Javier Bardem in Love in The Time of Cholera. He also stars in No Country for Old Men.
TORONTO - "I ask that I can eat," Javier Bardem says right away. He says it with a surprising amount of urgency, appearing at my shoulder before I know he has even stepped into the room. He's been moving forward all day, he explains, "just go, go, go," with a snap of his fingers punctuating each "go." This was a couple of months ago, during the Toronto International Film Festival, when he was in town for the Joel and Ethan Coen thriller No Country for Old Men. (It opened in Toledo Wednesday.)
Startled, I turn.
"I said that I ask that I can eat," he repeats, his accent thick, ignoring that I had jumped. I nod. But he goes on anyway. "It is something I will do for three minutes, five minutes at most, and also I ask that I smoke. After lunch I need my cigarette. Do you mind if I smoke?" He waits, his eyes widen. "No? You don't? Thank you, very much."
Now allow me to provide context, to explain why I nodded silently, quietly spooked, unnerved. An hour before, I had left a screening of No Country for Old Men, in which Bardem, 38, a former star of Spain's national rugby team who became a first name in art-house leading men and the first Spaniard nominated for a best actor Oscar (2000's Before Night Falls), and it left me shaken. As I write this, his other new movie, Love in the Time of Cholera, has just opened; he plays the famously smitten romantic lead, the Florentino of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's contemporary classic, but compared with Anton Chigurh, his sociopath in No Country, romantic obsession is almost quaint.
Bardem's ethereal, calm, unyielding hit man, tracking Josh Brolin and $2 million in stolen drug money across Texas, is the stuff of sweaty nightmares, a chilling portrayal of a man whose pistons stopped firing about the same time as his morality, and he never noticed. His choice of weapon is unique - a cattle gun, attached to a steel tank, which he carts at his side like oxygen. His hair has the chic of a 1973 high school yearbook photo; without reading too far into it, you might say it suggests something happened to this man in 1973, his instincts continued unabated but his socializing died.
As Bardem plays him, however, he has no origin, no home, no boss, no history. He has simply arrived, like fate itself, as mysterious and unplaceable as his serene face. Bardem, in person, however, is easy-going and magnetic, with a smashed nose (broken in his teens), an enormous head, heavy-lidded eyes, and a smoky voice; of all the people I've interviewed, only The Rock has a larger, longer head (set side by side, they could perform an impression of Easter Island). And in person, even more than on a screen, you can understand why the studios look to foreign actors like Bardem for a certain other-worldly glamor Hollywood once bred - you can understand why the Coens essentially cast a handsome charming Spanish Cary Grant to play a creepy, violent loser.
Because he is mysterious, in ways a fellow countryman like Antonio Banderas never could be. Bardem's Anton is the most original villain in years, an expected Oscar nomination, the stuff of which decades of typecasting is born. Bardem's face, in person, doesn't necessarily reveal anything. It hides multitudes. It forces us to wonder what is behind it. And in No Country, it is the last thing you see on your way to the grave.
"It's interesting," said Joel Coen, "the character of Anton in the book is vivid but yet not really described at all. Cormac McCarthy [who wrote the novel No Country for Old Men] gives you the nature of him without giving anything. Not really. And making him a person, giving him form, was daunting. It had to be someone who commanded attention without trying, and that's Javier. Your eyes just go to him, you know? He has a presence so often used for sympathy, but we thought it might work the other way, too."
I read Joel Coen's comments back to Bardem and he says nothing, then in a deadpan voice, replies, "You know why I look on the verge of tears in the film?"
It's true, he does, as if feeling empathy and suppressed rage simultaneously.
"I was almost in tears because I didn't get what they wanted from me. I was thinking, 'Who is this guy?' and 'Why me?' and Josh Brolin would take me out after shooting and hand me a drink and make jokes in English, and it was a pain, figuring this world and these people out. So I give all the credit to the Coens. I was doing something I wasn't conscious of while filming, but watching the film, seeing the way they put the role together, I get it now. It was how they surrounded me with landscapes and dialogue and details like that haircut. No, it was them, not me. To me, it was like when you are speaking a foreign language. You find yourself putting meaning to things that mean nothing to you, though to someone it does. They developed the language."
You had nothing to do with it, I ask.
Here is what it feels like to be me, he begins. Bardem does not talk like other actors, pre-programmed. He converses. "I am in a foreign-language movie, because for me it is, and I am the only non-English speaker in the film, and I am in a strange land playing a guy who doesn't belong anywhere."
He's not from Texas.
"He is not. Maybe. I don't know. I wanted to portray someone who is ambiguous to the extreme, who doesn't have needs or goals or personal achievements, and you begin to understand that. The Coens insisted on this point. We can't portray him as a psychopath, where there is no excuse that he kills, where he just does. We have to relate to him in a funny way, even if it is in his vagueness. He is a man of work and that is all."
He strikes me as not dissimilar from any person used to putting on a smile for his job, then lowering it the minute he thinks no one is watching.
"Yes, of course, that is true. It is as if once the victim is out of the way he goes back to a conversation he is having in his head with someone, with someone bigger than you or I. I could be God or fate or destiny. I think of him as like someone who is doing something but listening to a soccer game on an earplug, there but not there."
Oh, that's good.
"I found him funny in the book."
I did, too.
"It's odd because I don't find my performance funny at all, but others do. If you laugh, I think it's because you are trying to distance yourself."
What's with the hair?
"Oh, the hair was not my idea. The hair was from the [production's hair stylist] and I found it a big help. When it was done I knew he was a guy out of synch, out of step. There are the people of a normal life and he is the man behind those people, fraying. Day by day, he can appear normal, but as soon as he sees his duty, a switch flips."
"But with a moral code. He asks his victims to call heads or tails, and really wants you to understand what is at stake. 'This is important,' he thinks. But there is no explanation for doing it. They say No Country for Old Men, but I say 'No World for Old Men,' for any men. We are so numb. I feel something really macabre has to happen to get us to snap to attention. A guy walks into a university and kills 30 people shocks us then we forget. I find that creepy how people get comfortable with this, comfortable with violence. As a Spaniard, I don't get it. I'm not criticizing. I really don't get it. It is like Tommy Lee Jones [as the sheriff in the film], who says 'I can't take this any more. This is out of control. This is beyond understanding. I give up.' I appreciate that feeling."
Is this why, in your movies, you never kill people?
"This is the second time I've killed someone in a movie, actually. I hate it. When I talked to the Coens I really wanted to understand why I did these things because I don't take it lightly. There is a statement here, about how people chose to deal with decency and violence, but at the end of the day, I don't ... I don't want to give some crazy person any ideas."
Contact Christopher Borrelli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.