Javier Bardem was dying for some old-fashioned Yankee food when we met amidst the chaotic of this year’s wintry Sundance Film Festival. “You don’t mind do you?” the always polite Spanish star asks, not referring to his devouring of a hamburger, but sitting outside atop an office balcony. Snow gracefully scattered at our feet, Bardem may be tired following his skew of interviews, but he’s used to it by now. “Most of my films end up at festivals like these”, he says smilingly.
Last year he was at Sundance with The Dancer Upstairs, so he is indeed an old pro. His latest film at Sundance, which American audiences will see this week, is the powerful and even at times acerbic Mondays in the Sun, which sees the Oscar-nominated actor return to his native Spain to star in this award-winning tale. Bardem loves flitting from Spain to America and other parts of the world, to work. “I truly don’t have any formula for the choices I make. I read material and if I like it I just go there and do it; I don’t feel like I belong to any place. Movies are international,” he says, eating a handful of French Fries.
In Mondays in the Sun, Bardem plays Santa, a disillusioned ex-boatyard worker coping with unemployment in a small, isolated Spanish town. He was drawn to the film, he says enthusiastically, because of director Fernando Les de Aranoa. “I saw his two movies before and I thought he was one of the greatest directors I have ever seen, so I was crazy about him. Thus one day I invited him to San Sebastian to see Before Night Falls. And told him I want to work with him, so badly. Not too long later he called and said – have this thing, I don’t know if I’m sure I want you to do it because I wanted the character to be somehow anonymous.’ I understood that some movies have to be done by an actor that is not recognized and it was right after the Oscar campaign. But I convinced him, took him to lunch and had some drinks and that did it,” he says, laughingly.
Perhaps that explains Bardem’s decision to hide behind this character’s physicality, having grown a full beard and looking, as he says, unglamorous. “Because in Spain, the last image of me was surrounded by glamour in Hollywood, so how can I make them believe that I’m the man of the shipyard?” But Bardem also loves to play characters as different as their predecessors, which Santa certainly is. “I enjoy my job as long as I can create a character, otherwise it’s boring.”
The actor, 34, has been a star in Spain for several years and is part of a well-known acting family. He is the son of Pilar Bardem, the nephew of director Juan Antonio Bardem and the grandson of Rafael Bardem; his brother and sister are both actors. Bardem, who switched to acting from painting, has already won three Goya Awards (most recently for Mondays In The Sun) and many other acting prizes for his work in some 30 films. His movies include Jamon, Jamon Heuvos De Oro, Dias Contados, Extasis, Live Flesh, Mouth To Mouth and Perdita Durango. “My environment in Spain is good. I mean, people recognize me, but I’m used to that. I don’t think anyone can be comfortable with that. Celebrity is very weird.”
Not that he’s complaining, mind you.” I have a job, I do what I like, they pay me well, I mean — I don’t make a fortune like American actors, but I don’t need it. What I do is something that fulfills me, which is a lot these days, and the price to pay for that is to be recognized.” When he became the first Spanish actor nominated for an Academy Award for Before Night Falls Bardem was regularly mobbed by fans and remains circumspect over the Oscar nomination. “Well, it was an honor of course and it was important for the movie because it helped to be watched. It was also important for ME because it helped people to know me and send me more material, but besides that I really had to fight with the idea that an award is important. An award doesn’t necessarily make you a better actor,” Bardem insists.
The actor has a cynical perspective on the movie business. For Bardem, it’s about the work and his job which is to act. “We live in the moment now where this whole movie business is crazy. Now, there are so many movies, so many festivals, and so many awards going on, each judged with each other, like your work is worse than others and that’s not fair. How can you tell what’s best and what’s worst from these awards? We’re talking about art.” Bardem says that despite his success, “My concern is to continue respecting my work as I’ve done since I began as an actor and I could only do that if I’m strong enough to keep on doing what I think best in an artistic way”.