EXCLUSIVE: Javier Bardem on 'Biutiful': "By Far the Heaviest Role I’ve Done in My Life"

We had a chance to catch up with iconic Spanish actor Javier Bardem when his new film Biutiful premiered in New York. The beautiful and tragic film, written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams) follows Bardem's character Uxbal, a poor man living in the slums of Barcelona with two kids and a drug addict wife who finds out that he has terminal cancer and only a few months left to live. As Uxbal struggles to get his affairs in order, he realizes who he really is and what he needs to provide for his children before he dies.

It's an inspired, transcendent performance by Bardem—we're still scratching our heads by the lack of recognition this awards season! At least the Academy has a chance to get it right tomorrow morning when they announce the Oscar nominations.

Until then, here's what Bardem had to say about his experience shooting Biutiful:

How do you balance taking on film roles you love versus roles that pay the big bucks?
Good one! [Laughs] Usually the movies that you like are the ones that pay you nothing, let’s put it that way. I mean the ones that you go crazy about; they don’t pay you what you’d like to be paid. But in general, I don’t care. I’ve never cared about that. Because I think that I have a job, I have a living, I have a good living, so I don’t need it. I can feed my people, I can feed myself, and I have a good roof, that’s more than I can ask for. There are so many people going through very hard circumstances. So doing what you like and getting paid for it is enough.

Since Alejandro wrote the part for you does that make it hard to say no to his offer? Did you feel extra pressure?
No, not really because he’s a wise man. He said, 'I brought this for you but you are welcome to decline.' I felt extra gratitude. Because I really like his work and I was always asking him to do something and then he came with that, so I was anxious to read it. I felt very honored. But he knew that this is not only a movie, it was a journey and that I can could perfectly say, 'I can’t, I’m not ready,' or whatever and he would had respected that totally.

Alejandro said that you are two perfectionist neurotics who are never satisfied—sometimes you’d do 40 takes and it was painful. Are you both gluttons for punishment?
[Laughs] No, of course not. But the moment that you read the script and you know Alejandro’s work, you know it’s going to be a difficult journey because what he’s proposing is a life experience rather than a job. This is not a movie about going to the set, learning the lines, pulling some faces, and going back home. This is like: 'You want to jump in with me or not?' That’s why I read it three or four times before I said yes. I was like, ‘Are you ready for this Javier?’ Because this is going to take you to a different place, a place within that you may not be able to deal with. And I was, thank God.

The film was shot in the seedy underbelly of Barcelona, which most people don’t get a chance to see. Was it hard integrating into that community?
No. I mean Alejandro works hard, he was there I don’t know how many months before shooting. So once I got there on the last month I was in Barcelona with these people, going to their places, talking to them and what is much more important, listening to them. And it’s not difficult at all; they are dying to be listened to. That’s why I think this film is important because they have a voice. Movies don’t change the world but sometimes, they can raise questions for us to answer at home.

Javier how do you deal with the emotional distress that movies like this can cause you?
There’s no way to deal with that. It happens and this is by far the heaviest role I’ve done in my life. There is no way you can tell with the consequences of being in that state of my mind and heart for five months. It’s a journey and that is our job. Our job is to know how to get in there but also how to get out of there. It depends on so many things, it depends on your emotional state at the moment, the people you are surrounded by, and of course the material that you are working with. I mean, all those things combined can make an explosion and this was an explosion for me. But I am here, I am healthy and I can talk about it from a distance now, which is good.

What did you do in the days after you finished shooting?
Eat! [Laughs] I spent the last three months eating salads. I would say it took me a good while to realize that I finished the movie.  Months after I was still dreamy…like there were still something in my organs that belonged to him rather than me. It took me a while to really see it from the outside; Ok, those things that I feel, those things that I’m feeling physically are not mine anymore it’s his, bye.

This movie takes viewers to a very dark, difficult place. What would you say to those who have a hard time getting through the film?
I would say that this movie is a tragedy; it’s not a drama. In the Greek tragedies the divine entities would come into the play to remind human beings how weak they are by throwing any kind of disaster they can control at them. The human being has to be able to overcome with his faith, and at the end he surrenders in knowing that he is not big enough to face a God. Here, there are no gods, death shows up at the very beginning and says, 'Ok, I’m going to give you three months to realize who you are.' When a person is surrounded by the most horrible circumstances you can imagine and finds that there’s always room to have compassion and forgiveness for himself and for others where he can face people and say sorry and pass a legacy to those kids about what’s really important (which is taking care of each other)…for me it’s a big message, being that small, it’s a huge message. I think it’s a right for the viewer to see some place where he gets to face something in him. It’s about surrendering to the need of being open to each other and hugging each other, everybody that will watch this movie will run home to hug their families and their kids. Well, that’s a great thing. [Laughs]

You have become easily the most well-known and honored Spanish actor…
That was a long line …[Laughs]

And you mentioned you’re 40…
41 actually…

What do you see for the future professionally and personally having accomplished so much already?
Hmm, I have to talk to my therapist about it. [Laughs] If I got here it’s because I try to work as hard as I can, knowing that I’ve done really bad things, really bad movies, horrible performances, some of them were good, whatever. But what I have is a lot people, great people in Spain, here, giving this trust to me. And that is something that you cannot pursue, that happens unless it happens. So I hope in the future to have the same trust from a lot of people, because at the end that’s what counts.