“I want to act because I don’t know how to do anything else.” – Javier Bardem
Bringing a mixture of sultry sophistication and intimidating dominance to his most famous roles, Javier Ángel Encinas Bardem has elevated his acting identity from European obscurity to Hollywood icon.
Born in 1969 on the Spanish Canary Islands, Bardem was born into a family already rife with filmmaking excellence, finding himself in his first professional role by the age of five. Together with his sharp charisma and versatility as a character actor, he would go on to work with directors such as Pedro Almodovar, the Coen brothers and Alejandro G. Iñárritu after his career took flight in the early ’90s.
Feverishly passionate about his art, Bardem leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of perfection. “I do a job and am lucky enough to do a job that I love, but it is a hard one,” he once said. “I’m not saying it is as hard as working in a coal mine, but it is still difficult in a different way. Sometimes you have to go through very strong emotional journeys and then come back to yourself. And that can be difficult to control.”
“When you are portraying somebody that has a very specific emotional weight, you feel like you’re really starting to abandon your own body and go to someplace else,” he added, in what is the clearest indication of Bardem’s drive. “The good thing about being an actor, and the gift of being an actor, is that you are beautifully forced to see the world with different eyes.”
Soon to appear as Stilgar in Denis Villeneuve’s long-delayed Dune, as well as Frankenstein’s monster in a remake Bride of Frankenstein later down the line, in 2021 Bardem finds himself among the cream of the Hollywood crop, so quite how did he get here? Let’s find out.
Javier Bardem’s 6 definitive films:
Jamón, Jamón (Bigas Luna – 1992)
Appearing alongside his later wife and fellow Spanish icon Penélope Cruz in her very first film role, Jamón, Jamón was Javier Bardem’s fourth feature film, but his first to make a significant mark on the film industry, attracting the eyes of critics and as female audience members alike.
This dark comedy directed by the late Bigas Luna features Bardem in a head-turning role as an underwear model hired to seduce the daughter of a disapproving mother. Accelerating the actor into almost immediate popularity, the film established him as a Spanish sex symbol but also displayed the sophisticated, dominating passion that he would later become known for.
Despite only featuring in a supporting role, it was this sexually charged role that would kick-start his Hollywood career. Wary, however, of becoming little more than an on-screen sex symbol he would go on to turn down many similar roles in the pursuit of more serious roles.
Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel – 2000)
After winning Spain’s national film award (a Goya) for his role as a drug addict in 1994’s Running Out of Time, his quest toward more serious acting roles was taking shape. He would however remain in relative obscurity until his first English-language film in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls.
Losing 30 pounds to play a homosexual Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas imprisoned in 1970 under communist rule, Bardem’s performance is impassioned and heart wrenching, illustrating his willingness and determination to pursue a challenging acting life. Appearing alongside Hollywood greats Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, Before Night Falls made the actor internationally known, receiving high critical praise for his performance before becoming the first-ever Spaniard to be nominated for an Academy Award for a leading role.
Incorporating aspects of method acting, Bardem extensively studied the life and poetry of Reinaldo Arenas, learning both English and Cuban dialect for the role as well as travelling to meet the poet’s partner to discover how he walked and interacted with the world. This nuanced performance of a tragic life established Bardem as a serious critical actor on the world stage, his existence as a mere sex-icon had been shaken off.
The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar – 2004)
Following a stellar supporting performance in Michael Mann film Collateral, one that layed the groundwork for his future villainous acting endeavours, Bardem starred in the moving drama The Sea Inside, where he would collect his fourth Goya and root himself firmly as an international icon.
From horror director Alejandro Amenábar, The Sea Inside recounts the factual story of Ramon Sampedro, a seaman and quadriplegic, whose thirty-year campaign in favour of euthanasia and his own right to die become a worldwide ethical argument. Bardem approached this explicitly challenging role with grace and carefully refined passion, so much so that he was awarded a Golden Globe nomination, whilst the film itself won the 2005 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Illustrating both sides of Ramon Sampedro character and personality, The Sea Inside once again allowed Bardem to show his softer acting side before his career would take a new turn…
No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen – 2007)
Recognised as both Javier Bardem’s greatest performance, as well as one of the notable waypoints in 21st-century filmmaking, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men channelled the actors intimidating presence from 2004’s Collateral to create one cinema’s most menacing villains.
Based on the best selling book by Cormac McCarthy, the film is an intellectual thriller that deconstructs elements of the lost western genre and applies them to a contemporary landscape of threat and violence. Following a trinity of entwining characters, a police officer, a hunter and a murderer, the plot follows a botched drug deal and the chase that ensues when the cash goes missing.
It’s a story driven by the undeniably terrifying performance of Javier Bardem, an inscrutable murderer armed with an air gun, curly brown locks and razor-sharp wit. The performance garnered him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, whilst the film won Best Picture in 2008 and suddenly Javier Bardem was seen as an entirely different entity. From heart-throb to quiet character actor, to larger-than-life villain, Bardem’s versatility becomes his leading attribute; a chameleon capable of embodying a plethora of personalities.
Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu – 2010)
Returning to his quieter, more emotionally tactile acting roots following his explosively intimidating performance, Bardem worked with Woody Allen in the somewhat bizarre Vicky Christina Barcelona before being once again nominated for an Academy Award in his leading role in Biutiful.
Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Spanish-language drama follows Bardem as a cancer-stricken father coming to terms with his inevitable demise. It’s no easy-watch but Bardem weaves himself gracefully throughout the dreamlike film with effortless power and importance. Centred on Bardem’s character, Uxbal, an extraordinary individual who can communicate with the spirit world, Biutiful is a dark myriad of complex thoughts that the actor somehow grounds in an understandable reality.
Written by Iñárritu with Bardem specifically in mind, the film’s heart-aching final scene shows us just why he was the only actor on the shortlist. Biutiful is the pinnacle of one of Bardem’s many acting faces, championing the dark complexities of the lead actor with deft intensity.
Skyfall (Sam Mendes – 2012)
Whilst Bardem had reached the peak of his dramatic performance in 2010’s Biutiful, Sam Mendes’ landmark Bond film Skyfall would see the actor extract his intimidating side once more, channelling his intimidating side stature displayed in No Country for Old Men.
Ubiquitous among Bond films is of course the villains and Bardem’s flamboyant performance as Silva may go down as one of the series’ very best. In a striking introductory scene, Bardem descends a set of stairs in bleached blonde hair, a clean European suit and a certain swagger that would underline his sinister sense of humour. Many of these visual quirks Bardem helped to put together and it was this same willingness to immersive himself within the character that would make the film so successful. Silva’s somewhat unbelievable vow for revenge became entirely reasonable based solely on the insanity of the performance itself.
As Biutiful grounded Bardem as an actor with genuine depth and range, Skyfall reminded audiences of his ability to entertain and gleefully intimidate. If his extraordinary career so far can tell us anything it’s that there’s no knowledge of what’s coming next. Be it the next memorable cinematic villain or a stunningly powerful performance in a quiet dramatic role. Whatever it may be, we cannot wait.