If Benicio Del Toro had said yes, then Javier Bardem — say it with us, Hav-YARE Bar-DEM — would still be the biggest Latin movie star you’d never heard of.
But Del Toro ultimately said no to playing persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, turning instead to The Way of the Gun (for reasons no one involved will illuminate). And Bardem, initially hired to play Arenas’ friend Lázaro Gómez Carriles, found himself tapped instead for the lead. The switch left Bardem, 31, only six weeks to master both credible English and Cuban Spanish with 11 hours of work, seven days a week — a linguistic rocky road that might trip up even Meryl Streep.
”I am not particularly proud of the result,” says Bardem. It’s a modest stance considering he was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review in December and by the National Society of Film Critics this month. ”Some scenes [in Before Night Falls] I like,” he says with a shrug. ”Some I don’t like. But I’m proud of putting myself in extreme conditions and being able to work.”
Outside of his dialect coach, who ”was there to tell me ‘Come on’ when I was ecks-how-sted,” Bardem relied most on Carriles for finding the writer’s soul. Says Carriles, ”Javier even got that country walk Reinaldo had, that hopping step you don’t lose after you grow up climbing hills.”
Bardem isn’t nearly so definite about his own next step careerwise. Playing a high-profile gay role certainly shakes up the muy hetero image he’s projected in more than a dozen Spanish films, including a turn as a paraplegic basketball star in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1997 melodrama, Live Flesh. More important, conquering English means Bardem has a shot at finding major work in Hollywood, like his countryman Antonio Banderas — another Almodóvar alumnus.
But Bardem imagines American-style stardom would mean living ”in the center of a hurricane,” and declares, ”I don’t see myself standing that.” He’s finished another English-language role, as a cop in John Malkovich’s directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs. After that? ”I will take the next step maybe in Spain,” he says. ”I don’t want to be in a rush to show off, Oh, how great an actor I am.”
Too late, señor — you’ve already done that.