LOS ANGELES—When Woody Allen was writing the part of a Spaniard who seduces two American tourists, he had Javier Bardem in mind. On the surface, the character of Juan Antonio in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona would appear to be right out of an Ernest Hemingway novel.
Juan Antonio sees the two women (played by Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) sitting at a table in a Barcelona café, introduces himself, and tells them he would like to take them on a plane trip to a nearby town and then have them go to bed with him. (The movie opens in Vancouver tomorrow.)
In an L.A. hotel room, Bardem admits that when he read the script, he wondered if it might play on traditional stereotypes of Latin lovers, but says that he trusted Allen to add layers to the character during the making of the movie.
“I think that might come across that way if this story was told by someone else. But he is a genius, and I think he starts out by making fun of the characters before putting the dynamite out there. He destroys that simplicity to allow us to see behind the stereotypes and see that the characters share the same fears and goals that we all share.
"I think even the worst of the Woody Allen films are better than most movies because there is always something unique or distinct. He works small, which I like because you can understand the whole universe in the details he presents.
“I also think that in this film, the dominant image is of people travelling from one country to another. They are trying to get out of themselves to find something new. We believe that once we do that, we are free and we can discover things we don’t know and, in the case of these girls, we can reinvent ourselves.
"Juan Antonio understands that. I think Woody introduces what appear to be stereotypes to say, ”˜Behind the labels, there are always people who are going through the same thing as you.’ So when I read the script I wasn’t scared. I could see that here is a man who pretends to be free, but he is totally dependent on these women because he cannot stand to be alone. He is actually not free at all.”
Bardem won an Academy Award earlier this year for playing a hit man in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. He won accolades from critics for underplaying the role, and says he took the same approach to playing Juan Antonio. He says that making a character seem natural requires a lot of work.
“In order to appear to be free, you have to do a lot of homework,” he says. “People say, ”˜You just have to be natural,’ but that is fluff to me. You have to be real, and if you get real you will find something important. The difference between that and being ”˜natural’ is that in the real world, if you are hearing bad news you usually realize it an hour later.
"If you are playing it in a movie as ”˜natural’, you just react and say ”˜Oh my God.’ The difference is in the details, which comes with the homework. It’s easier to get the right reaction across in the theatre because you are alone, and you just make the decision on how you want to play the scene.
"In films, it’s a process and there are a lot of people involved. And you have to go to the director and ask, ”˜Is this the way you want me to play it?’ and you hope he has the same vision that you have.”
Of course, in a comedy you also have to bring humour to the character, and one would assume it would be even more difficult in a foreign language. Bardem says that the task of being funny in English was a big concern for him.
“You think, ”˜I don’t know if this sounds right. I know how to do it in Spanish but not in English.’ But the grass is greener on the other side, and I thought the funny parts were the other parts. I was told that I had a funny role, but I thought, ”˜The other parts are all funny, but mine is the fucking dramatic part,’ which is fine because in the end you have to play a part like Juan Antonio dramatically.
"Also, the characters in this film are trying to pretend that life is easy if we just let ourselves go. But life is complicated, and it has questions for which we will never know the answers. The search [for answers] is not as pleasant as it looks, and in this film all the characters are searching. But the humour comes from our ability to relate to their search.”