Javier Bardem is on his knees. “Look at my face,” he explains delightedly, pointing to his iPhone, which displays a photo of him backstage at an AC/DC show. In it, he is genuflecting at the feet of the band’s lead guitarist, Angus Young, his muscular arms wrapped tightly around the diminutive rocker in a way that recalls Koko and her kitten. “Look at how little is Angus,” coos Bardem, who is six feet tall with the Incredible Hulk’s hairdo, an Easter Island statue’s head, and an enormous grin on his face. “He came into the room, and I fell to my knees,” he says, getting a bit misty at the recollection. “I almost cried.” He laughs. “He was probably like, ‘Who the fuck isthis guy?’ ”
The point is, Javier Bardem loves AC/DC. He likes to say he learned English by listening to Back in Black, which may account for the lyrical, occasionally Yoda-like quality of his speech. “I love hard rock, and I love heavy metal,” he tells me. “It’s always been something I’ve been drinking from, the energy of metal.”
We were supposed to go see a metal band tonight, a deathcore outfit called Born of Osiris playing at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. But the timing didn’t work out, which is why Bardem is proving his metal cred while sipping a Coke Zero in the chintz-covered, decidedly un-rocking Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, full of tanned industry types murmuring about the recent Best Picture fiasco at the Academy Awards. Bardem doesn’t quite fit in here, literally—I had to pull out our table a foot so that he could wedge himself into the small tufted booth. Despite the fact that he is a big-time movie star married to another movie star (Penélope Cruz), counts Eddie Vedder and Bono among his closest friends, and happens to be in Los Angeles, on the eve of his forty-eighth birthday, because he presented an award with Meryl Freaking Streep at said Oscars, Bardem still has an outsider quality.
Maybe it’s because he has always lived in Spain and shows a general disregard for Hollywood convention. “Do you mind if we do not go?” he asks, declining a call from his publicist, who wants to remind him of our secondary plan, to go to a comedy show later in the evening. He gives me a searching look, his eyes heavy-lidded and long-lashed like a camel’s. “Because we’re not going to be able to talk.” And as he points out, signaling the waiter for another drink, “we are getting very deep here.”
To be honest, I’d been nervous about meeting Javier Bardem. Not just because he loves a band that’s been compared to Cannibal Corpse and has a song called “Open Arms to Damnation” but also because “very deep” appears to be his default setting. Just look at his résumé: You never see him getting his butt waxed in gross-out comedies or hear him as the voice of an animated hedgehog. He prefers characters who are dying, or tormented, or simply scary as shit, and whom he fully inhabits. Remember Skyfall? As written, his character could have been any old Bond villain. In Bardem’s hands, he became a flaxen-haired sexual deviant so compelling, poor Daniel Craig looked like a walking bag of marbles by comparison. And it’s impossible to forget No Country for Old Men‘sAnton Chigurh, the bowl-cut-wearing, cattle-gun-toting, empty-eyed assassin, a role that landed him an Oscar. His latest baddie, the undead Captain Salazar in Pirates of the Caribbean, has yet to hit screens, but the Internet has already decided he’s “completely terrifying,” based on the trailer alone. It’s no wonder that the awards section of his IMDb profile is, like, twelve pages long, or that top directors fall all over themselves to pronounce him his generation’s De Niro or Pacino: “He’s one of the greatest of our time,” quoth Julian Schnabel. “A powerhouse,” per Darren Aronofsky. “The best in the world,” sayeth Jerry Bruckheimer. The man has gravitas. He’s cool. And I imagine he could send me screaming from the restaurant with a single “What business is it of yours, friendo?“
So it’s a relief when Bardem, with shaggy hair, a slight dad bod, and a borderline goofy personality, turns out to be a much less intimidating presence than I expected. Within minutes he’s talking about how awkward he felt onstage with Streep, “tripping on words, not knowing where to look, not seeing the teleprompter,” and confessing his many man crushes, who, in addition to Angus Young, include Al Pacino (“I find him so physically attractive. Oh, my God, yes“), Brad Pitt (“I saw him once on the red carpet and I was like, wow“), and Johnny Depp (“What face!”).
It’s hard to reconcile this bubbly personality with his own face, which is face associated with some of the most iconic villains of our time. Bardem’s friends often say he is typecast because of his giant head, and he seems to agree. “Sometimes, when a role has some success, they want you to do it over and over,” he says. But it’s also clear he’s drawn to sussing out what he calls the “human-evil angle” of these darker characters, the idea that “behind every monster, there’s a person, and we have to look at what makes that person become a monster, so that we can see ourselves being vulnerable to becoming a monster.”
Take Salazar. For his Pirates character, Bardem created a whole backstory based on the real accounts of medieval Spanish naval officers who stalked the seas. “Back in the time, the pride of these people was very strong,” he explains, “and if that pride was wounded, they would kill for it.” As a result of being so injured, Salazar literally seeps with rage, in the form of a dark liquid that drips from his incisors every time he speaks, the chocolate-flavored innards of a capsule Bardem calls “monkey poop.” To come up with his body language, he says he imagined a bull.
“Yes, this wounded bull,” he says. “I was attracted to the idea of how physically painful rage is. That’s something that was beautifully done in Shakespeare’s Richard III.”
There in the booth, Bardem shows me what he means, curving his back into a sclerotic angle, raising a gnarled fist, and jutting out his chin in a way that would give an orthodontist a pang. Suddenly, he’s completely transformed himself. It’s kind of amazing, like seeing a peacock bust out his fan. “His rage and his envy are in the body,” Bardem says, holding the posture and dropping his voice to a shiver-me-timbers growl. “That’s why he’s deformed. Because he’s not enough. Because he wants everything. Because the person that he hates the most is himself.” Bardem straightens up and resumes his normal voice. “You know?”
When I suggest it might be an uncommon level of preparation to bring thirteenth-century nautical history and Shakespeare to a Disney production so laden with effects you’d think they’d CGI the acting in later, Bardem just smiles. “But I don’t know it any other way,” he says.
The hills of Los Angeles are lousy with people claiming to be born performers; for Bardem, it’s actually true. He comes from a long line of them: His grandparents were actors, his uncle was a filmmaker, and his mother, Pilar Bardem, is an actress who raised Bardem and his two siblings in a household where “performance was the religion,” he says, a way “to understand the spirit, and teach you what a human soul is.”
He landed his first role in 1974, at age five, after his mother took him along to an audition for a telenovela called El Pícaro. The director asked him to giggle as he was being menaced by bullfighters. Bardem, sporting a bowl cut that uncannily foreshadowed his No Country for Old Men look, screamed. He made the cut, and was hooked. “After that, the phone didn’t ring for a long time, but I was an actor,” he says. “And once you are an actor, you’re fucked. You can’t escape, you cannot make your way out of it, unless you have to feed your family,” he laughs. “Even then, you are an actor.”
He would know. Although his mother was respected in her industry, she struggled to support her children. “My father was not present, and my mother was working her ass off all around Spain, doing theater and TV,” says Bardem, who often was left at home for long periods of time with his brother and sister, who are six and five years older. “We sometimes didn’t have anything to eat. We didn’t have hot water. We didn’t have light many times.”
Still, none of them were able to resist the family business. Bardem’s sister eventually bowed out and his brother lands small roles, but the big success that eluded them slowly came his way. Through playing rugby (which helped calm his own wounded- bull feelings, what he calls his teenage “outrage”), he developed a physique that made him a popular choice for beefcake roles on telenovelas. “You know, the Latin macho thing,” he says. By the late eighties, his profile had risen enough that it may have induced some jealousy. One night in 1989, Bardem was jumped by a group of strangers at a bar who “decided to have fun with my face,” he says. If the intent was to put him out of work, it didn’t. The broken nose he sustained as a result merely left him looking artfully rearranged, and Bardem started racking up bigger credits: as a pimp in Bigas Luna’s Ages of Lulu (1990) and, in what would turn out to be his breakout role, a pork-shilling playboy who romances an eighteen-year-old Penélope Cruz in Jamón Jamón (1992).
“He was everywhere in Spain,” says Julian Schnabel, who was living there at the time and arranged a meeting with the actor. “I thought, Either this guy is exactly who he is in the movie— the underwear model selling ham—or he’s a great actor. It turned out he was a great actor.” At the time, Bardem’s grasp of English didn’t extend far beyond the lyrics to “Highway to Hell,” but Schnabel saw enough potential that he offered him a part in Before Night Falls, based on the memoirs of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. When the lead, Benicio Del Toro, dropped out, Schnabel asked Bardem to take over.
For his first major role outside Spain, Bardem prepared obsessively. He transformed physically, dyeing his hair and losing twenty-four pounds to better resemble the poet, who committed suicide while dying of AIDS in 1990. He read all of Arenas’s work; traveled to Cuba so that he could meet his friends and master his accent; and then moved into New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where he spent three months learning English and writing Arenas a series of letters, each of which began, “Help me.”
The process was “excruciating,” according to Schnabel, who says he worried that Bardem was endangering himself psychologically. “I mean, he becomes these people.”
Bardem’s performance, nominated for an Oscar, was hailed by everyone from critics to the departed poet’s friends, one of whom went so far as to say he felt betrayed when the actor turned back into himself after the shoot ended.
The only one who wasn’t impressed was Bardem. “When I first saw the movie, I almost killed myself,” he told The Guardian in 2001. “Sometimes I say to myself, ‘What are you doing in this absurd job? Why don’t you go to Africa and help people?’ But the only thing I can do is act.”
One thing was certain: If he was going to keep acting, Bardem was done with the Latin macho thing. He’d developed a taste for something more—”he delves into characters very deeply,” as the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar put it at the time, and seeks the kinds of parts “where the preparation takes almost as long as the shooting.”
Bardem describes his choice of roles as such: “Meryl Streep once said—and if she didn’t say it, I read that she said it and I loved it, so I feel she said it—’A career is based on the times you say no rather than the times you say yes.‘ ”
Things Bardem said no to included Minority Report, The World Is Not Enough, and Blow, which starred his future wife, as well as a slew of parts other actors would have gladly had their noses broken to play. Things he said yes to were smaller movies with complicated characters: an obsessive detective in The Dancer Upstairs, a quadriplegic fighting to end his life in The Sea Inside, and, of course, No Country for Old Men.
When Bardem landed the role of Chigurh, who tracks his prey across the desert from behind the wheel of an old Ramcharger, he didn’t know how to drive and had never held a gun. “They called me ‘the Spanish Ballerina’ on set because they would be like, ‘Cut!’ and I’d be like, ‘Eek!’ ” he shrieks. “ ’Get that thing away from me!’ ”
He jokes about it now, but playing “a machine totally numb to other people’s feelings and even his own” was rough on Bardem, who prides himself on being “emotionally driven.”
“He got really depressed during that movie,” says his costar and friend Josh Brolin. “He was, like, battling himself.” Bardem had to suppress his accent. As a foreigner marooned in New Mexico and southwest Texas during the three-month shoot, he was lonely. “He was a miserable single guy,” says Brolin. “And he had a bad haircut on top of it. So things really weren’t looking up for him.”
Brolin is kidding—obviously things worked out just fine. After winning the Academy Award, becoming the first Spanish actor to do so, Bardem celebrated by performing rock anthems at an after-party. “He was holding up a bottle into which he was singing along with every song,” recalls Brolin. “It was better than watching him win the Oscar, watching him let loose and have a good time.”
After that, Bardem got in the habit of alternating dark roles with lighter ones. Which is how he reconnected with Cruz in 2008, on the set of the Woody Allen rom-com Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It had been ten years since they’d worked together, in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (which also memorably featured Bardem’s mother, Pilar, biting off Cruz’s umbilical cord after she gives birth on a bus). Cruz had since moved to Los Angeles and become a star in the U. S., working alongside global brands such as Tom Cruise and Will Smith. “She had a life here, which I always found very courageous,” Bardem says. “She left her kingdom and took the hard way.” In Allen’s film, they played a complex couple madly in love with each other (and Scarlett Johansson). “And then,” he says with a mischievous smile, “it happened.”
Javelope—I just made that up; no one calls them that—didn’t admit they were together until two years later, in 2010, when they got married during a break in Cruz’s installment of Pirates of the Caribbean (the fourth, On Stranger Tides). But ten years and two kids later, the cat is kinda out of the bag. “What we have is the most important thing: a past,” he says. “We knew each other back at the very beginning of it all, and that is important because when we saw each other again, I saw her and she saw me.”
First, he had to pass muster with her social circle. “Penélope is a friend—of course I had to make sure this man I so admired onscreen was up to scratch,” says U2’s Bono, who Cruz introduced him to. “He came through that drink-off with flying colors and at the end of the night I asked him to marry me.”
Cruz won the Oscar next, for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Bardem was nominated again two years later for Biutiful, after which he did Eat Pray Love,followed by Terrence Malick’s bleak To the Wonder, one of his most intense acting experiences yet. Malick movies are notoriously destabilizing for actors; as Bardem puts it, “you don’t know shit” about what the elusive director is planning. This one got especially weird: Bardem, playing a priest of slowly eroding faith, was dispatched along with photographer Eugene Richards to a meth-scarred town near where they were filming in rural Oklahoma and told to interact, in character, with the locals.
It’s indicative of the power of celebrity that despite being aware that Bardem wasn’t an actual priest—several ID’d him as “Penélope Cruz’s husband”—people confessed to him anyway. “We heard about horrible drug problems, medical problems, sexual abuse,” Richards tells me. “We met a Klansman who told us about his life of terrible crimes he’d done to black people.” Bardem would sit there and listen, trying, and often failing, to maintain a priestlike calm. “His knee would be going crazy,” Richards says. Eventually, he got so overwhelmed that he needed to take time off from the production. “We gave you the world’s greatest actor,” Richards recalls an assistant director scolding him, “and you gave us back a destroyed man.”
Destroyed is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. “That was an experience,” Bardem tells me with relish back in the Polo Lounge. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m an actor,” he goes on. “Because it takes me out of what you call ‘the comfort place.’ ” He and Richards accomplished the extraordinary feat of persuading Malick to give them the rights to the footage, which they plan to release this year as a documentary. According to the photographer, Bardem also donated a substantial amount of money to the people who appeared in the film, including setting up a trust for a child whose mother was suffering from cancer. Richards says that Bardem asked him to travel to Oklahoma to hand out the checks to their “new friends” in person. “Which was awkward,” Richards admits. “But it was kind of endearing.”
These days, Bardem isn’t affected quite so deeply by his acting “experiences,” and is unlikely to talk about killing himself over a performance. “I don’t hurt myself anymore,” he says. Now he works with an acting coach during the preparation phase—”Which I love,” he says, “because it’s such a lonely process”—and has two therapists, one he speaks to in English and one he speaks to in Spanish. “Everybody should do therapy,” he says. “We are full of things we cannot answer for ourselves. Some of them will be answered, some not. But the health is in asking questions.”
This is especially handy now that he is the father of two children, ages six and three. “Do you have kids?” Bardem asks me, looking thrilled when I say I do. “Before becoming a parent, you never experience that kind of love, which is called ‘unconditional love.’ It’s terrifying!” he says. “I mean, they have our balls grabbed.”
Growing up, Bardem says, he held on to a lot of anger about his own father. “But now at forty-eight, being a man, I understand one does what he can,” he says. For his part, Bardem is extremely involved, telling me that he and Cruz love nothing more than spending hours pretending to be princesses and dragons. “Being away more than two weeks almost breaks my heart,” he says. “My body starts to feel physical symptoms.”
This makes it more difficult to do things like spend two months in a Brooklyn warehouse rehearsing for Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which is what Bardem did this past winter. Like all of Aronofsky’s films, this one is shrouded in secrecy. The only information that’s been released is that it’s about a couple “whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests descend on their home,” although Bardem lets slip that he and Jennifer Lawrence play the couple. “But it’s more complicated than that!” he protests. “Shit, I’m busted.”
He is pairing up with a longtime collaborator in two other upcoming projects: his wife. The first is Escobar, which finished filming in December. It’s a project he’s been plotting since the early 2000s. Given Hollywood’s love affair with drug cartels, one could be forgiven for thinking Bardem had already played Pablo Escobar; in fact, he’d been offered the part numerous times, but he always said no, feeling the scripts didn’t measure up to the complexity of the character he envisioned. “I said if I do Escobar, I will do the Escobar that I have in mind: the one from the human-evil angle, the one that conveys the man that didn’t have anything, the ambition, the Machiavellian mind,” he says. Finally, he decided to produce it himself.
He modeled his performance, naturally, on the hippopotamus. Apparently Escobar kept them as pets. “As you know, the hippopotamus is a very emotionally detached animal,” Bardem says. “He is the most wild and criminal of all the animals. More than lions, more than tigers.” He draws his eyebrows together and flares his nostrils in a hippopotamian way, which—holy moly, he’s right—looks remarkably like every picture I’ve seen of Escobar. “You know, in the pond,” he says, shifting his eyes from side to side. “Moving the shit with his tail. Looking at you with those little legs and that big, big belly. And then! When they feel threatened, they move fucking fast. They will run over you in seconds, and they will tear you apart. That’s Escobar. He never, ever gave up, ever. You can’t stop a hippopotamus.”
(Disclaimer: I have no idea if these hippopotamus facts are true, but to paraphrase Javier Bardem, He said them and I love them, so I feel them to be true.)
In the film, Cruz plays Escobar’s longtime mistress, journalist Virginia Vallejo. “I knew since the beginning, since I dreamed it, that Penélope was going to be perfect for the lover, and we were not even together!” he beams. “And of course she could not refuse.”
This summer, he and Cruz will film an as-yet-untitled project in Spain with Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director whose film The Salesman won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but who opted to boycott the awards, instead sending an Iranian-American astronaut to read a letter in protest of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. For Bardem, who actually did end up going to Africa and made a documentary in 2012 about Western Saharan refugees, Sons of the Clouds, Farhadi’s speech was a highlight. Particularly the line about the power movies have to create empathy.
“People say, ‘Stick to your business. You’re an actor,‘ ” Bardem says. “Excuse me! One part of what we do is bring light to darkness. And let me tell you, it’s not nice. Sometimes you’re saying and doing things that you regret, that you feel disgusted by. But you are doing it because you want to put focus on what happened that made him become who he became, how it’s possible that somebody feels so much less empathy for others. And when a performance really hits its goal, it can touch us deeply, to a place where we have to confront ourselves. Could I be like that person? Why do I feel so sorrow for that person?That’s art. That’s what art is supposed to do.”
There’s a pause as we both remember that we are here, in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, to talk about a Disney movie about undead pirates. But Bardem goes on, because, after all, he doesn’t know any other way. “Of course, not every performance is artistic,” he says. “But that’s what we strive for. You find a way to better understand how, why that person became that thing. It’s about how to be sensitive to the misery that we have around. We cannot be blind to that. No matter how high the walls are.”
This article appears in the May ’17 issue of Esquire.