Javier Bardem: Chasing Goya’s Ghosts


Spain’s Javier Bardem was acting professionally for over ten years before he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. It’s been a few years since we saw him playing his last memorable role, as a suicidal quadriplegic in Alejandro Amenabar’s foreign language Oscar-winner The Sea Inside. Although Bardem hasn’t appeared in too many movies since then, he’s considered by many to be one of the world’s finest actors (in any language) because every performance he gives is special.

After some time away, Bardem returns in the first of three high-profile films that he’s starring in this year, Goya’s Ghosts from Oscar-winning director Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). While one might immediately (and falsely) assume that this is a period biopic about Spain’s famed painter Francisco de Goya, in fact it’s more about Bardem’s character Brother Lorenzo, a pious man who supports the Church’s decision to torture and imprison heretics during the famed Spanish Inquisition, but then winds up in a love triangle of sorts with the painter and his model/muse, played by Natalie Portman, after she’s thrown into prison for fifteen years, being deemed a heretic.

ComingSoon.net spoke to the actor during a stopover in New York in what is likely to be the first of three interviews we conduct with the actor this year.

ComingSoon.net: How did you like playing a villain?
Javier Bardem: I don’t think he’s a villain. Come on. He’s a victim of a totalitarian regime. He’s a man who has the need to make people believe that he’s a strong believer in order to stay alive, which is something that I think somehow still remains nowadays. It’s this radicalism that creates these kinds of monsters where you’re either with me or against me, no matter whether it’s in the name of God or human rights or whatever, they create fear, because they know through fear, it’s the best way to gather people’s attention and to be accepted by people and supported by people. One of them is President George Bush.

CS: There certainly is a bit of grey area in this character, so when you were reading the script, how were you able to justify some of the things he did, some quite despicable but some that actually did some good like supporting the arts?
Bardem: Mm-hm. Yeah, I guess so. Everything was about gathering the power and not letting anybody interfere with his way to the top, because in the very beginning, he’s always trying to convince that he’s the one that’s going to bring the truth and that he’s going to make everybody surrender and put them on their knees in the name of God. Everything that can help in that sense economically through the money of the merchant, ideologically, everything is welcome, and anything that is against that or in the way, he has to destroy it. And at the same time, with the revolution, he brings these ideas of human rights and democracy to the people and when one of the people, which is this woman, asks for some right to know her daughter, he becomes a real monster, because that will create problems in my own scale to the power, because I have a family, I have my own sons, so he destroys her again.

CS: Do you think your character’s principles change over the film and how did that affect how you played the character? (NOTE: There’s a spoiler in this response!)
Bardem: I think there’s a moment when he’s about to be hung (from the ceiling) when it materializes that the theory and the practical situation is not the same. Even though he tries to keep all his ideas alive, because when you are just formed in one shape and somebody destabilizes that shape and you know where you’re going next, you need to go back to that shape, and that’s what he does. So I don’t think he really changes until the very end when he really believes in something that he doesn’t approve or embrace the religion, and he’s killed by that. (Spoiler ends)

CS: Do you think this character relates to your character in “Before Night Falls” in the sense that they’re both being put down by this sense of dogmatic intolerance? Did you take anything from that earlier role?
Bardem: I never thought that way, but I guess we are all shaped by what we are ruled by. What I mean is that these people are victims and Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls” especially, because he was totally destroyed by it, and he was against it. In this case, he’s going pro the government or pro the church, but even though he’s destroyed because those dogmatic situations doesn’t go anywhere.

CS: What surprised you most about working with Natalie?
Bardem: The simplicity. The fact that she’s so young and she’s really able to go emotionally deep and bring things that theoretically a lady that young could not deal with still, and at the same time, being total simple, normal, funny, nice, easy to work with. I guess she was very young when she became famous, but her mind, in my opinion–I don’t know her that well–but her mind is perfectly-structured. It’s like she’s intelligent. It’s scary. When was talking to her I didn’t know what to talk about, because she knows a lot of things. I felt like a donkey.

CS: Did you hang out at all with Natalie while working on the movie?
Bardem: In Madrid at night? There was not much hanging out. We were really working hard. It’s funny because we all want to know stories, but there are no stories, because people work hard. You have a pleasant time or a horrible time. In this case, it was a good time because Milos makes everybody feel relaxed and he takes the weight out of everything. At the same time, he’s very serious, so when thinks have to get dramatic, he goes for it, but when you’re working with him, you don’t feel the weight or the pressure of any kind, so that helps because you don’t need to relieve the tension of the set. You go back home and you feel fine. He’s not about those shooting where you think, “F*ck, I wish it was a Friday because I can’t stand this anymore.” That’s why there wasn’t a lot of hanging around, because being on the set was fun and pleasant. It was a moment everybody was relaxed and having a good time, and then you go back home and sleep and the day after you wake up and you want to go there, which is amazing.

CS: I think a lot of guys might want to know if you really groped Natalie Portman’s ass when you visit her in the jail cell.
Bardem: Uh… do I? (pretending to think but then taking the path of most discretion) I don’t remember.

CS: Did they use a body double for Natalie?
Bardem: I can’t answer that. She is the one who has to answer that.

CS: Does Milos give you a lot of breathing room as an actor?
Bardem: Yeah, he lets you rehearse and lets you be on the set, and then depending on what you do, he puts the camera, which is something that is very good because otherwise, you feel stuck. Sometimes, you get in there and you go, “Okay, the camera’s here, you move there, and wait, wait, wait, let me just feel the space and see where I would move and what I would do.” He knows that and he made everybody like, “Do your thing, take your time, rehearse and when you’re ready, you let me know and you show me.”

CS: What was the most surprising thing about working with Milos compared to other directors you’ve worked with?
Bardem: Mmmm… the humor, which is not about being clumsy or frivolous, but being very serious and telling a lot of things through the humor. In order for you to understand even the most horrible things of the movie, he will let you know through the humor, so when you realize you understood them, but you’re not scared of them or against them or threatened by them, and it’s like “Okay I got it” because you laughed when he was telling you, but he’s telling you pretty hard things. Like his life was not easy for a moment, and he’s telling you from such a perspective that it’s like a tale. “I can’t believe these things happened to you but the gravity is out. The important thing is what I learned of that, and if we that scene and this scene is dramatic, we the audience should learn this out of this. Let’s not complicate things. Let’s not like ourselves too much when we do it. Just get rid of that and go to the point.”

CS: How pleased are you with how this movie has come together? It’s not super-commercial and not something everybody’s going to love, which is risky. People don’t make this kind of movie anymore.
Bardem: I think it’s pretty much what the script was, so I think that I like it and there are amazing moments in it where there are real Milos Forman moments because of the irony, because there’s something that in a way he’s behind it making (makes this weird noise), I don’t know how you say it, in a funny way, during the most romantic moments. That’s very Milos, like “Larry Flynt” and “Amadeus,” he talks about big things but there’s always room to remind us that it’s not that important. I mean, it’s important, but it’s important if we see it from this side, because if we get stuck in the horror, we don’t move forward.

CS: In your opinion, do you think an artist can encapsulate or bring further truth to history?
Bardem: I have this weird feeling about the word “artist.” There’s a lot of people that work in what is theoretically called “art” but few of them are artists, but the real ones like Goya are able to bring good questions to be answered by ourselves. I don’t think they can change the world, but they can make some pointing questions for us to answer and maybe in the future, be asked to change the world. Otherwise, it’s better to think that they can do it, rather than they can’t, because otherwise we’ll surrender to the fact that there is an option to change what we don’t like in life.

CS: Did you make this film a long time before doing the recent Coen Brothers movie? You’re pretty scary in that and I wondered if you were able to bring anything from this character to that role.
Bardem: Yeah, this movie I did in 2005 and the Coens’ I did in 2006, one year after. Like in the Coens’ I’m a really mean person that doesn’t have any emotional attachment. Here, he has some emotional attachments. He feels for her, he feels attracted and he feels for his family and for the revolution or for God. When in the Coens’, it’s somebody totally blank, but I don’t think there’s too much in common.

CS: I was a big fan of “The Sea Inside” but were you disappointed by how the movie wasn’t really seen by many people here, despite being well-received by critics and journalists?
Bardem: “The Sea Inside” is a movie that I’m so deeply proud of for different things. First of all, I was such a wrong actor for doing that movie, because I was 30 and I’m playing 55 years old. I’m not even from the region that he was, the accent is different. You don’t know him but in Spain, everybody knows his face, knows his history. It’s like, “Are we going to take that step? Let’s take it.” And also it’s a guy on a bed wanting to die, and you go, “Who the hell is going to do a good movie out of this without making people run out of the there?” But Amenabar is a f*cking genius. He was 30 when he did this movie, and the knowledge of life and death that’s in that movie is truly amazing, and he did the script, he wrote the music, he directed it, so everything happened. And of course, you want people to see it but I think that this movie has been seen by a lot of people because it really got people’s heart. Also in Spain, it helped to bring that euthanasia theme into the society, and there were some changes that I thought were going to be bigger, but at least there were some changes. Some conscience and some knowledge about what a man in that situation can think or can feel.

CS: Are you going to be working with Amenabar again? What’s he been up to since then?
Bardem: I wish I could work with him again. He’s so secret. He doesn’t even tell me and I go, “Give me a break man. Give me a role.” He works secretly. I guess he will be shooting soon. I hope so, because he’s amazing.

CS: What else do you have coming out this year?
Bardem: Yeah, I shot this movie “Love in the Time of Cholera,” it’s Mike Newell, based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, and I think the movie is coming out this year also, so this is a busy year for me.

CS: That’s almost an all-star Spanish cast isn’t it?
Bardem: Yeah, well, Benjamin Bratt and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who is an Italian actress, Catalina Sandina, John Leguizamo, Liev Schreiber… and then in August, I’m doing the Woody Allen movie with Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. Not bad, huh?

CS: Is that going to be in Spanish?
Bardem: It’s amazing because we shoot in Barcelona, so it’s great to be shooting at home with Woody Allen, it’s great, it’s a pleasure. I’m leaving in two days and I’m going directly to Barcelona to work on that and then afterwards, I may come here to New York.

CS: Does Woody do a lot of rehearsing?
Bardem: I haven’t had the chance to speak a lot with him still, but I heard that there’s no rehearsals and basically it’s one or two takes. I mean the good thing about this is the exercise. This movie is a unique exercise for me that I haven’t done before, which is about being related to the language, which a foreign language in a different way because we all know Woody Allen’s movies have a lot of dialogue. It involves a lot of improvisation, and it goes fast, but at the same time, the dialogue is really brilliant and you really need to defend him, not only theoretically but physically. There’s something emotional in to those dialogues (sic) that you cannot avoid. You really need to get involved in the words, but at the same time, it has to go fast. This is going to be a new situation for me, because when I have a movie in English, as you know because you’re hearing me speaking, I work hard on every word, not only the line but every word, and here, it’s the opposite. “Okay, go… jump in and make this language your whole language.”

Goya’s Ghosts opens in select cities on Friday, July 20.