Javier Bardem: 'People watch me. I feel absurd'

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Fame does not sit comfortably on the shoulders of Javier Bardem. But what can you do when you are one half of Hollywood's hippest couple and you've triumphed at Cannes and the Oscars? The actor talks to James Mottram about invasions of privacy and getting under the skin of a dying man in his new film

It's just past 11am and Javier Bardem looks weary. Two days ago, before jetting into London, he was in Oklahoma, finishing his scenes on the new Terrence Malick film. But this is no mere jetlag. There's something about his face that seems to express a permanent state of fatigue. His chin is covered in scratchy stubble. His dark-brown eyes look like they're on stand-by, the lids half-pulled down like shutters over shop windows. And the smile – if that's what you can call it – is as crumpled as the faded corduroy jacket that clings to his back.

If Bardem has yet to warm up, it is due to the prospect of facing a day of interviews. For any actor, the publicity process is like the indigestion that comes after a meal is finished. And, quite often, the better the meal, the longer the pain lasts. Bardem has been on the publicity trail for his sublime new film Biutiful since it opened in Cannes last May. "My friends usually say, 'You're very lucky, travelling around these places to work.' And I say, 'I'll invite you on the trip, but with one condition: you have to sit with me throughout.' Then they say, 'I don't want to go!'"

Not that Bardem has much right to complain. The past two years have been remarkable for the 41-year-old Spaniard, ever since he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his chilling portrayal of a psychopath in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. He and the Spanish actress Penélope Cruz became an item after they worked together on Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Last July, they married in a private ceremony in the Bahamas at a friend's house on the island. And when pictures emerged from the set of the new Pirates of the Caribbean film of Cruz with her bump showing, their representatives were forced to admit that the couple expect to become parents this March.

More than most, Bardem and Cruz are hypersensitive when it comes to discussing their relationship. I've been warned that Bardem might wind the interview up if my questions stray into personal territory, a marked change from the last time we met when he seemed carefree; becoming one half of Spain's Hollywood glamour couple has evidently taken its toll and left him guarded. "I know what I don't want to talk about," he tells me at one point, "and I don't." Evidently, he and Cruz are committed to a code of silence – presumably to avoid becoming the next Brangelina.

As far as he is concerned, becoming famous is detrimental to the job of acting, even more so if you're part of k a celebrity couple. While Bardem has been on screen for more than half his life, it is only in the past few years that the job has come with unwanted baggage. "My job is to try to portray behaviour. But I can't watch behaviour because people are watching me. You feel absurd, and that's not natural. You are in a zoo. You go to a shop and people look at you. That's the only thing that gets me a little nervous, but it's fine. People think actors want to be famous – but no! Well, some of them, yes... but I'm doing this job because it's my way of expressing something. I need to do it."

If the increasing difficulty of getting the job done may account for some of the weariness etched into Bardem's features, the work itself has hardly helped. "No doubt about it," he grunts: the Barcelona-set Biutiful is unquestionably the toughest film of his career. He plays Uxbal, a struggling single father of two who discovers he is terminally ill with cancer. In Cannes, Bardem won a share of the Best Actor prize (with the Italian actor Elio Germano) – crying out, in a rare moment of indiscretion, "My joy, my friend, my companion, my love, Penélope. I owe you a lot and I love you so much," when he accepted it. Meanwhile, Sean Penn was reportedly left speechless, later calling Bardem's work "the best performance since Brando in Last Tango in Paris".

It is not the first time Bardem has been afforded such praise. A decade ago, he made his international breakthrough in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, playing the persecuted gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. As well as being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Bardem got what he calls "one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received": Al Pacino called his home in Madrid and left a message on his answerphone, explaining that he wanted to call straight after seeing the film to tell him how much he loved it.

Many of Bardem's finest screen moments have seen him depict characters suffering physically. Arenas contracted Aids, and Bardem has also played two characters who are paralysed. In Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh, he was a cop confined to a wheelchair after being shot on duty, and in The Sea Inside, he was heartbreaking as the real-life mechanic Ramó* Sampedro, who fought a 29-year campaign for the right to end his life after a diving accident left him quadriplegic. "You see a human being in extreme conditions," says Bardem, "and you find something very powerful."

Yet Biutiful is different. "With The Sea Inside, it's a person who is clear about what he wants. Here, I was portraying somebody who has a problem with what he has to face." Inhabiting the skin of a dying man is one thing, but Uxbal is a man yet to make peace with his impending demise, or with those around him. Ashen-faced throughout, Bardem, as one reviewer put it, "seems to be shouldering not just the weight of the film but the weight of the world". He laughs when I mention this, but it was no joke having to dwell on these matters over a gruelling five-month shoot. "There was no way out," he sighs. "There was no way to escape."

The film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel), compares the impact of making the film to being hit by a bull. Bardem concurs. "It's not a movie to just deliver the lines and go home," he says. "An actor wants to portray somebody honestly, and if you want to get to that honest place, you have to put yourself sometimes at risk." Still, he is fiercely proud of the film. "The major gift of this movie is what I've learnt while doing it, personally and professionally. Professionally, I learnt a lot of things. Personally, I'm still working it out. That's how intense it was."

The film deals with illness, death and the afterlife (Uxbal can connect to spirits), and Bardem is no stranger to such topics. Now an atheist, he experienced the loss of his father when he was 25. "I wasn't a very committed Catholic before, but when that happened it suddenly all felt so obvious: I now believe religion is our attempt to find an explanation; to feel more protected." But he does not dismiss those who claim to be mediums. He met three during his research. "You want to believe it or you don't want to, that's OK," he says. "But they have that gift. It's obvious. They are not crazy."

Given the nature of the material, it now makes sense that Bardem went on to make Eat Pray Love, a film about spiritual self-discovery, in which he played a Brazilian divorcee who woos Julia Roberts' globe-trotter in Bali. "I knew, at a personal level, it was as important as Biutiful was, in the sense of 'What did I receive?' I needed to receive something. That's why I did Eat Pray Love. And I received it. It didn't heal me, because I wasn't sick. But it helped me to..." His words stop, and he exhales. Recuperate? "Exactly."

Still, playing the Latin lover comes all too easily to Bardem. Think of his painter in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, who oozes enough self-confidence to suggest a threesome to Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. Even as far back as 1992's Jamon Jamon, the first film in which he acted alongside Cruz, he was toying with the image, playing a would-be underwear model and bullfighter. Yet he's not typically handsome (his crooked nose comes courtesy of a bar fight when he was 19) and seems bewildered by his sex symbol status. "I don't see this heart-throb thing at all," he says.

Born in Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, Bardem is the youngest of three in what he affectionately calls a "family of crazy people". Both his siblings, Carlo and Monica, act, as did his grandparents and his mother Pilar, who has been in the profession for 50 years, while his uncle is a director. Despite this, Bardem initially veered towards painting before acting – anything but academia, for he was not a good student. "I'm not really proud of that. If I could go back into my past, I would study more. You're losing the opportunity of knowing things, but when you're 18 years old, you don't want to know, you want to live."

In his teens, he was obsessed by rugby, which he started playing when he was nine and didn't stop for another 15 years, by which time he was part of the Spanish national team – which, he jokes, "is like being a Japanese bullfighter". It taught him teamwork, something he thinks is an essential part of film-making. "That's why I have so many problems when an ego comes on to a movie set." His playing career overlapped by three years with his acting. After the success of Jamon Jamon, such was his rising fame, rival players would make a beeline for him in the scrum.

Now, it's more than just rugby players who recognise him and yet, to his credit (and if you exclude the Eat Pray Love vacation), he hasn't taken the easy Hollywood buck. There was talk of him starring in a film about the trapped Chilean miners, but he seems repelled by the idea. "I think it's too soon to do it with some justice." Instead, he's just enjoyed a journey into the unknown, working with the famously idiosyncratic Malick on an as-yet-untitled love story. "I maintain that it's actually the ultimate pleasure to really let yourself go," he says. It's usually in such moments that we see the best of Bardem.

'Biutiful' (15) opens on 28 January

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