Spanish actor Javier Bardem is an enormously talented performer who’s played characters from all walks of life. He’s illuminated a poverty-stricken single father dying of cancer in “Biutiful,” a quadriplegic fighting for the right to end his life in “The Sea Inside” and a gay Cuban poet in “Before Night Falls.”
But despite a long and varied career in both Spanish and American films, Bardem is still best known as the ultimate bad guy. It all started with his indelible, Oscar-winning portrait of the cattle-prod-carrying assassin Anton Chigurh in “No Country For Old Men.”
Then came his performance as Bond villain Raoul Silva in “Skyfall.” And now Bardem highlights “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” as Salazar, a bad guy who was burned years earlier by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and is out for revenge.
Bardem says he’s made peace with movie-goers’ belief that he always plays bad guys.
“This is a job and I do what they offer me, and then among what they offer, I try to get the best,” he reveals. “I’m always saying, ‘I’ve only done three villains.’
“I played villains in ‘No Country For Old Men,’ ‘Skyfall’ and this one, but they’ve all been very powerful movies so I guess that’s why the echo of them is bigger, no? [My villains] belong to good movies. Different in genres, but strong movies.”
Off screen, Bardem is quite a contrast to his most famous characters. Married to actress Penelope Cruz, with whom he has two children, the actor is known for his humanitarian work.
He starred in the movie “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony” in hopes of throwing a spotlight on the suffering of the Sahrawi people in refugee camps and denounced the U.N. for not resolving the crisis. In 2014, during the Israel-Gaza conflict, both Bardem and Cruz signed an open letter criticizing Israel’s actions as genocide.
His humanitarian work aside, Bardem says he enjoys playing evil characters because it gives him the opportunity to exorcise his own demons.
“It’s a gift,” says the actor, 48. “It’s a gift in the sense that I have the chance to put that out. …When I play rage, I play rage. … I don’t play rage for kicks.
“I think one of the great gifts of being an actor is to be able to give room to the 100,000 characters that we all hold inside. One of them is rage, and it’s good to give it a voice and say, ‘Okay, now you’re going to be out there for a couple of months so have fun and enjoy it.’
“It’s not that I want to kill people but you have to say, ‘yes, I am that, as well. I am that.’ The problem is when you are supposed to be one way [all the time] and you are holding those thousands of characters inside of you and you’re not allowed to give any room to them. That’s where the danger comes, I think.”
“Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which arrives 14 years after the last installment in the “Pirates” series, marks a reunion of sorts between Bardem and Depp who last co-starred in the low-budget drama “Before Night Falls” nearly 20 years ago.
So, what was it like for Bardem to work once again with Depp?
“It was bad because he looks exactly the same as 17 years ago,” says Bardem with a laugh. “I think, ‘Oh man, what happened? I’ve aged. He hasn’t.’ He really hasn’t aged. I can tell you, I was very close.”
Bardem says Depp did the “Before Night Falls” production a big favor by flying to Veracruz, Mexico, to shoot a few scenes for the film.
“He really helped us by playing two scenes, and two roles,” explains Bardem. “I was a little bit starstruck when he came to the set because it’s Johnny Depp and he’s been so nice coming all the way to Mexico to help us. I play this scene and we have a kiss. We kiss each other.
“And he never wrote back. Then he kissed my wife in ‘Pirates IV’ so it’s kind of in the family now.”
On both movies, Bardem was impressed with Depp’s ease in front of the cameras. “When I worked with him in this one, I was just amazed by how easy for him it is to be [Jack Sparrow]. Not easy, sorry. Not easy. I was amazed at how skilled he is as a clown to become this character so easily.
“The first time I worked with him on this, they had to yell ‘cut’ because I was laughing so hard. … [Depp] would do and say everything he wanted and it’s brilliant because he knows [Sparrow] so well.
“Johnny likes to play. He won’t ever let you down. He’s always very caring about the person in front of the camera. He will never let you down. That’s my experience with him.”
Every time Bardem visited Cruz on the set of the last “Pirates” movie — dubbed “On Stranger Tides” — he got a good feeling about how loosely yet efficiently the set was run. It was observing the professionalism of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, in particular, which convinced Bardem to say yes to playing Salazar.
“Jerry Bruckheimer, from the very beginning, was very generous in bringing ideas, and me along with the directors [Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg] started to create the character.
“The way [the character] would talk and where he comes from and the look: we made it together. That’s great for a movie like this. You think everything is by the book, no? It’s the opposite. They really encourage you to bring your input, which is great.”
While Bardem is primarily known as a dramatic actor, he’s developed a yen for comedies since becoming a father to a son who’s 7 and a daughter who’s 5.
“There’s too much pain in this world. It’s too much. That’s the reason why, as a father, you want to make a movie that entertains, that brings joy and laughter.
“[Making comedies] is as important as doing another kind of movie that helps you to reflect [on more serious things]. The risk is to be in a good one, and I think this is a good one, no?”
Bardem found it surprisingly easy to slip into the skin of Salazar. All it took for the actor to get into the spirit of the burned and scared villain was spending at least four hours a day in the make-up chair.
“It drives you nuts,” the actor says of the grueling process. “The first thing they do is to give you a coffee. They’re nice. It’s 5 in the morning. It’s cold. It’s Australia. And you know that you have a 14 hour day ahead of you.
“The second thing they do is to put glue all over your face. Like, actual glue, with a brush. Then they put this [device that feels like] a chicken breast on you. Then you sit.
“They say, ‘Don’t talk, eat, or drink for the next three hours.’ Argh! Then you start to get crazy. When they say, ‘Action’ you have the rage of the character.”