Javier Bardem achieved critical and international success in 1992 with Jose Juan Bigas Luna’s Jamon Jamon, but his name has remained relatively unknown internationally. This month, with the much-anticipated release of Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, the fantastically talented thirty-one-year-old actor plays one of the most fascinating roles in any American film in years. It’s an assignment he’s prepared himself for: Bardem is the star of more than twenty foreign films, including Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels (1991) and Live Flesh (1997)—as well as Jamon Jamon, which featured another then up-and-coming Spanish actor, Penelope Cruz. He also comes from a cinematic family whose members include celebrated actors and directors. But Before Night Falls is more than a hot film with a hot new star: its story addresses some of the most politically charged issues of our day.
Artist and film director Julian Schnabel has chosen for his second feature the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-90), poet, novelist, intellectual, and homosexual, who was antagonized and imprisoned for being all these things in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Arenas was only one in that enormous wave of Cubans that reached America in the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Arenas’ fight against AIDS, his struggle to keep creating, and his eventual suicide remain complex, painful tragedies (political, social, cultural) embodying many issues between (and, in some cases, shared by) America and Cuba. Before Night Falls has already triumphed at several film festivals, especially at Venice, where it received several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize, a special Lifetime Achievement Award for composer Carter Burwell—and a Best Actor award for Javier Bardem. Dennis Hopper, long aware of Bardem’s work and talent, recently sat down to talk with him.
DENNIS HOPPER: Hello Javier. How are you?
JAVIER BARDEM: Fine. How are you?
Great. Listen, I want to tell you that I think you’ve given the best performance of the year and perhaps many years in your latest film, Before Night Falls.
Thank you very much.
What’s really amazing to me was that in 1992, when I was president of the jury [at Venice) and we gave you guys the Silver Lion for Jamon Jamon, you were playing this really macho man. And then you go to this, to playing Reinaldo Arenas, the great Cuban writer who suffered under Castro’s anti-gay policies. When I saw the movie I came out feeling as though I experienced something with Reinaldo, like I knew him, and that’s really rare.
All these nice things from you—what do you want me to say? [laughs]
Well, what I’d like to talk to you about is how you found that in you.
When you play a character that really exists or existed, the thing that concerns you is respect—for the people who loved this person and are still alive. In the very beginning I had these nightmares about the people who knew Reinaldo shouting at me, telling me how bad I was in the role. When you have a part like this one, where you play a character from the age of seventeen to forty-five, it’s very easy to sort of say, “Hey guys, look how great an actor I am.” You basically have two options—to get into the role, or to make a big show of your technique.
[laughs] You’re right.
I tried to avoid that. The only thing I was trying to be was Reinaldo. I read his books, watched the tapes that exist of him talking, and tried to understand him. But you know what, when Julian [Schnabel, the director of the film] called me about the part I didn’t know who Reinaldo was. At first he asked me to play the role that Olivier Martinez played [Lazaro, Arenas’s best friend], and I said, OK, my English isn’t very good, so I can play that smallish role.” But two weeks later he called me at four o’clock in morning—as usual, because he thinks I’m always awake—saying, “Javi, Javi, are you there?” He said, “I want to ask you something, will you play Reinaldo?” I said, “No.” He said, “OK.” But he kept trying, and I kept refusing, for many reasons—because of the English, because Reinaldo was Cuban and I’m Spanish. I mean, English was difficult for me, but Cuban was much more difficult.
But in the end you managed to have a Cuban accent, man. And to do that in English! That can be such an obstacle.
The accent is something that you really have to grasp in order to get in the mood of the action.
So how did you decide to do it?
I asked Julian for a few weeks to come to a decision and I went to Cuba to try to understand who Reinaldo was. I went with my girlfriend, Christina, because we were going to have a holiday there while I was reaching for Reinaldo, and we were staying in the National Hotel [where most tourists stay]. And then on the second day I said, “Look Christina, I cannot stay in this hotel while I’m talking to people who knew Reinaldo and trying to reach who he was. I have to go to the streets, I have to find where this guy was living.” So I left the hotel and went to the houses of the people who knew him, but everybody was really scared to talk about Reinaldo. That made it really difficult for me to try to make them relax and to ask personal questions.
Because he’s a politically dangerous subject in Cuba. Have his writings been published there?
Only a few of the books—the very first one, “Singing From the Well” [Penguin]. But after that, the second novel was published in France. By the time I came back to New York though, I realized not only was this role a great chance for me as an actor, but maybe this was one of those movies that you can feel really proud of. Because it deals with intolerance, an important subject. So I said, “Yes,” and the next thing, I started to work on my English, and I began to lose a lot of weight—Reinaldo was very thin. Every day Julian was saying, “Don’t eat so much.” And I’d say, “Julian, why don’t you lose weight, man?” In Spain we eat well. It’s not easy to lose weight.
About a week ago I saw the cover of the book “Before Night Falls” [Penguin] which features a photograph of Reinaldo, and he looks exactly like you, or you like him.
I know that picture. When I saw it, I said, “Wow.” I had thought he was [physically] a weak person, but that broken nose, that face—it’s very close to mine. Seeing that picture made it very helpful to say yes.
You know, when Julian told me he wanted to make this movie I said, “Oh man, don’t.” But he said, “No, I’ve got to do this movie.” It’s amazing to me—Julian’s made a great movie here, and as far as you were from Reinaldo, think where he was coming from.
Julian has this thing about making you believe that you can do everything. Of course, we all have our limits, but if you have a person around like Julian, maybe it’s possible that you can do anything. Like speak English for two-and-a-half hours, as I was able to do. I was sure I would not be able to do that, but this guy really convinces you. He has this belief in people.
You’re very fortunate to have worked with all these great people like Julian and Bigas [Luna, who directed Bardem in Jamon Jamon]. And they’re very fortunate to be working with you.
That I don’t know. I try to remember what Marlon Brando said once, when he was playing Marc Antony. He said, when you play a character with real spirit, who undergoes real change, you have to take yourself out of the role and let the character come in to you. The difficult thing is to take your ego and your vanity and throw it in the garbage, and let yourself be taken over by the role. And if you can do that, then you’re changed as a human being, because you’ve seen the world with different eyes. And that’s why this job has meaning.
And that’s why this movie is so good. Because anybody with any sensitivity that sees this film will be changed by it, too. But I’ve seen you in more than one role and in all of them you’re totally involved—you become the characters that you’re playing.
In the beginning of my career I had this idea that without suffering there is no art, and that’s not true. If this role had come to me three or four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to play it because I would have died with the pain—Reinaldo is someone who suffered a lot. And if you do that you’re dead as an actor, because then you are putting yourself in front of the character that you’re playing [not inhabiting the role]. That’s something I learned because of people like you and De Niro and Brando. I saw your work and said, “These guys make acting look easy, and it’s not.” But at the same time, it’s very simple—Just be.
You’re right. You’re great in this movie and yet you didn’t have to live Reinaldo’s life. But you did have to understand it. Your homework had to be complete.
I think homework is important. I work really hard preparing at home, in rehearsals, or wherever, in order to be free on the set.
I also think your selection of projects is really good.
Who was it that said a good career is made of the parts you refuse, not the ones you accept? Sometimes it’s not very easy to say no to a director. But if you don’t feel like you can do a specific part, you can’t waste your time. I want to be careful about what roles I take on, especially now, when there’s the possibility of a career in America opening up for me. I’m a Latin actor, though, and there aren’t that many good roles for us in Hollywood. Not that I see myself playing the typical Latin guy roles.
What else do you have coming up?
I just finished a film called The Dancer Upstairs with John Malkovich. I play a lawyer, an intellectual, not an emotional character. It’s a role that’s very far from Reinaldo, which was good. I do feel like it’s time to move into the big market, though. Spain has no film industry.
Hollywood wants to make movies that make money, and I always thought that wasn’t a bad idea because if you had anything to say and you could get it by [the studios] it meant that a lot of people would get to hear the story. Getting it by them is not necessarily so easy. It doesn’t mean the quality of what you’re doing has to change.
When I close my eyes and see all these opportunities opening up, I have to ask myself, “Are you really an ambitious guy, Javier?” The answer is I don’t see myself trying to do the best I can just to make money or become famous, because I don’t see myself living that kind of life. I have already experienced a little of that in Spain, and the fact is it wasn’t great for my work.
Exactly. It can destroy it.
So it’s a contradiction, because on one side you want people to know you and your work, but on the other . . .
. . . You want to be able to disappear and just be a person. But, you know, there are people that handle this pretty well, like Brando, or Jack Nicholson.
Another part of fame is that people don’t always approach you with respect, sometimes they just want to break your nose. Nine years ago, I was in a disco in Spain and this guy comes up to me and says, “Are you Javier Bardem?” I said, “Yes,” and without saying another word he punched me in the face and broke my nose.
I remember Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause , went to India with Marlon Brando to research The Ugly American , and there was this giant crowd of people with flowers and they were all calling “Marlon, Marlon, Marlon,” you know. And Brando didn’t want to go out there, and Stern said, “Look, they’re all full of flowers and love.” And Brando said, “Yeah, but that could change in a second.” But just remember this—it’s only in the last century that that’s happened. In the 1800s actors were eating with the animals in the barn. They weren’t allowed in the house. So we’ve come a long way, baby.