Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a very demanding filmmaker and takes a long time to make a movie. Thankfully he has found a very compliant actor in Academy Award winner Javier Bardem -- one who effectively immersed himself in the character of Uxbal and sustained him while working nearly half a year to finish this controversial movie, Biutiful.
Middleman Uxbal is a tragic character, a father of two with a bipolar ex-wife, who straddles the line between villain and good-guy; he conceals that he is terminally ill with cancer while trying to cope with his impending conclusion. He struggles with a tainted life, a fate that works against him in an effort to both forgive and be forgiven.
The Madrid-based Bardem can be a surprising actor not just because he is the handsome, charismatic Spaniard he is known to be but for how villainous and conflicted he can become with the right character as the framework for his imagination. Take his Oscar-winning performance as killer Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. It's about as different a character as Uxbal but yet both are as distinct and compelling in their own right.
Once again, the 41-year-old husband of Penelope Cruz defied expectations and turns in a performance that prompts thorough praise even though the film has accrued mixed critical reaction. And though, he didn't discuss intimate details of their wedding or child-to-come, the scruff-faced star did talk at length on the travails of making this film in Barcelona's tough immigrant neighborhoods to a small roundtable of international journalists.
JB: Yeah, he told me that; he's a very wise man. He said, "I wrote this with you in my mind, but you are free to decline it." There is a lot of pressure when [someone] tells you that they wrote this with you in mind. I'm like, "Oh, I cannot say no to this.' But he's wise and said, "You can do it and somebody else can do it also. But I would like you to do it."
I read it and am a huge fan of his work; some of the greatest actors of all time have worked with him and have done some of their best work with him. So as an actor I was really interested in the process of how this man brings out some of the best performances of some of the best actors.
I know why. It's working really hard and putting you against the wall in a good way. He works hard. He doesn't stop. The material and what he proposes to you is a life journey. It's not a performance.
It's like, "Do you want to jump in with me or not? You decide." I decided I would among many other things because of the things that I was talking to you about, that this is worth it. This for me is worth making for people to see.
Q: This role affected you deeply...
JB: In many ways -- it was a long shoot, about five months. On a movie set you always have to be in tension. You have to create something yourself where you are totally aware, but also create a relaxation in that awareness. Otherwise, you'll be a very tense actor. But you can't lose the track because you never know when they are ready to shoot.
To be in that state for so long with such heavy material was exhausting. Although, I lost myself in a very dramatic [way], but it's just that you feel yourself disappearing more and more from who you know you are -- from what you know you are -- and are becoming more the person you created.
That's not to say that I was suffering what he suffered. I'm not him. But it is to say that there was no room for something else.
But there was no room for anything else other than being him and because you're portraying somebody in a movie like this -- who goes through so many personal, emotional, heavy journeys -- there's no way that you can escape, to be honest. So [I made] the transformation from being an actor trying to pretend to be someone else to becoming that person for a good three months.
But I'm not him. Thank God, I'm not. Yet there's no way or I don't know a way to portray him without putting yourself in that place. That's what we [actors] do; that's our job.
Some characters are easier [like the one I played in] Eat Pray Love. You go there, have fun and you do the tone of the movie; some others are different. Some are the ones that really leave marks on your skin and this is one. It's for sure the hardest that I've done.
Q: You shot this chronologically and with the length of the shoot, what did that take out of you all?
JB: Alejandro told me in the very beginning that it was going to be chronological and I thank him for that because it would be a mess otherwise. It would be impossible. There's a very well described arc that has to happen and it sustains little details.
There's something big going on which is the disease and the effect that it has in the mind, body, and soul, but also little details of behavior that have to do with the chronological order of being affected by that. It's a great luxury for any actor, but I couldn't imagine doing this any other way. I don't know if it would've been impossible; it would've been extremely difficult for everybody.
Q: And working for that period of time. It seems like an exhausting thing, working on it for five months...
JB: What is there to say? it is. It's the longest movie I've done so far. It has to be this one.
Q: How do you get out of that role after being with it for so long?
JB: You don't. When they said, "Okay, wrap it up" and you say, "Okay. What do I do with this now?" You have to let it go [over] time.
There are certain roles, like, when I did Before Night Falls or The Sea Inside, based on real people, great human beings, both of them in different ways, but great people. They sacrificed their lives in order to say something to somebody, to all of us actually and when they said wrap it up, I had to do a process of letting go.
In a way I was calling them towards me in spirit and they showed up. Beyond my belief or not, it's about that. It's about something that I felt, like, "Okay, he's here and he allows me to do it." Sometimes I felt like, "What would he think?"
When those things are going on and you're in love with them for what they represent it's hard to say goodbye, but it's also a nice thing because it's like, "Thank you for allowing me to be you."
In this case it was different. It was like we created this out of nothing, out of nowhere and it's difficult to detach from something that you have created because it has a lot of you in there. When I did Before Night Falls or The Sea Inside there was [a real person] in there. This was a different process.
Q: You worked with Spanish performance artist Maricel Alvarez who played your wife -- How did she influence your character and what did you end up doing with him?
JB: She's totally opposite [to her character]. She's very healthy in every way.
Alejandro and I had a lot of actresses from Spain read for that role. We put ourselves in a room for hours and hours, days and days and some of the greatest actresses in Spain showed up and did a great job. But this character is not a simple one. You have to really be able to go on an emotional roller coaster that easy. From one second to the next, she is a different person. It's based unfortunately on a real disease, bipolar.
All of them did a great job and then she showed up, the last one. Actually Alejandro thought that we were going to stop the whole process and give ourselves a good two or three months to keep on searching, looking for the actress. So she was the last hope.
She showed up and she did the scene and we were both like shaking. She hadn't done a movie before but who cares. She's an amazing actress and her approach to it was amazing. It was like a tennis game, throwing the ball to each other.
Q: Did you change your approach to the role because of her performance?
JB: No, I think all actors are the same. We want always to create somebody else. The way to get to that is different in everybody, in each person, but the object is always the same for everybody. I'm talking about people who really want to do that. Some people don't care and that's fine. They do great jobs, but this is not the movie for that.
Q: How was it working with the two kids who play your children?
JB: That was the first time they were on a movie set. Alejandro and I talked very seriously [with them]. One of the most serious things that we took in this movie was, "We have to protect those kids. We want to make sure that those kids know in every moment that we're doing fiction" because they're going to see things. They're going to have images like their parents having a fight with one son in the middle being pulled off. That's hard for a six year old.
It was exhausting because the director and I tried to give a lot of attention to that, but he was directing which is a lot of things. That's why I'm not a director. He has to answer so many questions. I was with the kids, trying to be there, playing with them, doing kid things, throwing the ball and then he would say action and we would get into the fiction. They would do it so easily and so well it made me think, "That's the way to go." That's the way it should be, but it was hard for me because I had to be on both sides.
There's going to be a fight with my wife. It's going to be a fucking hard scene and I have the feeling that it's going to be... But you have to create that fiction. At the same time you're doing this for them. That was very exhausting so when I saw the kids on set I was like, "Oh, God."
At the same time it was very rewarding because -- I don't know -- the purity of them, of how they played the game without any weight on it. It was like, "Thank you," because they taught you how to do it.
Q: Did you physically transform throughout this movie or did you take time off to lose the weight?
JB: It was a lot of diet, exercise, but also a lot of shooting that really makes you feel like losing weight.
Q: Where there parts of the city that you went into that enhanced the character for you?
JB: Yeah. I live in Spain. I live in Madrid. Barcelona is like Madrid, London, Paris, or New York. It's not only in Barcelona these things happen. They happen all around, but I have awareness. I had awareness of how the world is going on in those cities about immigration and all these illegal factories that are treating people like modern slaves, but that's intellectual.
Somehow you heart it. You see it from a distance. You read about it. In this case you are obliged to live with it and so I spent, like, a good month in those places with those people, talking to them and what's more important listening to them.
The experience becomes personal, an emotional rather than an intellectual experience. That's the difference between having comprehension about an issue and really being affected by it. So of course after the movie my awareness of the whole ambiance of those worlds was much more powerful. I wasn't surprised because there's a lot of things going on in the backyard of any big town and Barcelona is no different from that.
Q: Did you want to get more involved with these people and help them in their fight afterwards?
JB: It's not that easy. How do you help people that are really in the middle of...no, in the bottom of their existence because we don't allow them to have sometimes even the rights to express. So it's not something... You can do things, but it's about putting, for example, this movie out there and making people realize that there is something that we have to pay attention to which is the world that we create.
I think our very comfortable way of life has constructed or is based in the misery of a lot of people. Just the awareness of it means a lot to them and this movie is important for that among many other things, but for me, for everybody. For me it's important to put this out there. For example, people in Barcelona or in Spain, in the world will see that behind those numbers that show up in the paper are people.
There are people with needs and it's important for them to see that Uxbal, a Spanish person, goes through the same problem of necessity as a person from Senegal. So in the end they are both the same. So it's not about color or race or origin. It's about people.
Q: Did you sleep for a year after making this film...
JB: Yeah, I did.
For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: http://filmfestivaltraveler.com/.