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Javier Bardem goes on an emotional journey in 'Biutiful'
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Javier Bardem has his own A-list cheering section.
Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, Ryan Gosling and writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are among the celebrities rooting for him to receive awards recognition for his emotional performance in "Biutiful."
In what Bardem calls his most difficult role to date, he plays Uxbal, a hustler who deals in undocumented workers on the streets of Barcelona. He has two young children, a mentally unstable ex-wife, and he is dying. The film follows his struggle to provide for his children, look after his workers and create some kind of legacy in the short time he has left.
Roberts has called the performance "a magic trick and a miracle all together." Gosling called it "one of the best things I've ever seen." And Penn compared its "soulful gravitas" to Marlon Brando's work in "Last Tango in Paris."
Bardem, 41, received an Oscar nomination for best actor for the film, which itself received a best foreign language film nod.
Already a winner for "No Country for Old Men" and a previous nominee for "Before Night Falls," Bardem said the glory of such accolades is precious but fleeting. The real reward comes in stretching himself emotionally and studying life, and sometimes death, through the characters he plays.
For him, becoming Uxbal was profoundly challenging. The role is "the most emotionally complex that I've ever portrayed," he said over a soda at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge.
"There are many layers and there are many open doors in his life, places that he has to come in and get out of," he said. "There are many departments going on."
Uxbal is tough and street smart as he peddles illegal labor, but he also cares about his workers and tries to protect them. He's tender with his children but also temperamental and demanding. He extends warmth to his ex-wife but withdraws it just as quickly. He seeks spiritual solace and simultaneously exploits it.
Embodying those emotions over the five-month shoot was exhausting, Bardem said.
"You need a lot of focus and attention and concentration and also the ability to be vulnerable," he said. "Sometimes you feel like you're in control; sometimes the role is in control of you."
Inarritu said he had Bardem in mind for the part from the beginning.
"Nobody else could have brought to the character what he has brought," he said. "This film could not have been done without him. I think he did monumental work."
The film was shot two years ago, but Uxbal made a permanent mark on Bardem.
"You have to really open yourself and allow, in this case, this man and his drama take place within yourself, and of course it creates a turbulence, an imbalanced situation where you don't know where your feet are anymore," he said. "But also, it expands you in a different way, like it makes you wider, mentally and psychologically ... emotionally wider."
It's that emotional expansion that drew him to acting. An aspiring painter in a family of actors, Bardem started performing as a teenager. When he got his first speaking part at 19, he went to acting school.
"Once I got there, I saw all these colleagues of mine going through the same ocean of fears and doubts and also illusions and needs and desires and dreams," he said. "When I was in the group, I was like: I belong to this. I belong to these people. I belong to this way of thinking, I belong to this way of studying life.
"I don't know if it's studying life, it sounds too important."
Bardem's studies have brought him close to death twice: In this film and in 2004's "The Sea Inside," in which he plays a paraplegic advocating for his own euthanasia. He has been lovers, thieves, an openly gay Cuban poet and a murderous sociopath.
"Sometimes those lives are not the best ones or the ones that you would choose for a holiday or for a party, but they are very powerful and they have an impact on you about trying to see the world from different perspectives, so you are open to different points of view rather than only blocking your own," he said. "Also, when you come back to yourself you come back a little bit more renewed, a little different."
Watching movies can have the same effect, he said, and "Biutiful" invites viewers on a profound emotional journey. Though the story is tragic, Bardem also sees it as uplifting. He notes that Penn said the film might be called the feel-good movie of the year for its message about human nature.
"You feel that we can, that we are able to cope with things. We know how important it is to feel for the other, and to put yourself in the other's place, and how much it means to really take care and bring warmth to your little community, even if that community is just you and somebody else," he said. "I would call that a really feel-good thing, and this movie allows you to get there not intellectually, but emotionally, which is what only movies can do, or music, or good art."
For Bardem, it's the emotional journey that makes us alive, and he's about to take a big trip: He and wife Penelope Cruz are becoming first-time parents. The experience might be his most expansive yet.
"That's for me to discover," he said. "An actor brings what he is and what he knows into his work, and that changes through the ages. That's why performing is a living experience, because you really have to know about life in order to be able to portray it. So life is welcome, whatever it brings."