Pretty fly for a Spanish guy

By Helen Barlow

Oscar winner Javier Bardem has morphed from bob-wearing bad boy to romantic lover for his latest film Love In The Time Of Cholera. The Spanish star talks to Helen Barlow about his on and off-screen love lives and his new role

When Javier Bardem accepted his best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh (pronounced Sugar) in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, the 38-year-old Spanish star thanked his mum.

Pilar Bardem is not just any mum, she is a hugely famous Spanish actress _ and part of a Spanish acting dynasty _ who instilled in her son the ethos of never getting too carried away with himself. Thankfully he never has.

"She knows everything about all this, the ups, the down, the dark, the light," he said, clutching his golden statuette. "She's a great companion through all this and she knows that the real success is to get a job."

While Bardem was also seen mugging it up for the cameras with Julian Schnabel, the director of his earlier movie, Before Night Falls (where he was nominated as Best Actor for his role as the persecuted gay Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas) he was conspicuously absent on the red carpet alongside his girlfriend, Penelope Cruz, who posed all by herself. Still you can't keep a trio of red-blooded Spaniards down and after the event they hit the post-Oscar parties together. It wasn't as if Cruz needed any introduction to her beau's mum, as they had co-starred in two movies, 1997's Live Flesh and 1995's Among Red.

Cruz had risen to fame at the age of 16 with her breakthrough film, Bigas Luna's Jamon, Jamon, where she was the object of desire for Bardem's burly golden-clad bullfighter.

Never one for subtlety, Bigas Luna had aimed the camera squarely at Bardem's crotch and there's no doubting where he got the title for their follow-up film, Golden Balls.

Let's face it, I tell the ever-jovial Bardem, "It's pretty outrageous that the first thing I saw of you was your crotch!"

"Ah, that was a long time ago! Penelope was 16 and I was 22. That was her first movie and now we've just worked together for the fifth time, in our first film with Woody Allen."

Last year during an interview to promote No Country for Old Men, Bardem told me he was single, which came as a surprise as the Madrid-based actor had been in a relationship with Christina Pales for more than a decade. Since Pales was a translator and not a movie star they had been of no interest to the gossip rags, which suited him fine.

"I'm single, I'm so single that it hurts," he said in his husky cigarette smoker's voice. "But I'm fine. I mean, this is a shit job for having a relationship. You're apart for such long periods."

Of course it's no wonder that actors end up together. It was perhaps a natural progression for Bardem to fall into the arms of his next co-star, particularly a woman with whom he has so much in common. His pining for love may have also come from his having completed a very romantic film, Love In The Time of Cholera, which also resulted in Bardem's long absence from Spain.

"After the Coens' film I had two weeks' holiday and then I went straight to Colombia to do Love in the Time of Cholera. It was the first time I've ever done that."

He simply couldn't resist, as he is a huge fan of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel on which the film is based. "It was the opposite to what I'd just done. Anton Chigurh's about anger whereas this character, Florentino Ariza, is about love. It's an amazing novel and everybody who's been in love, which is all of us, can totally relate to this story of this man and this woman. It's a beautiful masterpiece.

"I thought the adaptation by Ronald Harwood [his fellow Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly] was a good one. It got the essence of the novel and I very much trusted the director, Mike Newell [Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire]. It was quite a risky film to take on, as it's a long, complex story. But because it was the opposite it was also a way for me to cleanse. As much as Anton was to the inside and to the dark side, Florentino is to the outside and to the light side. So it was like taking a bath."

To watch Bardem's finely tuned performance as a tender, methodical oddball who waits half a century for the woman he loves _ she stupidly marries Benjamin Bratt rather than him _ is worth the price of a ticket alone. And yes, he gets to be very romantic and sexy. "There's a lot of things in there. It's one of the most erotic novels written in Latin America, but it's also smart, funny, political and sad. It's a lot of things."

While Bardem is masterly at aging 50 years, he generously commends his Italian co-star, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, for her even greater transformation. "Besides being a beautiful woman, she has a hard job, because she has to go from 14-years-old to 72, and I think she did that very well."

Still, he's not bad in the erotic department, I suggest, getting back to our earlier theme. "There had to be erotic scenes in the film, because the guy has over 500 lovers while he waits for the woman who owns his heart. In the end there are six, which is good."

While 500 indeed might have been a bit of a stretch, Bardem as an actor probably has more sex here than in any other film _ though his reported threesome with Cruz and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona has yet to be seen. He has in fact avoided it.

"Jamon, Jamon was the most and then I stopped. I always feel a little uncomfortable because it's not natural. `My name's Javier, let's go do the sex scene.' It's f****** weird. It's when you really need more confidence with the actress or actor _ I've also done scenes with men in other movies _ otherwise it's impossible, it's impossible! You fake the scene and you can see it. It's two people who are uncomfortable doing that sex scene and it's impossible to watch."

There will be no big action films for this intensely dramatic actor. At the Oscars he not only dedicated his win to his mother but thanked his late actor grandparents Rafael Bardem and Matilde Munz Sampedro for "bringing dignity and pride" to the family.

There is a tradition to uphold and Bardem is giving it his all.

LOWDOWN

Who: Javier Bardem as the lover, poet, and romantic Florentino Ariza
What: Love In The Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Where & when: Opens at cinemas on March 20

MANY FACES: Clockwise from top left, Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera, and his Oscar-winning self.

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