Four years ago, after Javier Bardem walked off with a host of best actor awards and became the first Spaniard to be nominated for an Oscar in that category, Hollywood came calling. His unforgettable turn as a gay Cuban writer coping with political suppression and AIDS in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" propelled the sleepy-eyed sex symbol from "zero to 100 miles per hour," as he puts it -- virtually overnight.
While many of his countrymen had gone the Latin lover route or played ethnic sidekicks in cop movies, Bardem sidestepped the celebrity trap. Tempting as it was to work with director Steven Spielberg, he turned down the role eventually played by Colin Farrell in "Minority Report" for fear that his English would slow the banter.
Instead, he put on 30 pounds in 2002 to portray a struggling dockworker in the acclaimed "Mondays in the Sun," Spain's foreign-language Oscar entry. The same year, he played a detective trying to keep his soul clean in John Malkovich's directorial debut, "The Dancer Upstairs."
Born in the Canary Islands and a resident of Madrid, the actor is a superstar in his homeland, signing on to projects roughly every two years. Most recently, he accepted a cameo as a drug dealer in "Collateral" so he could work with director Michael Mann for a day. While he doesn't mind traveling to Los Angeles to shoot, he says, he's not "brave" enough to move here. Not just because of the movie-centric culture and requisite game-playing but because he has no driver's license. ("I am frightened of cars more than planes," he says.)
Bardem's heroes are not the outsized characters endemic to celluloid but everyday folk trying to stay afloat in the face of trying circumstances. In Fine Line Features' "The Sea Inside," due for release Dec. 17, the impediments were so severe that the protagonist is fighting to die. With $25 million in ticket sales, the movie is the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year and the country's entry in the best foreign-language film race. Four million people have seen "Sea Inside" in Spain alone, reviving the nation's euthanasia debate. On the Hollywood front, there's Oscar buzz surrounding the picture and Bardem's performance.
Based on the true story of poet Ramon Sampedro, the $13-million film deals with a quadriplegic who spent 30 years in bed after a diving accident. He's drawn to an attractive attorney (Belen Rueda) who supports his cause as well as to a divorced neighbor (Lola Duenas) who's trying to convince him that life is worth living. Despite the infusion of love, however, the charismatic Sampedro stands firm. In a case that captured the imagination of the public, he failed to get legal approval for assisted suicide. In 1998, a friend reported finding him dead in bed and an autopsy revealed traces of cyanide.
Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival in September, the film took the jury grand prize and Bardem was voted best actor. In his mind, it's a movie about a man's determination to regain the freedom denied him by institutions.
"The movie is about medicine, religion and government -- who owns your life?" says the 35-year-old actor, digging into a Cobb salad at a Beverly Hills hotel at the start of a promotional tour. "The three of them want to serve the cake of your destiny. I support Sampedro's desire to pass away -- and I admire those who want to keep living. Life doesn't have the same meaning for everybody -- it's not either/or, good/evil as our leaders want us to believe.
"Is it 'mercy' to make someone suffer because I decide he should live?" the actor continues, running his fingers through floppy brown hair. Alluding to Sampedro's book, "Letters From Hell," he adds: "The man philosophized about life and death, sex, family, law, church on the level of Dostoevsky. We're not talking about a teenager who feels misunderstood."
The youngest member of a Spanish acting dynasty, Bardem was his only choice to play the 55-year-old invalid, director Alejandro Amenabar ("The Others") recalls. No matter that he wasn't age appropriate or that he made his name in a spate of sexy, brawny roles in the early 1990s. "When he delivers, Javier has amazing magnetism," says the 32-year-old director, who also co-wrote, co-produced, scored and edited the film. "Like Sampedro, he manages to be seductive, using only his eyes and his voice. He's both instinctive and prepared, mad and disciplined, which was needed for the role. Every day for three months, Javier had five hours of makeup before lying motionless in bed for 10 more hours. Even between takes, he couldn't move much because it would disrupt continuity.
The actor used a machine that simulated the expulsion of gas to add a touch of levity, Amenabar recalls. "He has a great sense of humor and kept us all laughing."