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Spanish star Javier Bardem at the Lumiere Festival in Lyon on Tuesday gave a rowdy and free-form master class, discussing his work in Hollywood and Spain, career game changers, why he would work again with Woody Allen and why he disagrees with the “public lynching” of the director.
Now in its 10th year, the Lumiere fest is the brainchild of Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux, who introduced the 49-year-old Bardem with a highlight reel covering the actor’s career: from recent hits like No Country for Old Men and Skyfall to early breakthroughs like Bigas Luna’s Jamon, Jamon and Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh.
Indeed, much of the discussion was centered on Bardem’s work in Spain, where his mother was a film and television actress, and his uncle, Juan Antonio Bardem, a renowned movie director of the 1950s and 1960s whose dedication to “art, liberty of expression and political resistance” would inspire the actor for the rest of his life.
Although he got his first part on one of his mother’s TV shows when he was only five, Bardem didn’t initially pursue acting and opted to study the visual arts instead. In order to make a living, he began working as a movie extra while in college, landing only one speaking part in five years. He got his first major role in Luna’s The Ages of Lulu, about a young woman’s descent into Madrid’s sexual underworld.
“I was 19 and the only parts they would give me were S&M roles,” Bardem quipped. “There were women, men, animals…. Everybody was happy with my performance.”
Luna cast Bardem again in 1992’s Jamon, Jamon, where he played one of two young men pursuing an even younger Penelope Cruz, who was 16 at the time they shot the movie and would wind up marrying Bardem two decades later. Despite the film’s overtly kinky nature, Bardem says Luna had “lots of respect and tenderness for the actors” and that the shoot was one of his most memorable experiences.
He cites the director as a major influence who represented a turning point in his career, which early on included lots of parts playing sexed-up bad boys, as well as more rigorous roles such as the paralyzed anti-hero in Almodovar’s Live Flesh.
The other turning point for Bardem was when artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel cast him as the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in 1999’s Before Night Falls.
“They brought me on only 20 days before the shoot,” Bardem recalled. “I suddenly had to learn how to act in English, but with a strong Cuban accent.” The role, which was Bardem’s entry into Hollywood, earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Bardem would take home the Oscar a decade later for his supporting role as the stoic psycho killer Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, for which the actor wasn’t exactly happy with the oddball haircut the Coens gave him.
“They found that in an old photo book of Tijuana in the 1960s. There was this picture of a guy in a brothel, and they laughed and said: ‘That’s your haircut.’ And then they laughed again when they saw me walking around with it,” Bardem remembered.
“I also had to wear a hairnet when we weren’t shooting, which was absolutely humiliating. On one of the last days, I came on set and the entire crew was wearing hairnets as well. It was another one of the Coens’ pranks, which they found hilarious.”
Bardem said his toughest ever role was in Alejandro Inarritu’s street drama Biutiful, where he played a low-level Barcelona criminal with only a few months left to live.
“I was not easy on that shoot, which lasted six months,” he recalled. “I felt like I was going to die…. After, I jumped on Eat, Pray, Love, which was a breath of fresh air.”
When asked about his work with Woody Allen on 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, the actor said he hardly had any contact with the director during the shoot and wasn’t even sure that Allen really knew who he was. But he was quick to defend him against the child sexual assault allegations that have resurfaced over the past years.
“At the time I did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the allegations were already well known for more than 10 years, and two states in the U.S. deemed he was not guilty,” Bardem said. “If the legal situation ever changes, then I’d change my mind. But for now I don’t agree with the public lynching that he’s been receiving, and if Woody Allen called me to work with him again I’d be there tomorrow morning. He’s a genius.”
Bardem was also categorical about his work on Sean Penn’s 2016 movie The Last Face, which famously flopped at Cannes and then went straight to VOD in the U.S.
“I think it’s good what happened,” he explained. “The film deserved it. The cast and crew invested a lot in that project, but then it got lost somewhere along the way.”
The actor mentioned that he agrees with the new Cannes policy to screen films like The Last Face for the press after the public premiere, rather than have reviews come out before. “It was tough — the red carpet for that movie was like a funeral,” he said.
Speaking about his overall approach to movies, Bardem explained how “you have to think that each film you’re making is a masterpiece. But no single person, not even the director, can really determine how it’s received. In the end, a film is an accident.”
On his acting style, Bardem said: “Performance is about being transparent. You have to try and be as honest as possible. But it’s not easy to be honest, even in real life.”
When asked about other actors who’ve inspired him, he mentioned Swedish star Liv Ullman, who was present in the audience as an honoree at the Lumiere fest. And then he cited his major influence, stating: “I don’t believe in god, I believe in Al Pacino.”
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