Javier Bardem knows a thing or two about throwing himself into his roles. While shooting a graveyard scene for a film adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," which opens this Friday, the Spanish actor sunk himself so deeply into his character's grief he ruined take after take by repeatedly forgetting about - and consequently crashing into - an out-of-frame tree branch lingering by the central tombstone.
"He did it four times," says "Cholera" director Mike Newell, recalling the incident with amazement. "Four times. Only the last time did Javier sort of suddenly remember, at the last minute, who and where he actually was and dodged around the branch with a loud grunt."
When asked about the incident, Bardem, a tall, broad-chested stallion of a man, confesses he doesn't remember it and concedes his preference to lose himself entirely in his roles. "I don't know how to do it any differently," says the 38-year-old actor, in a noticeable Castilian accent. "When playing various characters, I can only find freedom within my acting after I let go and completely inhabit somebody else."
True to his word, Bardem proves himself a cinematic chameleon this month with two significant roles in major American productions. In addition to the lead as a lovelorn merchant in "Cholera," the actor can also be seen as a bloodthirsty (and badly shorn) sociopath hunting down Josh Brolin's Texan grave robber in the Coen brothers' pitch-black take on Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men." Both roles are starry showcases for Bardem, who, while a superstar in Europe, remains largely unknown in the States. More recognized for his rumored dalliance with actress Penelope Cruz than for his stunning turns as the rebellious gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's "Before Night Falls" or a dying paraplegic in 2004's "The Sea Inside," Bardem finds himself on the brink with two passion projects.
In "Cholera," Bardem stars as Florentino Ariza, a telegraph worker who falls for the beautiful Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) as a teenager. After her social climber father (John Leguizamo) bigfoots their budding relationship, the young Florentino pledges and maintains an everlasting loyalty to his love, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including her marriage to an aristocratic doctor, played by Benjamin Bratt, and his 622 - yes, 622 - documented love affairs.
Bardem was so eager to play Florentino he agreed to start the month-long rehearsal process for "Cholera" a mere week after wrapping "No Country."
"I'd never done films, especially big ones, back-to-back before, but I really liked both characters and didn't want to miss either opportunity," says Bardem. "After I finished both I was utterly exhausted."
Shot on location in Cartagena, Colombia, last year during the country's notoriously sweltering summer, the production proved a tough slog for cast and crew. The first movie to film in the country since 1986's "The Mission," the production team faced an uphill battle trying to build trailers, find hair and make-up artists, and generally not dissolve in the 99 percent humidity.
"I think if we had known what a big job it was going to be, we might have thought twice," says Newell. "Originally, what we thought we had was a film about interiors - interior minds, interior emotions, interior sets - and it simply wasn't. It was much bigger."
While he was cobbling together a set, Newell also asked his actors to work with movement and dialect coaches for a month prior to shooting so that their physical on-screen aging - the film's chronology spans nearly five decades - would look authentic. Bardem, who spent practically all of "The Sea Inside" bedridden in prosthetic old-age make-up, appreciated the lessons and tolerated the four-hour make-up sessions.
"It's basic that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you have to buy what you see," he says. "Otherwise, there's no action in the world that can make everyone else forget what they're watching on screen."
The actor traces his passion for "Cholera" back to when he first read the novel as a 14-year-old boy.
"I know I was quite young [to have read it then], but my sister was reading it and after seeing it on her dressing table, I ended up reading it three times," says Bardem. "And of course, when I was doing the movie, I was killing the book; I was opening pages all day long. In the case of Florentino, Marquez wrote a lot of great descriptions of him in the book, so it was easy to have a very close idea of what I should do, and for me to understand his motives, his needs, his flaws."
And while an ailing Garcia Marquez never made it to set, he gave Bardem some words of advice over the phone prior to shooting.
"He told me he saw the character as a stray dog, like somebody that has been beaten too much, and is scared of getting beaten again, which I thought was a great idea," says Bardem.
The actor is also quick to defend Florentino's seemingly at-odds love for Fermina while embarking on hundreds of affairs.
"There's a line in the book where Florentino says I could have been unfaithful to her, but never disloyal," he says. "I mean, that's something you'd never want to use to defend yourself against your wife, because she'd kill you, but in the language of Garcia Marquez, you truly understand what he means.
Although Bardem seems a perfect fit for Florentino in retrospect, the Spanish actor was not always the top candidate for the job.
"Originally, we'd looked at doing [the film] the Hollywood way so that you'd get great big Hollywood stars who had dark eyes and dark hair and the right kind of coloring and maybe you could believe them as Latinos," says Newell, who himself was coming to "Cholera" immediately after completing "Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire." "The other option was to take, commercially speaking, a huge risk and go with an actor who we believed in but didn't have the profile a Hollywood star would have and, thank God, we went with the latter. Physically speaking, Javier was not the exact match to the character but he's one of those masterful shape-changing actors."
Born into a popular acting family in Spain's Canary Islands in 1969, Bardem landed his first role at 4 when his mother, the Spanish actress Pilar Bardem, secured a small part for him in the mini-series "El Pícaro," which quickly led to other roles.
"I started to work as an extra to get some money," says Bardem in a matter-of-fact tone. "Then when I was 18 or 19, I started to do little roles, but just with the goal of keeping up painting, because I was studying art. But one day, I actually had to say some lines in a film, and I thought, 'This is serious, I should actually prepare,' and I ended up enjoying it very much."
Early in his career, Bardem was usually tapped to play the designated hunk in steamy films such as "The Ages of Lulu" (1990), "Jamon, Jamon" (1992), and "Golden Balls" (1993). The increasingly typecast performer didn't break out of his "stud" mold until the mid- to late-1990s, accepting parts as a drugged-out snitch in "Numbered Days," a detective in "The Detective and Death," and even sending up his reputation as a heartthrob in "Mouth to Mouth."
It was Julian Schnabel's indie drama "Before Night Falls" in 2000, however, that catapulted Bardem to the forefront of critics' best-of lists. His dreamy, yet poignant performance as the AIDS-ridden dissident Arenas, who committed suicide in 1990, earned him the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival that year, as well as the honor of becoming the first Spanish actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. He won again at Venice four years later for his depiction of Ramon Sampedro, a real-life quadriplegic who fights for his right to die, in Alejandro Amenábar's "The Sea Inside."
Having only recently begun a serious US cinematic assault, Bardem has already notched films with a range of veteran directors, including Michael Mann ("Collateral"), Milos Forman ("Goya's Ghosts"), the Coen brothers ("They've been my favorite directors since 'Blood Simple' "), and most recently, Woody Allen, for the tentatively titled comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
"It's funny because with Woody Allen, Milos Forman, those two masters, not only did I get to work with them, which is great, but I got to work with them in Spain, which is even better," he says.
But don't expect to see the increasingly laurelled actor strolling down the streets of Los Angeles anytime soon.
"I live in Spain, I've made my career there, and the exception is when I work out of Spain," says Bardem, who is currently in talks for more English-speaking roles but declines to name them in light of the writers' guild strike. "It's true that since a year and a half ago, most of the offers are coming from the outside, but I want to work no matter where the job is. All I want is to do my job as well as I can."