this and say so; Schnabel makes such a big deal about "art" (Bardem, to his credit, though a trained painter, does the reverse) and yet he's effectively bowdlerised a "work of art", a unique work of literature whose sexual mores are indivisible from the whole. It's perhaps revealing that Bardem studied Tom Hanks in Philadelphia for the role; the mainstream agenda must have been obvious from the word go.

Then Bardem says something even more alarming, referring to another homosexual role he took in Second Skin, three months in advance of Before Night Falls. "I don't like cinema that caricatures homosexuals," he says. "The drag queens, the queens and all of that; that's funny, but it's not helpful to the gay community because we ­ I, a heterosexual person ­ don't like those guys. I don't mind them so long as they don't bother me."

Is this simply an anti-Almodóvar rant? Bardem, I sense, is just trying to be helpful, but boy, did that come out all wrong. This is the right-wing, Andrew Sullivan line so popular in America right now, a policy that finds gay culture embarrassed by its freaks, even though it was drag queens who started the Stonewall Riots that lead to some degree of gay emancipation. In the end, Arenas, too, was a freak of sorts: but just didn't care about it. For his own education, perhaps, the otherwise genial and lovely Bardem needs to reach for the high-heels as soon as possible. And I'm sure Johnny Depp ­ who plays a drag queen in Before Night Falls ­ could lend him a frock.