Spain’s sexy new import – actor Javier Bardem – Brief Article – Interview
B. Ruby Rich
Meet Javier Bardem, the hot new star of the controversial Before Night Falls
Javier Bardem is a hunk. You know that already, of course. He was David, the paraplegic basketball-playing stud in Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh, and Diego, the gay doctor in Second Skin. Up close and in person at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the Spanish actor proves his magnetism is no cinematic sleight of hand. Elegant, manly, outfitted in the requisite black, and chain-smoking cigarettes by an open window, Bardem is charmingly modest about his recent Best Actor award from the Venice Film Festival for his role as the scandalous Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. While it may not be Bardem’s first–or even second–gay character, it also probably won’t be his last.
Is he gay? Everyone’s asking, and Bardem is telling: “No, I’m not gay; I have a girlfriend. But if they ask that, it means I’ve done the role well. It’s a compliment.” He doesn’t understand why playing gay should hurt anyone’s career. “I’m a European,” he says. “I’d rather fuck in the movies than kill people.”
Arenas–whose books were banned and who was jailed for alleged pedophilia–was persecuted for most of his life and finally exiled. He made it to the United States in the Mariel boatlift only to die here broke and ravaged by AIDS.
How could Javier Bardem, a healthy 32-year-old Spanish heterosexual, so convincingly embody such a man? With a hell of a lot of hard work and research. “Before saying yes [to the role], I went to Cuba for two weeks” to find out firsthand what had happened, Bardem explains. “Cubans were very open with me and not afraid to talk. I met people who’d been transvestites at the Copacabana nightclub in the ’60s, people who were in El Morro [prison], people from the writers’ union. I was really shocked at what I learned. I came back and agreed to do the film.”
Back in New York City with Schnabel, Bardem immersed himself in the world of Arenas. He watched the film Improper Conduct, in which Arenas was interviewed, and spent time with Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Reinaldo’s closest friend, who was Schnabel’s studio assistant and co-screenwriter. “I was so nervous about the film, especially about my English,” admits Bardem. “Then I got a call from Lazaro saying, `Javier, you are Reinaldo!’ Now I can relax.”
Asked what he found most difficult, Bardem doesn’t hesitate (hint: not the sex scenes). “The end of the film, those final scenes in which I was so sick with AIDS, taking pill after pill, dying, were very depressing for me,” he says. In researching how his character would look and feel, Bardem says, “I didn’t want to ask anyone I knew who was ill. That would be disrespectful.” Instead, he checked out a video recommended by friends–the documentary Silverlake Life: The View From Here. Bardem falls silent, then groans: “Oh, my God, those images. I had nightmares.”
Bardem takes his work very seriously indeed, and he wants to make a point: “[Persecution] doesn’t just happen in Cuba! Look at the pope. Just this summer, at the Vatican, he made another proclamation against homosexuality. It’s the same story. Not being jailed, maybe, but still persecuted.”
Spain too has its share of homophobia. “Things have gotten better,” Bardem insists. Nevertheless, his experience with homophobia is personal. “My father, who died three years ago, felt that being an actor meant being a faggot and a whore. That’s the ancient idea,” he says. “This is something macho, something that belongs deeply to Spanish culture. It’s the worst part of us. In Cuba, in those days when Reinaldo lived there, what happened was exactly like that. The roots are the same; they’re Spanish. And Fidel is a macho man.”
Rich is the author of Chick Flicks, from Duke University Press.
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