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johanna schneller: fame game

Javier Bardem doesn't flirt. Given the playfulness of his performances, I thought he might banter. But no. He doesn't twinkle. He doesn't smile ingratiatingly. For most of our interview, he doesn't even make eye contact. He quizzes me to make sure I'd seen his movie. Then he answers questions - tersely if he doesn't like them, thoughtfully if he does. He was tolerating the process. He made sure I understood that. He's a serious man.

He certainly looks serious. He's six feet tall, practically fat-free. He grew skeletal for his Oscar-nominated role in the drama Biutiful, which opens in Canada on Friday. ("How much weight did you lose?" I asked. "A lot," he answered.) His voice, deep and bearish, sounds like he's swallowing raw beef and washing it down with gravel. And then there's the considerable matter of his head. From certain angles, his features are as prepossessing as a Roman bust; from others, they look blunt, chipped out of concrete. Picasso would have been crazy for him.

Though Hollywood hankers for him to do more romantic roles like his last one, Eat Pray Love, Bardem, 41, shimmers with darker stuff. Amid the froth of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he and co-star Penelope Cruz dived into some serious waters. (The two wed at a friend's house in the Bahamas last July, and had a son on Jan. 22.) He took a symbolic angel of death in No Country for Old Men and made him mortally scary, winning a best-supporting-actor Oscar. And he communicated a wealth of pain, loss, nobility and vulnerability in both Before Night Falls (2000), where he played a persecuted writer dying of AIDS, and The Sea Inside (2004), as a paralyzed man yearning for death. The former earned him an Oscar nod; the latter should have, too.

So if Biutiful is Bardem's bleakest film yet, that's really saying something. He plays Uxbal, a modern-day Job in the back streets of Barcelona. Dying of inoperable cancer, he's racing to secure a future for his two children, whose mother is unreliable, alcoholic and probably bipolar. Oh, and his job is to oversee illegal immigrants whose lives are even more desperate than his own. And P.S.: He can communicate with the dead.

I asked Bardem why sorrow is his stock-in-trade. "I think we all share the same needs and dreams, hopes and failures," he answered in English, with zippy Spanish cadences. "I like movies that speak about those things. I don't like movies that represent people who are not real. One-dimensional. I don't care about people who fly and have extra powers. I can't relate to that. I think Uxbal is a hero. I want to see what people do in a hard situation in order to become a better person. You can't find compassion if you don't have a struggle. I like movies that have that resonance."

Biutiful was directed and co-written by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous films, including Babel and 21 Grams, are hardly light-hearted romps. Set up in an interview room next to Bardem, Inarritu looked like a movie star himself, all flashing eyes and tumbling locks, lounging in his armchair as if it were a throne. After room service delivered a special-ordered tray - Spanish-style antipasti with slices of ham, cheese, avocado and olives - he spent the interview throwing food into his mouth (Piece of ham - snap! Chunk of avocado - snap!) like a trainer and his tiger in one.

Innaritu wrote Biutiful with Bardem in mind. "I wanted to create a classic tragedy, like Medea or Shakespeare, [where]destiny is against the character at every level, and he is trying to keep his verticality and his dignity," he said. "I was completely sure Javier was the only one [to do it] He's invested in his character. He does extreme notes. And he's a very meticulous, obsessive perfectionist. We share that. The set was radioactive."

They fought? "No, it was just very tense, very charged," Inarritu explained. "Javier came always with something beautiful and honest. That's what he really brings, honesty."

"When I read something, if I have an emotional, intimate response to it, then I know I'm in a good bath," Bardem said. "From there, I start to imagine and create. But you have to be able to detach yourself from what you're doing, too. Otherwise it's too crazy, especially in a movie like this, where you're in that skin for five, six days a week for five months. Because getting lost [in a character]is no way to make your performance better. You're actually going to block your creativity that way."

Born in Spain into a family of filmmakers, Bardem began acting at age 6, but he also painted ("I was always focused on human shapes - faces, bodies," he said) and played rugby on the Spanish national junior team. "You don't see violence on any rugby field," he said. "The values are team values. There are no heroes, no great figures. You really need each other; otherwise you will be in real trouble. I like that. I always recommend kids to play rugby. Maybe it's not good for the bones, but it's good for the head."

Now he's drawn to roles that shine light into corners that others prefer to overlook. "This movie, for example, deals with our denial," Bardem said. "Denial of what's happening in every city in the world - Barcelona, London, Rome, wherever - where our great way of life is based on immigrants' misery. I'm interested in knowing the people behind the numbers. I think it's important.

"Also denial of our own end," he continued, meaning death. "In some cultures, the lack of that denial makes people happier, whereas we [in the West] our grandparents now want to dress like our nephews. I prefer to be present, to be aware what the world is."

It's about empathy, Bardem said: "That's the most powerful thing that we have to learn. And we are able to. But it's the most difficult to overcome when it doesn't happen. We carry that weight our whole life. That's why I became an actor - I have to speak about that." No matter how difficult that can be.