“We shaved the head, I let the beard grow, I gained the weight, and I changed the voice,” Javier Bardem says, listing the steps necessary for his impersonation of a brawny, middle-aged, cynical former welder called Santa in the Spanish social drama “Mondays in the Sun.”
The movie, which opened Friday at local art houses, became the prestige attraction of Spain when it debuted at the San Sebastian Film Festival last September. It won the grand prize there and added five Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Awards, in the winter. That quintet included a Goya to Mr. Bardem as best actor.
“It won every single award that exists in Spain,” the actor comments during a phone conversation from Los Angeles, where he was attending a film festival that coincided with the movie’s U.S. theatrical premieres in Los Angeles and New York. The first setback seems to have come with the Oscar balloting: “Mondays” was the official Spanish entry this year but failed to make the finals.
A more recognizable Mr. Bardem was seen earlier this year as the handsome and introspective police detective who corners a fugitive Peruvian terrorist in “The Dancer Upstairs.” Directed by John Malkovich, it was Mr. Bardem’s second English-language project. The first, “Before Night Falls,” a biographical drama about the late Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban poet harassed and imprisoned by the Castro government, earned Mr. Bardem an Academy Award nomination as best actor in 2000. That distinction plus his status as an international movie star and matinee idol, loomed as potential stumbling blocks to his transformation in “Mondays in the Sun.”
Mr. Bardem explains, “I was surrounded by this absurd, glamorous thing, especially in magazines, because of the Oscars.” He had approached the writer-director of “Mondays,” Fernando Leon de Aranoa, professing his admiration for his initial features, “Family” and “Neighborhood.”
“I think he’s the greatest,” the actor says. “The thing I like most is that he portrays real life, but without losing poetry. He knows the rhythms that get people attached to the story.”
Although flattered, the filmmaker was not certain Mr. Bardem was right for the coveted role of Santa in “Mondays.” The first question mark was the age gap. “I was 32 and needed to portray a man in his 40s,” the actor says. “Men at that age have enough past to know what they’ve been but still enough future to think about what they’d like to do. We worried about people believing me in this role, but we worked very hard and did it.”
Mr. Bardem declines to say how much weight he added to simulate the bearish Santa. He does admit that the process was facilitated by his decision to quit smoking — for the fourth time. “I am like Oscar Wilde,” he says, “who said that to quit smoking is very easy. He did it like 25 times. I thought more weight was essential to the role. The physical weight gives moral and ethical weight to what the character is saying. It also gives the suggestion of an appetite for pleasure: a man who wants to eat, drink, have sex. Which is what life is all about. And complain. That is also important in this life: to complain.”
Santa’s complaining streak has been aggravated by the decline of shipbuilding in the northwestern region of Spain where the movie is set: an unnamed city on the Galician seacoast. Santa lost a job as a welder when a shipyard was closed and hangs around in a nearby tavern owned by a former co-worker, holding forth as the resident anarchist misanthrope.
Mr. Bardem explains that regional employment problems are embodied in the role of Santa. “The whole north does have a very strong identity with the shipyards and ship construction,” he says. “The job situation for the whole coast is very bad for those people. The government is not helping those industries to keep going. This is a man who is trying not to surrender to the idea of what society tells him is best for him. He does not want to be a part of that. He’s a man looking for a decent job, rather than just a job.”
Javier Bardem is perhaps the most successful offshoot of an acting and filmmaking clan that has been active in the Spanish movie industry for three generations. He made his first movie appearance at age 6 and became a juvenile fixture on Spanish television. He also was a member of the Spanish national rugby team. Barely in his 20s, he became something of a beefcake pinup in the wake of a role in the sex farce “Jamon, Jamon,” which made it into American art-house distribution in 1992.
An opportunity for an early breakthrough as a romantic-comedy lead may have been botched when Miramax mismanaged the release of an ingenious romantic farce of 1995 titled “Mouth to Mouth.” Mr. Bardem had the lead as an aspiring actor trying to juggle too many obligations and deceptions. So the process of recognition in the United States became more methodical, with Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” in 1997 and then artist-director Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” as pivotal credits.
Mr. Bardem’s next feature will be a collaboration with the talented young Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, who did “Open Your Eyes” (later remade as the Tom Cruise fiasco “Vanilla Sky”) and “The Others.” The new challenge for the actor will be immobility. Like Richard Dreyfus in “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” and Denzel Washington in “The Bone Collector,” he will be portraying a quadriplegic character.
“I’m allowed to move a little bit in the shoulders,” Mr. Bardem says. “I thought it was a fiction when I read the script, but it was true. He was an amazing character. He spent 25 years on a bed before appealing for a dignified death. We
start in September. I don’t know how to translate the title from Spanish, so I won’t even try.”