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Javier Bardem likes playing characters who are full of contradictions

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Spanish actor Javier Bardem is nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Desi Arnaz in the Amazon Prime movie "Being The Ricardos." It's about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, their courtship, their marriage and "I Love Lucy," the historic TV show they created together and starred in as Desi and Lucy Ricardo.

Here's a clip from the movie. Lucille Ball, played by Nicole Kidman, who is also nominated for an Oscar, and Bardem as Arnaz are in their office with CBS executives. They inform execs that Lucille Ball is pregnant. The shocked studio men quickly try to figure out how to hide this from the public on the "I Love Lucy" television sitcom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

CLARK GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) Well, what do you propose?

JAVIER BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) That Ricardos have the baby.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) What do you mean?

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I told you it was going to be like this.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Lucy Ricardo will be pregnant on the show - an eight-episode arc, starting with Lucy telling Ricky the happy news and ending with the birth of the baby.

JEFF HOLMAN: (As Roger Otter, laughing) No. No. No.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) You can't have a pregnant woman on television.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Why not?

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) Because it's television. We come into people's homes.

NELSON FRANKLIN: (As Joe Strickland) Pregnant women often vomit.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I know I could any second.

HOLMAN: (As Roger Otter) May I say something?

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Frankly, I can't wait.

HOLMAN: (As Roger Otter) If Lucy Ricardo's pregnant, the audience's mind immediately goes to, how did she get that way? Lucy and Ricky sleep in separate beds.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) We'll be pushing the beds together, too.

CLARK GREGG, NELSON FRANKLIN AND JEFF HOLMAN: (As Howard Wenke, Joe Strickland and Roger Otter) Oh, no, no.

HOLMAN: (As Roger Otter) No, no, no, no, no.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) I'm sorry, Des. We're going to have to put our foot down on this one. You can't do it, end of discussion.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Miss Rosen, will you come in, please, with a pad and pen? My secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) What are you doing?

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) To Mr. Alfred Lyons, chairman of the board of Philip Morris.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) We don't want to bring Mr. Lyons into this.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Mr. Lyons, I guess it all comes down to you. You are the man who paying the money for the show, and I'll do whatever you decide.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) Mr. Lyons doesn't get involved at this level.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) There is only one thing I want to make certain that you understand.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) Desi.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) We've given you the No. 1 show on television, and up until now, the creative decisions have been in our hands. They are now telling us the Lucy and Ricky can't have a baby on the show.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) That's not exactly what we said.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) All I ask from you if you agree with them is that you inform them that we will not accept them telling us what not to do unless beginning with our next episode, they also tell us what to do. Sincerely, et cetera, et cetera. Thank you. And send it by telegram, please.

DANA LYN BARON: (As Miss Rosen) Yes, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) And that wasn't even why I married him.

BIANCULLI: In 2008, Javier Bardem won an Oscar for his performance as a psychopathic killer in the Coen Brothers' film "No Country For Old Men." He played a seductive Spanish artist in the Woody Allen film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Bardem has been a respected actor in international cinema for years. His other films include "Live Flesh," "Before Night Falls," "The Sea Inside" and "Biutiful," for which he also earned an Oscar nomination. Javier Bardem spoke with Dave Davies in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES: You come from a long line of actors - your mom - right? - your grandparents, your brother, your sister. When you were a kid, did you see yourself becoming - going into the profession?

BARDEM: Not really. I actually wanted to go to the opposite direction because I was so used to see all of this in my daily life that there was no magic in it for me. It was no - I was not really intrigued about what that was. So I start to - well, I study as a kid. And then I start to work as a painter. And I went to Belle Arts (ph), Bellas Artes, to paint. But little by little, I got into the movies by doing some work as an extra so I could get some money and keep on painting. One day, they offered me these couple of lines and I said, well, why not? And I did it and I felt great. I felt like, wow, I know this place, I belong here.

And then I start to study as an actor. I went to my acting school, which is the one that I'm still going because I think helps me a lot to really remind myself, why do I love what I do? Because sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you are like, is it worth it? Why am I doing this? Am I doing this for the right reasons? Blah, blah, blah. So coming back to that, the acting school helps me to really put myself in the old shoes. And then one day, they gave me this role where I have to speak more than two lines, and I prepared myself, and I enjoy it. And I guess from the moment to today, I've been very lucky, very, very lucky and very blessed by working with some of the greatest directors I ever dream of.

DAVIES: Well, I mean, you certainly had success at it. I mean, you won the Goya Award for best actor for the film "Boca A Boca." That's I guess what people call the Spanish Oscars - right? - sort of the leading film award. And you became a really leading actor in Spanish cinema. Did you aspire to act in English then at all?

BARDEM: Well, I'm 42 years old, so I guess my generation, we all grew up with "Taxi Driver" and "Apocalypse Now" and great performances done in English, along with some of the great performance also in Italy, France and, of course, Spain, which I have the chance to work with some of them. But no, I never thought about going out of Spain and working in a foreign language ever because that was totally out of my radar. No - it's like, no, that's not going to happen, but it happened. That's the weird thing.

And if you ask me why, I can tell you. There is this lovely man called Julian Schnabel, which I love and I adore, who had the guts to say, I want you to do "Before Night Falls" and everybody around was like, why? why? Who's the other guy? Why? Why? Why him? And he said, well, because I like him. Because he saw some of my movies in Spain. At that time, I didn't speak any English. And he said, we're going to make this together. Don't worry. It's going to be fine. And I have one of the best experiences of my life doing that movie. I will never forget it. And we work hard and we made it, and I guess that brought some attention.

DAVIES: You really didn't speak English before getting into that movie.

BARDEM: No. I mean, yes, hello and give me a glass of water. That's all. I'm always saying that I know how to curse very well because I learn English listening to AC/DC.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK.

BARDEM: So I'm a huge fan of AC/DC. And so I was translating the lyrics, so I know how to curse (laughter).

DAVIES: You have to start somewhere, right?

BARDEM: (Laughter) Exactly.

DAVIES: Well, we should just pause a minute on this film because it was a real important one for you. "Before Night Falls," directed by Julian Schnabel, it's - you play the poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who was a gay man persecuted in Cuba during the revolution. It kind of takes us through the through the '60s, through the Mariel boatlift, when you, his character, ends up in New York and gets AIDS. I mean, it's a really dramatic role. And one of the thing that's fascinating to me about it is that it takes place in Cuba, but much of the dialogue is in English. How is acting in English different from acting in Spanish for you?

BARDEM: It's a different, totally different situation. And it's like here, I'm trying to express myself and share some opinions and be relaxed and giving you what I think, giving you some thoughts about what I what I feel or what I think. And there is this office in my brain full of people working at the same time that I'm talking to you trying to not, I mean, be wrong with the intonation, with the words. So it's very exhausting.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: The office is translating. Right. OK.

BARDEM: Exactly. If I speak Spanish, that office is closed. There's nobody in the office. I mean, I'm fine by my own (laughter).

DAVIES: Right.

BARDEM: Funny enough. Funny enough. And that's something that I discovered doing "Before Night Falls." It gives me also a different kind of freedom because - I don't know how to say - it's is not about not having respect to the words. Of course, I have respect to the words. But still some of the words doesn't have an emotional resonance on me. I can play with them more freely. When you're speaking in your mother tongue, you may be more cautious of using some words or using some intonations. In English, I feel more free also to try and experiment things and experiment tones and the way of speaking and - and so one thing gives you the other.

BIANCULLI: Javier Bardem speaking with Dave Davies in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies and his 2011 conversation with Javier Bardem. The Spanish actor has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar this year for his starring role as Desi Arnaz in the Amazon Prime film "Being The Ricardos."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, we have to talk about "No Country For Old Men," the Coen brothers' film where you play Anton Chigurh, this truly scary, sociopathic killer. First of all, just explain how you got the look of this guy.

BARDEM: (Laughter) Well, Tommy Lee Jones brought a book, a photo book of photos that were taken in the frontier with Mexico. And there was this guy who was in the photo? It was a kind of a black and white photo with a prostitute in a brothel in the frontier. And Joel and Ethan Coen brought the picture to me, and they said, we want this. And the photo actually was very blurry. And I said, I don't know what you mean. Said, you'll know, you'll know soon.

So they put me in the makeup and hair trailer. And the hairdresser, which is a great, great man, he did this horrible haircut on my hair with my hair. And there was no mirror. So I turned and I look at them, and they were laughing so hard that one of them fell off on the floor - ha-ha-ha. And I said, I need a mirror. I need a mirror right now. What's going on here? And I saw it. And it was like, wow, that's really insane (laughter). But again, it's Coen brothers. It's so brilliant idea. I mean, it's so brilliant. I mean, I knew that they gave me 50% of my character with that haircut. It was their idea.

DAVIES: Right. And for people haven't seen it, it's - you have long hair. It's not particularly stylish. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it the lost Beatle from hell.

BARDEM: That's a good one.

DAVIES: Right. So let's hear just a little bit of you in this character. We have a clip here from the film. And for those who haven't seen it, the plot involves - there was a bunch of drug dealers, and there was a shootout. And this guy who happens to be a welder who's played by Josh Brolin comes upon a satchel full of drug money and is running. And your character, Anton Chigurh, is trying to track him down. And we're going to listen to as a phone call between you and this guy who has the money. And one of the things that is referred to in the call is that you know where his wife lives and is headed to Odessa, Texas. And the clear intimation is that you will kill his wife if he doesn't bring you the money. So let's just listen to this conversation. This is our guest Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin in "No Country For Old Men."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN")

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You need to come see me.

JOSH BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Who is this?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You know who it is. You need to talk to me.

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) I don't need to talk to you.

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) I think you do. Do you know where I'm going?

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Why would I care where you're going?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) I know where you are.

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Yeah. Where am I?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You're in the hospital across the river, but that's not where I'm going. Do you know where I'm going?

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Yeah. I know where you're going.

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) All right.

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) You know she won't be there.

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) It doesn't make any difference where she is.

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) So what are you going up there for?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You know how this is going to turn out, don't you?

BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Nope.

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) I think you do. So this is what I'll offer. You bring me the money and I let her go. Otherwise, she's accountable, same as you. That's the best deal you're going to get. I won't tell you you can save yourself because you can't.

DAVIES: And that's one of the 10 scariest guys I've ever seen in a movie. That's our guest Javier Bardem from the film, the Coen brothers film "No Country For Old Men." You know, your character, Anton Chigurh, we don't really know anything about him in the film. And I gather in the novel, the Cormac McCarthy novel, he's also not so clearly defined. Did you have a backstory in your head that told you how he became what he was?

BARDEM: That's a very funny, very interesting question. No, I didn't. And actually, that's one of the things I love to do the most, to create a story, backstory, in my head that will help me to understand what I'm doing. But in this case, I've prepared a role with my acting teacher, Juan Carlos Corazza, which he's been my acting teacher since 22 years ago. And, of course, once - when I go there with Juan Carlos, with my acting teacher, I go based on the ideas that the Coens wanted me to do. It's not something that he will direct me how to do it, and then I will go to a set and do what I want. No. It's like, I talk to the directors. They tell me what they want. I go there, to the laboratory, try different things, come back to them. And they choose what they want.

And I was working with Juan Carlos. And we found, like, there is no way there's backstory. And that's the great thing. He's not a human being. There is no backstory. He is a symbol. He is a symbolic idea of violence. He is a man that comes out of nowhere and goes to nowhere in the end. So he's death himself. He's violence himself. And that's why we wanted to create this thing where you are not sure what is him, if he's a man or a machine, or a biblical plague (laughter) - or what? And that was funny to do, but also very delicate to not cross past the line. And in that, the Coens had a lot to say because they were directing me on the set in a very, very, very subtle way, but also without losing their sense of humor.

DAVIES: Sense of humor, huh?

BARDEM: Yeah. That look, that way of walking, that way of throwing one line here and there, that's something that the Coens were - I mean, they were pushing me - not pushing me, like, asking me to do. And sometimes I will go like, why? Why? You don't need that. You don't need - why? Why would he do that? And they were laughing (laughter). And they said, you'll know. You'll know when you see the movie. And they're right. I mean, it's - one of the great things about the Coens is that they never forget the sense of humor.

DAVIES: Can you think of an example of one of those things that you said, why do you want me to do that, and then it made sense later?

BARDEM: I don't know. There's a scene where I go to the trailer park. And I ask for Josh Brolin's. character. And there's this woman there. And then I ask where he is. And she says, I cannot give any information. And then I naturally look at her. And I went away. And they said, no, no. You look at her. And you stay there for two minutes. And I was like, what? Yes. I - we want you to look at her and stare at her for two minutes, I mean, without blinking. And I said, OK. I'll do that. And I thought, at the moment, it was a little bit too forced, you know, to pushy. But, no, they knew exactly. And one of - that's one of the moments where I think and I know people love the most with that look. So that's - those are the things that the Coens know how to do the best.

DAVIES: Yeah. I remember that scene, too. And she says, sir, we can't give out no information. And you just...

BARDEM: Exactly (laughter).

DAVIES: You stare right back at her.

BARDEM: Exactly.

DAVIES: The character Anton Chigurh in "No Country For Old Men" is not really a human being. Did you connect with him in any way or no?

BARDEM: No.

DAVIES: No.

BARDEM: And - well, first of all, I went...

DAVIES: That's reassuring, I guess (laughter).

BARDEM: Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank God (laughter). I went to the Coens - and which I've always, always dreamed of working with. And I never thought it was going to happen. And it happened. And I went to him - to them. And I said, listen; I cannot do this movie, I can't. I don't drive. I don't speak English. And I hate violence. And they said, you're perfect.

(LAUGHTER)

BARDEM: You're perfect for the movie. I said, OK. Whatever. So they convinced me. And I went there. And I was so lost. There's nothing too much - there's not much to hold on to because, as we are talking - as we said, he's an idea rather than a human being. But then there was a moment where I finally got the rhythm of him - of his. And I felt comfortable. And as I said, the Coens were always, I mean, helping me in finding the tone and finding the humor in it. And that's why I had a great time doing it. Otherwise, he would have been too dark. And it is too dark. He is very dark. But he also has these glimpses of humor that make the whole thing, I mean, more easy for me.

DAVIES: You know, you've had this long career of really interesting, complex roles in your international work. And, you know, millions of Americans really sort of got to know you through "No Country For Old Men." Is it weird for you to be introduced to a lot of American audiences as this creepy guy?

BARDEM: (Laughter) No, no. It's a pleasure (laughter). I mean, that make people have a second thought when they want to come and say, hello.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Yeah. Good.

BARDEM: (Laughter) No. It's like - no, it was - first of all, I never expected this movie to be the movie that it is. I mean, because, as you know, we don't interact. We didn't ever interact, me and Josh Brolin or Tommy Lee Jones. So I was only aware of what I was doing on the set, which was walking around with that haircut and killing people with my cattle gun. So I didn't really know what movie we were doing. Then when I saw it, I felt, wow, this is something crazy and insane. But it's very Coen Brothers. I love it. And then the movie went to this huge, high place. And - but you never know. You never know how it's going to be received.

DAVIES: Well, Javier Bardem, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much.

BARDEM: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Javier Bardem speaking to Dave Davies in 2011. The Spanish actor is up for an Oscar this year as Best Actor for his role as Desi Arnaz in "Being The Ricardos." After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews two other Oscar nominees, movies competing in the category of Best International Feature, representing their respective countries of Belgium and Chad.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS MCGREGOR'S BROTHERHOOD OF BREATH'S "ANDROMEDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.