NEW YORK — Actor Javier Bardem strolls in for an interview crunching an Oreo cookie and sipping a diet Pepsi. But despite his offhand demeanor, the Spanish actor is as disarmingly forthright in his views as he is charismatic.
Notoriously selective about his choice of roles, Bardem now stars in two politically themed movies. Though vastly different in approach, the films could be seen as flash points for worldwide problems today.
In John Malkovich's Latin-American thriller "The Dancer Upstairs," Bardem plays a police detective on the hunt for a terrorist; in Fernando Leon de Anaroa's "Los Lunes Al Sol," he's an unemployed longshoreman who faces a court appearance for breaking a streetlight during a workers' demonstration.
"Who's not political in these times?" says Bardem. "Yes, I am a political person along with every citizen of the world who has an image of how he'd like the world to be.... Yes, I like to make movies that have something interesting to say.
"When John first talked to me about ['Dancer'], I could barely speak any English," says Bardem. At the time, in the mid-90s, Bardem had already made his mark on Spanish cinema in romantic comedies such as Biga Lunar's "Jamon Jamon," costarring Penélope Cruz. But he was little-known overseas.
Bardem received international acclaim - and an Oscar nod - in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" (2000) in which he portrayed the openly homosexual Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was imprisoned, left Cuba, and committed suicide in New York. It was a role that was linguistically very demanding. With only six weeks before the cameras rolled, Bardem mastered a Cuban-accented English [and Spanish] by studying with Cubans in New York for 10 hours a day, earning a reputation for hard work and attention to detail.
"I can't imagine really having done this film without Javier Bardem," says Malkovich of "Dancer." The film recently opened in major cities and will roll out nationally throughout May. "He was critical to the role."
It's not hard to see why: Bardem convincingly brings a moral dimension to his portrayal of law-abiding police detective Agustin Rejas, whose job it is to track down an elusive guerrilla leader - and manage to steer clear of endemic corruption in the police force and the government at large. "[Rejas] isn't power hungry," says Bardem; "he is a very principled, moral man and is doing this for his country."
Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, "The Dancer Upstairs" is set in an unnamed Latin American country under attack from a bloodthirsty guerrilla group based on the Peruvian cult organization "Shining Path."
Although Bardem is the scion of a well-known Spanish acting family that dates from the burgeoning of Spanish cinema, his first ambition was to be a painter. He got into acting indirectly by supporting himself as an extra while attending art school in Madrid.
Bardem, who grew up in Madrid's tough Bagra district, remembers his mother's struggles as a young actress - holding down jobs in TV, theater, and cabaret to support him and his older brother and sister, also actors. Bardem has acted in six movies with his mother, Pilar Bardem, most famously in Pedro Almodóvar's "Live Flesh" in 1997.
Bardem has played police detectives in two other films, but he's on the other side of rules and regulations in "Los Lunes Al Sol" ["Mondays in the Sun"], set in a coastal town in northwest Spain.
As the happy-go-lucky, high-spirited Santa, he's one of five unemployed shipyard workers who are making the best of a precarious existence.
"The experience of doing this movie was so creative," says Bardem, "knowing that we were making something important and also entertaining to watch. De Aranoa approaches realism without losing his poetry."
After making two English-language films - "Before Night Falls" and "The Dancer Upstairs" - Bardem was keen to make a film in his native language and about contemporary Spain. He underwent a massive physical transformation for the role - gaining 36 pounds, growing a thick beard, and shaving his head.
While Bardem got his break in one of Almodóvar's films, he says that the Spain depicted in those films is highly imaginary. The real Spain, he says, has to deal with homelessness and unemployment - the latter of which is portrayed in "Los Lunes Al Sol."
" 'Los Lunes Al Sol' ... is about real superheroes," says Bardem. "Not people who fly over buildings, but people who are trying to survive on less than a very poor salary. Those are the heroes I want to talk about."