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“Before Night Falls”: Javier Bardem Interview

HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 7, 2000 — Disorientation, yes. Culture shock, maybe. Either way, Spanish actor Javier Bardem never expected what he got when he set foot in Los Angeles to promote his new film “Before Night Falls.”

“Well, I came [in] yesterday night, and the first thing they told me was, ‘Here’s your per diem and your award. And it [was] like, ‘What? What award is this?'” Bardem recounted. “I am in shock. I am shocked because this is my very first American movie and to receive an important award like that is, like, I was not really hoping to get it.”

The award in discussion is the National Board of Review’s, which has just named the 31-year-old Bardem best actor and “Before Night Falls” one of the Top 10 films of 2000.

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“Night” chronicles the life and times of the late Cuban writer-poet Reinaldo Arenas. Bardem’s versatile portrayal — beginning from the writer’s teens to his persecution by the Castro regime (as much for his defiance in writing as for his homosexuality) and finally to his eventual exile and death in New York — has been rolling over critics and audiences alike.

Bardem’s name and rugged mug should be familiar to anyone who’s a fan of the works of Spanish auteurs Pedro Almodovar — whose “High Heels” marked the actor’s debut in 1991 — and J.J. Bigas Luna, who had directed him in the acclaimed imports “Jamon, jamon” (1992) and “Huevos de oro” (1993).

With “Night,” an English-language film, Bardem has the opportunity to strut his stuff to (hopefully) a bigger audience (i.e. the no-subtitles crowd). Ironically though, it is the film’s calling card to a wider appeal that had posed the biggest challenge for the seasoned actor: how to conquer the English language.

As it happened, Bardem originally set out to do the role of Lazaro Gomez Carriles, the young man who was by Arenas’ side up to his death in 1990 (the part eventually went to French actor Olivier Martinez). But when the film’s director, Julian Schnabel — who has assembled an ensemble crew in front and behind the camera (from cameos by Johnny Depp and Sean Penn to music from Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed) for his second directorial outing since 1996’s “Basquiat” — asked Bardem to tackle the main role of Arenas, the proposition was initially met with knee-jerk refusal, mainly because of the English barrier.

And indeed, there were also other factors, but just not the gay element, as some might think.

“The problem [with doing Arenas] was everything but the sex. The age, the looking Cuban, the going from [ages] 17 to 45, the AIDS,” Bardem recalled. “[At] the end of the movie, the character is really sick. When you play a character that’s really sick, you’re concerned about being respectful to all the people that are still alive and love him. That wasn’t my principle concern.”

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But it looks as if Bardem needn’t worry. Bardem received another best actor prize, this time by the Venice Film Festival grand jury, when the film had its world premiere there in early September. It’s just a matter of time before the word “Oscar” is being thrown around.

But the actor isn’t thinking that far ahead, simply because concentrating on being good at his art is tough enough.

“I don’t think about it because if I think about it, I’ll be really scared. I come from another planet — from Spain — where the word ‘Oscar’ is a TV show.

“In a way, an award is great for your ego and your vanity, but it’s bad for your career,” Bardem continued. “I have done [many] movies in Spain, and I gained a really big bunch of awards. And I think an award can pull you apart from your goal. As an actor, it’s to be as humble as you can in order to be another person. [But] awards remind you always that you are great. And if you belief that, you are dead as an actor.”

Nevertheless, to some, the actor has already achieved greatness with the film.

“I think Javier did a great job. I don’t think any actor that’s acting in any of these movies that are going to be nominated can hold a candle to him in this role,” said director Schnabel.

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But Oscar or no, the actor’s attitude toward Hollywood and beyond remains what it is: unapologetic.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next and I don’t want to worry because, if they offer me — not only in this country but in whatever country — the typical Latino guy who’s driving crazy all the lonely girls, I would say ‘no,'” said Bardem. “After playing Reinaldo, I don’t need that.”

“Before Night Falls” opens in selected cities on Dec. 22.

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