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Water Works

Javier Bardem allowed uplifting role to wash over him

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The last time he played an ill-fated real-life writer (Cuban novelist and AIDS casualty Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's Before Night Falls), Javier Bardem became the first Spaniard in history to earn an Academy Award nomination for acting. A second trip to the Oscars may have eluded him for his latest film, Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside (opening locally this Friday; see Film Clips for review), but the movie did earn the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Bardem picked up several honors elsewhere (including a Golden Globe nomination and the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival). The 36-year-old Bardem recently discussed his role as Ramon Sampedro, the real-life Spanish poet and quadriplegic who struggled for the right to end his life.

Creative Loafing: How familiar were you with Ramon Sampedro and his story prior to reading this script?

Javier Bardem: I wasn't very familiar with him. I had just seen the same images as everyone else in Spain. He was a very popular person, and all of us working on the film had the chance to see the documentary interview he did, and his final statement to the camera, which opened up such a huge debate. Otherwise, it was mainly about talking about him with his friends and family, the people who were really close to him. His only God was his own consciousness. He was a man who was free enough to act beyond any of the conventional rules of the church or politics or the medical institutions.

Are there added responsibilities in playing a real person as opposed to a fictional character?

Some, because when you're playing a real person, you need to be respectful with what you're portraying, and you must also pay attention to what the person meant to other people. In this case, and in the case of playing Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, both of these men gave their lives for something important, for an idea they really believed in. As an actor, it's not like you're working only with your imagination. You have to be very much like a detective. You become really attached to the idea of achieving what the person meant by his actions.

Actors often speak of their bodies as their "instruments." What were some of the challenges of being limited to essentially acting from the neck up?

It was probably more of an emotional challenge than a physical one. The physical part had to do with trying to be relaxed and not moving too much. The real challenge was that even emotions have to go through an intellectual process. Ramon had so many thoughts and feelings going through his head, and what I was trying to do naturally was deal with controlling those emotions, because otherwise they can overwhelm you and make you feel very much like a prisoner in your own body.

Do you have any personal views on the issue of assisted suicide, and did they inform your performance in any way?

At the time, I had no real opinion about it. I felt he should be able to do what he wanted with his own life, without being taken out of context and considered to be mad or depressed. He was just asking for his right to handle his own life and death however he wanted. After working on the film and coming to know a little more about him, I believe that even more strongly. It's a very complex situation. There are a lot of different cases, but in his particular case, there's no doubt about it for me.

Is there a message or a moral to the film?

It invites you to wonder if we're as free as we've been told or led to believe we are. I guess it's more or less about the meaning of words like "freedom" and "morality" and "ethics."

What did your Oscar nomination for Before Night Falls mean to you?

Personally, it was a great honor, first of all, to be recognized with other actors whose work I truly admire and respect. But it was also a very weird process, going through that sort of campaign I wasn't used to. There's not that much importance to these things in Spain, so it was very funny in a way. Things get out of your control and you have to surrender to that. I enjoyed the ride and the process, but I had to detach myself from it and look at it from the outside. There's a risk in giving it an importance it doesn't have, or else you start considering yourself to be as great as everybody's telling you that you are.

What about professionally? Did you sense any change in the quality or quantity of scripts you started receiving?

I had more offers, but most of them were related to the kind of easy roles I'm not very interested in -- stereotypical characters I don't like seeing as an audience member, let alone playing as an actor.

Are there general guidelines you follow in deciding which projects you want to do?

It's so obvious when a good, well-written role comes your way. It's so clear that you want to do it and be a part of it. But that's the easy part. The difficulty is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the roles you're offered, justifying why I should waste my time doing them or why anyone would waste their money going to see them.

How did you come to be in Collateral?

It was just a little cameo, but I did it because I think Michael Mann is a great director. It was fun to go in for a day and give it a try, working in English. It was something I needed to do to help take some of the weight off of the three months I'd spent making The Sea Inside.

What are the major differences between working on an American film and a Spanish one?

You mean, besides working in a language I'm not accustomed to? (He laughs.) Not really. There's a much bigger budget on a Hollywood movie, a lot more people on the set. But basically, the space between "action" and "cut" is the same.

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