Javier Bardem talks to Total Film

"My beauty is totally gone!" Javier Bardem on getting old, getting tortured, and getting Goya's Ghosts...

“The world is upside down,” laughs Javier Bardem, over the sound of drizzle. The rain in Spain stays mainly… outside Javier Bardem’s window, apparently, while Total Film gloats about the unusually glorious spring sunshine of London. Some things don’t change though. This week’s Goya’s Ghosts – directed by Milos One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Forman - features another seamless performance the Oscar nominated star of Before Night Falls. Set in 1792, Bardem fills the cassock of Father Lorenzo; the misguided zealot who turns from hardened member of The Spanish Inquisition to a leading figure of Napoleon’s invading revolutionary force of 1808, inflicting pain of his countrymen in both roles.

You’re the Spaniard in the cast, why aren’t you playing Goya?
When Milos told me he had this Goya project, he told me, ‘By the way you’re not going to play Goya, you're going to play another character’. I was surprised; not because I was expecting to have the bigger role but, because Goya being Spanish, I supposed I was going to be Goya. He gave me the script months later, and I thought it was a great challenge because it’s not what people would expect. The role of Lorenzo is quite complex, I mean, you have to play two people in the same body.

Lorenzo’s a bit of a slippery bugger, isn’t he?
I think he's kind of a victim of circumstances. What he does is inexcusable, but at the same time he's a logical person. The revolution brought great ideas and hopes, but in the end they became what they were there to destroy. And as they become bigger and stronger and more powerful, they put the people down; ‘You work with me or you're against me, and if you're against me you're going to disappear’. A normal person would try to embrace those ideas, not to die. But what Lorenzo does that goes beyond normal human behaviour is try to get a good percentage of it (laughs)!

The movie deals with a difficult time in Spanish History…
Reading about that turbulent period of time in the script wasn’t easy. But in a way, to write the film you needed somebody from the outside who wasn’t emotionally attached to any of it. You have to try and portray it without any kind of judgement, whereas a Spaniard would have done the opposite. So, it’s a very social movie. People I respect who saw it in Spain thought that it represents this turbulent time, where Spain was a whore house, very well.

In this age of extremism, the movie looks very relevant...
I didn't know until Milos mentioned it, but Condoleezza Rice said that the people from Iraq will greet the soldiers with kisses and flowers. That’s exactly what Napoleon says in the movie. It’s very relevant to see how they thought of Spain as a country that they would need liberation, but it needed liberation from the inside not from the outside, otherwise that would be occupation.  Because when the French came here, they raped Spain, they did whatever they wanted to do.

It’s also a pretty damning attack on organised religion?
In Spain the church is so strong still; it’s still connected to the state. It’s unbearable how it can still have the power when, hundreds of years ago they were committing genocide. The strong hand of the church is truly powerful. I personally don't believe in the church, don't believe in God. I respect those who believe, but I don't respect the church as an institution, for what it represents. There's a lot of people in the church who do a lot of great things for the others but, most of the time, the talk and the actions don’t marry. It’s really cruel what they did.

There's also some Holocaust imagery in the movie, which I guess comes from Milos' background as a Holocaust orphan and having lived through the Czech uprisings of ‘68?
I know when actors talk about movies, we always say the same, ‘how good he was’, but this time it’s true (laughs). Milos is a book of history in himself. And it’s so powerful what he's been through, and what he’s achieved. The only way to do what he’s done is to have a great, great sense of humour and optimism and activism - activism in the sense of making action, creating action, creating movement forward. 

Your character goes through a torture scene. Was it difficult to film?
I look like a flying cow, so big. They were trying to put a frame to not make me fall over and that was a big deal because I have a lot of weight. (laughs) I wasn't scared, I was busy concentrating on pulling the face of a man who was being tortured, but everybody was scared that it would break and I would smash my face (laughs).

With so many critically acclaimed roles, you’ve managed to break away from your original label as a stud?
I don’t know man. I did Jamon Jamon when I was 22 and if you are not a monkey you are a heartthrob. But then you get old. I’m not Brad Pitt… I would say that ‘my beauty’ is totally gone..! (laughs)

I know a few girls who’d disagree!
That’s because they see movies! If they see me on the street they wouldn’t turn their face. As an actor you have to choose between making a career or making a long speed run. There was a moment when I started to choose the career, and if you want a career you have to find those roles that make you grow as an actor. It took me two years to say ‘Bye Bye’. I remember when things weren’t going well for me in Spain I quit for three years until a good role came to me, and then they started rolling in.

And they keep rolling in. You've just finished working with the Coen brothers on No Country For Old Men.
It’s a thriller, a kind of a modern western based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. It’s about three men following each other and it’s wild, its funny, it’s truly original. It’s amazing how a movie these days can be original, and somehow the story’s very common. The point of view that they have in it is truly, how you say, uncomfortable, but in a good way. It's not disgusting, but it’s uncomfortable, it’s a good thriller. And I'm playing the bastard; I'm playing a really wild man.

There’s a constant rumour about you playing Carlos the Jackal. Any truth to that?
Well, no I haven't heard that. I just saw on my computer saying that I was playing Dracula. (laughs) I was like, ‘Oh really’. It sounded like it was almost confirmed. I have the bags under my eyes for Dracula but my teeth are really small (laughs). But I'm not going to do these movies.

You’re also doing Love In The Time Of Cholera for Mike Newell. It’s tricky adapting a book that popular?
A lot of people around the world, especially the Latin people, Spanish speaking people, we know that book. But a movie can never be the book, if you want to read the book you read the book, if you want to see the movie you see the movie, one thing cannot fight against the other.