‘Charisma’ is an oft-used word when it comes to describing celebrities, but it seems entirely appropriate to Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem’s simmering presence. When he sweeps into a roomful of writers, crowded round a large table to ask him questions about Skyfall, he brings with him a faintly ominous sense of occasion.
Smartly dressed in a suit, his hair now its natural colour instead of the blonde rinse he showed off in the latest 007 movie, Bardem nevertheless carried with him the residue of a Bond villain’s stillness, and there was even a bit of a nervous pause before the first question was asked. But when Bardem began to speak, it was in a gentle tone, and his opening revelation about Scotland and puffins immediately put everyone at ease.
In a lively interview, Bardem provided some thoughtful responses to questions ranging from his role as the maniacal Raoul Silva, working with director Sam Mendes, and Academy awards.
How did you find filming in Scotland?
Uhhh… how was it… Cold. But beautiful. I’ve been to Scotland many times. I’m a huge rugby fan, so I’ve been watching a lot of Six Nations in Scotland. I’ve been to Skype island.
You mean Skye?
Yes. Watching the puffins.
[Pause] What the hell am I talking about? [Laughs] I’m talking about puffins… [more laughter]
Was your character inspired by anyone in particular?
No, no. We Sam [Mendes] and I brought up ideas, and pictures of people that we know, that are publicly known – I prefer not to give any names – in order to find the physicality of him. But in the end, he was a little bit of here, there, that – it was Sam and I working together saying “Okay, what makes sense for him to look like?”
Everything was based on what he said, which was this idea of uncomfortableness. Like, he wants to create this uncomfortable situation constantly to the opponent. That has to do with his physicality. And also, it had to make dramatic sense, so when you watch the movie, you understand why this guy looks like that. I don’t want to give anything away, for those who haven’t seen it, but he’s been through something and wants to be the opposite of that.
He’s quite a sensual character, too, particularly in the way he interacts with Bond.
Again, that comes from the idea of creating an uncomfortable situation for people – in this case, Bond. I would say it’s one colour in the painting, or one note in the melody, but it’s not the whole song, or the whole painting. There’s something there.
I mean, I think Silva’s not attached to anything or anybody, only to his own pain. He’s not attached to any label. And he lives on an abandoned island, of course.
I read that Daniel Craig approached you for the role. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It was years ago, we were at a private event, and he came to me, we were introduced to me, and he asked if I’d ever be interested in doing a James Bond movie with him and Sam. I said, well that sounds very cool, yeah. And it’s funny, because I didn’t know him. But the moment I shook his hand, I said, this guy’s awesome. You have that feeling of people, you know?
Later on, came the script, and I tried to avoid to read it, having in mind anything but the script itself. Because you can imagine, the movie, 50 years of Bond, blah, blah, blah – so many things in your head. You have the job of throwing all of this out of the window and read it for what it is.
And what I read was a great story, with a great character. So I contacted Sam and said it was a great idea, and this uncomfortableness thing really triggered my imagination. From there, the rest is all the movie.
Were you previously a Bond fan?
Yeah, I’m 43, so since I was 11 or 12, I think, I’ve seen them all. Yeah, in Spain it’s big. But again, whether you’re a fan or not isn’t the right reason to do something, I guess. It’s about having the material to bring something to it. Otherwise you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, in my opinion.
Even Marlon Brando, who was a genius, like he came from another planet, he couldn’t make it without a good role, a good character. And if Marlon Brando can’t do it, then the rest of us don’t have a hope. So you need a good role, to at least have 50 per cent of the performance done.
So had the script not been so good, you wouldn’t have been tempted just to do it because it was a Bond film?
How does Sam Mendes differ from, say, Woody Allen?
Uhh, he’s very architectural. You can tell that when you walk onto a set. What amazes me is that, on such a big production – my first and only big movie that I’ve done so far, apart from Eat Pray Love, but this is a different game – I was amazed by how creative the process was. Maybe I was expecting it to be more precise, and everything has to be done perfectly in the right way.
This was the opposite. Sometimes, it felt like we were doing a low budget, independent movie. We were messing with the scenes, we were playing around, getting it wrong, getting it right – it was a delight. That’s all Sam. He brought that to the movie, and you can tell, because the characters breathe. They have the time to create relationships. I think what he did was extraordinary, because what he did was bring the essence of a James Bond movie, and the classic aspects of it, and combine it with something grounded. It works on those two different levels
How does the scale of this movie compare with The Counselor, which is surely a huge production with Ridley Scott and that cast?
Umm. This [Skyfall] is way, way bigger. I can’t even imagine something bigger than this. When you’re reading the material, you don’t want to work under the pressure that you’re doing something iconic or part of a beloved franchise. But when you go to these amazing sets, you’re just [gasps] my God. It’s impossible to forget.
Do you moderate your performance because you’re operating in a clearly defined, stylised genre?
Uhh, no. I think it’s the director’s fight always to put things together. But when you do your thing, you just do your thing. And when he asks you to do something the way he wants you to do it, it’s because he has the whole picture in his head. He has the tone of the picture. Especially when you’re doing a supporting role like this, you’re more in the director’s mind.
When you’re the protagonist, say in Biutiful, you’re in every frame of the movie, you know the essence of the movie – you are the essence of the movie. But when you just step in there, do your thing and go back, you really need to say, “What am I doing here? What is the tone of the movie? Tell me.”
The film stops twice, and both times it’s for you. The camera doesn’t cut, it lingers. How did you work on those scenes? Were there a lot of rehearsals, a lot of discussions?
We rehearsed in advance, but it was more about sitting down and talking through it from an intellectual point of view, in a sense of putting things together as ideas. But no actual rehearsing of standing up and doing it until the day of shooting the scene.
He [Sam Mendes] told me how he wanted to shoot it, and it was a very powerful and challenging option. For that, what I had to do is to memorise the fucking lines, man. [Laughs] Really learn the lines, man. Once I got there, it was funny, because on the camera, the sets don’t really look the way they really are. They either look bigger or they look smaller depending on the lens.
In this case, it looks smaller than it was. When I get there, I saw the camera, it was really, really over there. And I said, “What do you want me to do?” We tried different options, and everything was open for things to happen. That was the joy of it. It wasn’t “This is the way you have to do it, this is the way you have to say it, this is the way you have to talk.” It was the opposite. It was like, “Go. Let’s see what we can find together.”
The option that’s in the movie is the option that he chose to be the best. But there were others that also happened, and it was not easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. It’s my job!
Do you remember some of those intellectual discussions you had with Sam? The sort of things you were talking about?
One of the things we talked about was, when you have a long story to tell, you have to create images in the audience’s mind. You have to introduce images in their minds to get them into the story – it’s not about words, it’s about how you create those images. So it’s a long walk, and a long speech, with a lot of images inside. I have to put a lot of focus on trying to bring those images right here [indicates the foreground], so we can see those rats, feel those things. In doing that, we brought the sounds. We discussed that as an option. When we shot it, we just went with it. It was, again, one option. It’s very difficult to talk a lot, especially when it’s in English, to get specific images in people’s heads, so they can understand what you’re talking about. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.
Did you also enjoy the opportunity to get involved in the action and stunts?
I had a glimpse of it. I’m a great believer in stunt doubles. They do an amazing job. But I saw Daniel [Craig] do it, and I was scared. He’s crazy. He’s so committed to what he does. But yes, when you do a James Bond movie, you want to have a little taste of that, and it was fun. The underground thing was fun to do.
In your career, did the Oscar win change everything for you?
I don’t think it changed everything, no. I think it shakes a little bit – Brrrr! – it shakes reality for a second, before everything returns to normal. Whatever normal may mean. No, it was a great honour, and something I didn’t expect. You take it for what it is. It’s a lottery. It’s impossible to decide who does best. Impossible.
So you go over there, you’re lucky enough to make it, and then they decide to give it to you, for whatever reason, then thank you. But you can’t make a big thing out of it, and I don’t think it’s fair. So when you see it, you just think of it like that – “Wow. I’ve won the lottery! Great! Next.”
Javier Bardem, thank you very much.
Skyfall is out now. You can read our review here.
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