Javier Bardem Interview – Vicky Cristina Barcelona

     August 14, 2008

Opening tomorrow, in both Los Angeles and New York, is the latest Woody Allen movie “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” And unlike his last two movies (which I didn’t care for), his latest film is quite good and absolutely worth checking out. Also, it’s his most sexually charged movie since…well…I don’t know. It actually might be his most sexually charged film. Of course, having Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem as his leads might have helped.

If you haven’t heard of the movie, here’s the synopsis:

Two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) come to Barcelona for a summer holiday. Vicky issensible and engaged to be married; Cristina is emotionally and sexually adventurous. In Barcelona, they’re drawn into a series of unconventional romantic entanglements with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a charismatic painter, who is still involved with his tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Set against the luscious Mediterranean sensuality of Barcelona, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is Woody Allen’s funny and open-minded celebration of love in all its configurations.

Anyway, to help promote the movie, I recently got to participate in roundtable interviews with most of the cast and the one below is with recent Academy Award winner Javier Bardem.

During the interview, Javier talks about working with Woody, what the audition process was like (it’s a very funny story), what it was like improvising on set, and why he’s been so picky with all his latest projects. It’s a great interview and one worth reading.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview by clicking here
. Again, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” comes out in limited release tomorrow.

This character could have easily been a very slimy, unsympathetic character. But apparently, because of your own charm, you were able to make him a lot warmer. Was that something that you intentionally decided to bring to this character after you read the script?

Javier Bardem: Well, thank you for the ‘own charm’ thing. No, I actually, when I read the script, I felt, the first scene where he approaches those two women, which is the first scene of that character, it was like, “Okay, that’s funny. All the clichés are there, one after another. The American tourist coming to a romantic place in Spain and finding Don Juan – okay – what’s all this about?” And then, I keep on reading and realize how brilliant it was because I think what the movie does, and I think what the script did to me, is that he places all of the clichés one after the other. And then, first of all, he makes fun of them. Second, he destroys them. And third of all, he makes us see what’s behind those stereotypes and clichés, which is, people are sharing the same fear, need, dependence, and also the same quest about the meaning of love. And I like it because at the very end it’s a kind of a drama. Everything is harmed, everybody’s harmed, by that quest, by that search. And what it looks like, at the beginning, to be one thing, it’s totally the opposite because I think my character at the end is a poor man, so dependent on protection that he can’t be alone for even five seconds. When he’s pretending to be this easy man where everything flows and he doesn’t belong to anyone – or nobody belongs to him.

How easy was it for you to identify with him?

Javier Bardem: I think when you have – one of the greatest things when you work with a genius, and Woody Allen is a genius, he can be a genius 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But I’m always saying that the worst Woody Allen movies are much better than most of the movies that I see. When you’re working with a person who really knows how to write dialogue, you realize that you don’t have the do very much because he’s in there. It’s like you have jewels – you have diamonds – Woody Allen – that he’s really telling you where to go. That’s what the classics do. When you are doing a classic, you realize that you don’t have to put a lot of yourself in there rather than try to put your ego away and add it to those words. Because those words are like bridges that are taking you to the next step by their own. You don’t have to imagine the next step – force – push – the next step because it’s really written. Like that long scene in the very beginning, everything takes you to the other thing. And then they say, “Cut!” You don’t have to stop and say, “Okay, here I have to change the direction. Here I have to add this. Here I have to break.” No, it’s like boom, boom, boom.

What about Woody? Were you in awe of him before you started working? Were you nervous? And what was he like – did you find – as a director?

Javier Bardem: I mean me – as a lot of people in the world – I’m a huge admirer of a lot of movies – a lot of masterpieces – so he’s like with the Coens. You are from Spain and you don’t ever dream – not even dream – of the possibility of working with Woody Allen. And then you hear that he’s coming to Spain to make a movie and you take for granted that it’s going to be a movie full of American actors. And then you have a phone call saying, “No, I want you to read it,” and you have a heart attack and say, “Is this Woody Allen?” And yes, it’s Woody Allen and he goes – the conversation takes no more than two minutes. Okay, that was Woody Allen.

We heard about the audition process – or when you first meet him – everyone was saying it was 30 seconds or 40 seconds. Can you talk about your first time?

Javier Bardem: I didn’t even have that. It was, “I have this script. Would you be interested in reading it?” And I said, “Of course.” “Thank you.” Click. Alright. I got the script. I read it. I call. I said, “This looks pretty good. I have some questions, but it looks pretty good.” “Okay. So we shoot in a month.” Click. You go, “Alright.” And then you show up on the set and you go alright and they say, “Action.” That’s Woody Allen. It’s kind of unique because you have to do – especially if you work in a foreign language – you have to do a lot of homework because you heard that it’s going to be fast and precise and you don’t have time to waste. And with such long scenes, with such long dialogue, you are so scared. I was truly scared, like in panic, saying, “Man, how in the world am I going to be at least relaxed – to say all these words in a very natural way, knowing that I have one chance, two chances?” But at the end, there’s a rhythm that you start to enjoy and when you finish, you feel like, “I wish every movie could be like that.”

How foreign was it for you to improvise with him, to the extent that he allowed you to? Apparently these arguments that you do in Spanish with Penelope – he didn’t even know what you said until he got back to New York.

Javier Bardem: I’m always saying that he doesn’t want to take the credit for that. That dialogue was written in English and it was translated into Spanish. And 90% of what we are saying, he wrote it. He doesn’t want to take the credit because he’s Woody Allen. So he knew what we were doing, he knew what we were saying. But of course because it’s your mother tongue, you add one thing here or you take one thing there, right? But the whole idea is what he wrote. You don’t want – you don’t dare to change that. It’s a Woody Allen dialogue, you know? It’s true that there were some words that he found out once he was in the States with a translator.

At what point did you realize who were going to be these three beautiful women? Were they cast before you?

Javier Bardem: No. I didn’t. One of the things that he keeps very well is the secrecy, which I think is brilliant.

‘Till you got to set you didn’t know who it was going to be?

Javier Bardem: No. I don’t think in those terms. I’m always thinking, “What do I have to do?” I always see problems. I always think, “Well, that’s a problem. That’s a character that you have to work very hard to make believable. How do you say those lines to those two women in the restaurant?” I mean, how do you say that? Because you’re saying, “Let’s get out of here and let’s make love – the three of us.”

Well, as a guy, we were in the theater taking notes.

Javier Bardem: But you need Woody Allen to write that dialogue.

When you had scenes with Penelope where you were painting, did he say, “Do it this way?”

Javier Bardem: No, no, no. It’s a lesson…because he’s like, “Okay, and now you are painting.” Alright. “Action!” And you go, “What do I paint?” It’s about always making decisions, one after the other, on your own. It’s like – I said this with the Coens – because even if they are not the same, they share something in common which is they are not going to be daddy and mommy and tell you what to do. You are a grown up. You have to go on your own. If you are really wrong, we’ll let you know. Like, “No, no! On the right! On the right! You’re going to crash!” But that’s a good thing as an actor. But as an actor – me – as every actor, I think – we always are looking for daddy and mommy to tell us how good we are and how good we are doing. And he’s not. So you go there. “Action!” You paint. And you go, “What do I paint? What kind of painting is this? Abstract? Figurative?” But you have been working before and all the painting was made by Augustine Pouits, the real paintings are from him. A great painter. And one of the most pleasant parts of the process was for me to go to his studio and put colors in my hands and get crazy. It was beautiful.

Did you memorize everything prior to walking on set so that you could do anything?

Javier Bardem: Yeah, I always – when you have those long scenes in English and you go, “Alright.” And you work with a dialogue coach in order to make yourself understood. And then he comes to you and he starts to take out the pages and he says, “Now, everything, say it with your own words. Action!” And you know it all by heart. You know all the commas, all the punctuation, and you go, “No, I can’t say this in my own words. I can’t.” And then you do it the way it is written and he knows that and he says, “Cut! Say it with your own words.” And you go, “How can I say it with my own words?” I’m not Woody Allen. This is brilliant dialogue. So all my battles were about saying what he wrote, which is brilliant, and making believe that it was my own words. Because it’s difficult. I mean, as a foreigner, you have to work on the pronunciation of the words. I can’t improvise like this.

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How did the whole Oscar campaign change the way that Hollywood now perceives you as an actor in this town?

Javier Bardem: I don’t know, I’m always saying, because I’ve been asked this question, as you can imagine. And I’ve said that it was nine months of tension, I mean, pleasurable, and I feel truly thankful and honored, really thankful and grateful for the recognition. But I guess when you come to the Oscar night, you come with a lot of things on your back. It’s been month of tension – of promoting – of being eight of nine months out of your home, speaking a foreign language, being in No Man’s Land, in the sense of, “Where am I?” And you are like out in space. And then everything comes to that very night and when it happens, you feel like – [SIGH] – a lot of things come to an end. And that’s why people get so emotional. And that’s why the value of the statue itself is so big, because it represents a lot of things. Six months later you have that golden bald man there. And you look at it and what I feel is like, thankful, grateful and lucky that I won the lottery, that I truly won the lottery. That it was my name and not another actor’s name that was in that envelope because who knows what? Really. Because it can’t measure any kind of talent because the talent of all of those actors there is un-measurable. You can not measure. I can’t compare to me. I can’t compare to them. But I won the lottery.

But in terms of your career, aren’t you getting scripts that you wouldn’t of maybe gotten?

Javier Bardem: I guess that’s why you do it. I mean, when you decide to go and move forward with it and say, okay, there’s a moment when you think: “There’s a possibility.” Do you want to make the campaign? And you go for it. It’s not because you feel, there might be people who feel that way. I don’t. It’s not because you feel, “I need to be recognized. I need to be the best one.” No. Fuck that. That’s impossible. That’s absurd. It’s because you realize that this is a job that you’re doing. You’re hired for doing a job. If you are lucky enough, you need to be hired to keep on doing jobs. This is a job like any other regular job. And you need people to hire you. And if you get that thing, theoretically, you’re going to be more hired. Is that true? And that’s why you make the decision, I think. Is that true? Well, yes. After that I have more offers. Some of them are more interesting, but you keep on doing more or less what you’ve been doing so far which is choosing carefully. You know, when you choose something, it’s because you want to tell that story not because you need to do it in order to achieve something else.

But going into the Oscars, you were like the totally the favorite. What kind of pressure is that – knowing that everybody is expecting your name to be in the envelope?

Javier Bardem: I didn’t pay attention. I mean, of course you pay attention, because you hear it. But I guess – I say weird sensation – because it’s like they are telling you, “You deserve it.” And you say, “Do I deserve an award? I deserve recognition and an award? No. I don’t deserve it.” It’s like you have to fight with some monsters out there.

Javier, Spanish families can be very traditional and I know that you come from a family with actors, did you feel pressure because of your family to go into it as a young man or did you just always want to?

Javier Bardem: No, I felt lost. Like any kid of 12, 13 years old and you don’t know what to do and then you go to the theater to see your mother performing and you see the theater from the inside and you go, “This is crazy.” I mean, my mother was shaking and nervous because it was the night of the opening, here, and then she’s dressed like a queen and she’s on stage being the queen of Spain or portraying one of the queens of Spain. And she’s like a queen and you go, “What happened in the middle? This is crazy.” But there’s something there that you smell that you go, “Wow, there’s something there that’s important.” You don’t know what important is, but you realize later – important to yourself. Because you’re really put in some plays where it’s not common, some place where you have to really look inside of you in order to pull a lot of triggers. You know? It’s like here I am a human being. Here, I am a character. And it happens in two and that is kind of crazy but it’s very rich for one personality to go through that process.

So watching your Mom made you want to do what she was doing?

Javier Bardem: Yeah, I guess. I saw all of that since I was little and wanted to do it. But I saw also the bad times.

After winning the Oscar this year, when did you decide to drop off the project with Coppola and Rob Marshall?

Javier Bardem: First of all, I think Nine is spectacular material. I think it’s a spectacular script , by Anthony Minghella, by the way. And I think Rob Marshall can’t be nicer and, I mean, I think he’s really multi-talented , and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And it’s going to be a unique and extraordinary work : Nine. But it came to me in a moment when I was really involved, and I was really broken. I was tired. I was truly – and I he perfectly understood that respected that. And I know it’s going to be fantastic. A fantastic, unique experience and piece of work. With Coppola, he chose to change the sex of the character. And I understand why. You will see why. It was much more important for that person to be a woman rather than a man. And he called me, he said that to me and I said, “Okay, I understand. Next time.

So what are you going to be doing now?

Javier Bardem: I’m reading some stuff, taking my time, and doing promotion of the Woody Allen movie.

Do you still live in Spain?

Javier Bardem: Yeah, I live in Spain. I live in Madrid.

Is it more important for you to try and divide yourself between making films in Spain and in America?

Javier Bardem: I would like to do that. But in the end, it doesn’t depend on you. It depends if good material comes to you on both sides. And it’s been a long time since I received something that really drives me crazy in Spain. And I haven’t worked in my own language – except for those little scenes in this movie – since 2003 in The Sea Inside. So there’s something really inside of me that needs, wants, to work in my own language. But it doesn’t depend on me because I don’t have the talent to write or direct or otherwise I would. No, no. I can’t. I won’t even try. Thank you very much.

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