Javier Bardem was visiting his pregnant wife Penelope Cruz on the Hawaiian set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 2010 when he got his first taste of life onboard Disney’s blockbuster franchise.
“I saw how well everything worked and how much they respected the fact she was pregnant while she was shooting. And I remember talking to (producer) Jerry Bruckheimer saying how I would love to be a part of it. I wasn’t asking for a job, but more saying how fun it looked,” recalls Bardem, who had wed Cruz in a small, private ceremony in the Bahamas prior to her filming the fourth Pirates movie.
Five years later he would receive a call from Bruckheimer inviting him to follow in his wife’s footsteps, starring as the ghostly Captain Salazar in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Not quite a ghost, Salazar has been under the sea for 25 years trapped with his crew in a maritime limbo where they’ve become underwater creatures, preying on other pirate ships. Blaming Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow for his plight, his thirst for revenge runs deeper than any of Sparrow’s previous adversaries. Best known for his complex portrayals of villainy — as James Bond’s nemesis Silva in Skyfall and as a psychopathic assassin called Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, for which he won an Oscar — the Spanish leading man is barely recognisable beneath a chalk white face and hollow sunken eyes, black squid ink spitting from his mouth every time he speaks. Not to mention the special effects, which render him with his brain rotting away beneath long-flowing black hair that seems to have a life of its own.
“I see Salazar as a wounded bull, full of rage and revenge. One of the things that attracted me as an actor to play it is because Salazar has a point. I can understand his mentality. Of course, he’s a villain, but we can also find empathy for him,” recalls the actor when we meet at a Beverly Hills hotel. Sporting a few weeks’ facial stubble, he’s dressed in jeans and a pale blue shirt, the top buttons opened to reveal a muscular hairy chest.
“The idea I wanted to bring is that if somebody is so taken by the rage that, even if he succeeds in his goal, he would never be liberated of that pain, no matter what they do. And we see that with the death penalty, people don’t get freedom with that either.” Born in the Canary Islands to a family of actors, Bardem originally shunned the family business. Playing rugby for the junior Spanish national team, he went on to enrol at art school in Madrid, only taking acting jobs to support his art.
Ultimately concluding he would never be a great painter, he was 20 years old when his mother, Pilar Bardem, helped swing a small role for him in her 1990 drama The Ages of Lulu. Immediately hitting his stride, two years later he received broader recognition in romantic comedy Jamon,Jamon, costarring with his future wife Cruz, although they didn’t become a couple until 2007 when they worked together again on Woody Allen’sVicky Cristina Barcelona. Jamon, Jamon proved to be his calling card to Hollywood, Al Pacino and John Malkovich both recognising his talent and expressing a desire to work with him.
As an actor, Bardem always seems to choose characters that force him spend long sessions in the make-up chair. “I’ve been taught how to be patient after making The Sea Inside,” he says referring to the 2004 drama based on the true story of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro and his 30-year campaign for his own right to die. Delivering a moving portrayal as Sampedro, the film would win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
“In that movie I had to stay still for six hours every day so that was a very good baptism, compared to that, nothing is that long. When I know that I’m going to go through make-up, I record all my notes so I can listen to them, but still you go through different states and you curse and you stand up and you go, ‘I don’t want this anymore!’ And then they say, ‘One more hour to go’ — so it’s many things,” he says, his command of the English language only allowing for brutal honesty, delivered with a wily humour.Filmed on locations around Australia, on this fifth Pirates movie it was Cruz’s turn to visit her spouse on set, now with their two children Leo, six and Luna, four, in tow.
However, he was careful not to let his children see him in his scary make-up. “They’re too young. They were on set but I only brought them to set when I was alive and proud,” he says, referring to the two different states of his Captain Salazar. “I didn’t want them to miss the chance to be on a pirate boat full of cannons and extras dressed like pirates, which was something extraordinary, like a Disney ride.”
Considered one of the finest actors of his generation, 48-year-old Bardem, allows a chuckle when he reflects on his early ambitions as a younger man. “I think when you are younger, it’s important that you have ambition and you make some plans and you realise, as they say, ‘If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans’,” says the lapsed Catholic who now considers himself an atheist. “But I am a very lucky, blessed person who has had the gift of working with great people; sometimes the movies were better than others, but I have been very blessed to have the chance to make a living out of my job.” Asked if he feels a sense of pride representing his Spanish countrymen for an audience of millions, he says, “I don’t know. I do my job. I don’t represent anybody otherwise it would be too much weight on me —I have enough representing myself.”
Taking mock offence at the notion he has become typecast as a villain, he argues that Captain Salazar is only his third true villain, coming behind his roles in Skyfall and No Country for Old Men. “I think I’ve only played three,” he grins.“But then I also play people that are in the line of evil but that’s life, we are always playing with good and bad. But I see them all as people, I try not to make them as caricatures, maybe I fail... I try to see what’s behind them.”