Javi New Year:
Javier Bardem Greets 2005 with Golden Globe Nod

by Tony Phillips

There are plenty of reasons why Christopher Reeve should have lived, but the Christmas release of 32-year-old Chilean-born director Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside isn't one of them. The film details the true story of former ship mechanic Ramon Sampedro who, like Reeve, was paralyzed in a tragic sporting accident. But that’s where the similarities end. Sampedro spends the balance of his life locked in a 30-year legal battle with his native Spain petitioning the courts for his right to die with dignity. “Reeve and Ramon are different sides of the same coin,” the director who guided Nicole Kidman through The Others states, “I think actually both are heroes. Some people — particularly from the church — said Ramon was a coward. I never saw him like that. He wasn’t running away. He was very relaxed and really knew what he wanted.” So strong are Amenabar’s convictions, he actually considered screening the film for Reeve and muses to this day over what the paralyzed actor would have thought, but in the end maintains he made the film not only for Reeve, but “the many people like him. We didn’t want the film to be an insult for them, however, we felt like the film had to tell this story. We weren’t encouraging people to kill themselves, but if I were like Ramon, I would want to die. He was right when he said his life belonged to him. And I respect that.”

Amenabar’s star this time around is Spanish Academy Award nominee Javier Bardem, was got the nom for his performance in 2000’s bio-pic Before Night Falls about Cuban poet and dissident Reinaldo Arenas. Bardem picks up on Amenabar’s idea about the similarities between people who want to live and those who choose to die. “I think it would be very cruel to go to one of those people who chooses to live, like Christopher Reeve, and try to tell him everyday that he should kill himself,” Bardem — somewhere between Susan Sarandon and Bono on the politically outspoken celebrity spectrum — explains, “that’s what we do when we go to Ramon Sampedro and say he should live. We are not listening to his desire and ignoring his will. And it’s not easy. Christopher Reeve fights for these people to live, but it’s just as hard for Ramon Sampedro to die. It’s the same thing. It’s very cruel to go to in one direction and then the other. We have to tolerate, listen and support. That doesn’t mean we have to kill everybody. It just means we have to very careful and make a law that regulates this when it does happen.”

Bardem is also happy to drag Reinaldo Arenas into the discussion, and not just as his dry run for next month’s Golden Globe ceremony. “Both of them gave their lives for the same issue, which is freedom,” Bardem explains, “both were prisoners of different institutions — religious and political — where they were not allowed to be themselves and express themselves in the way they wanted. There was always someone dictating how they should behave.” But it’s clear Bardem still has a soft spot for the openly-gay Arenas. “Reinaldo was very forward,” he remembers, “he was attacking. Ramon, I think, is reacting to what he sees because he’s been attacked and he reacts with his ideas and statements where Reinaldo was going for it.” And though Bardem gets to flash Arenas’ wavy head of hair and Speedoed bod in The Sea Inside’s poster, the reality is he spends most of the film in bed playing the 55-year-old, balding Sampedro. Still, it wasn’t the clean pate that worried the handsome star. “I’m 34, he was almost 60,” Bardem admits of the six-hours-a-day in the makeup chair to close the gap, “the first time was very scary, but it made me confident. It was 50 percent of my work. It made me feel safe. I was bald, and that was okay, but I had a problem with the eyebrows. They were not growing back. They shaved my eyebrows and that gives you a very sick, ill look that was very hard to see. One doctor said maybe they were not coming back. That would have been a problem, but thank God they came back.”

But before this profile starts reading like an ardent, politicized actor sweating not only right to die law reforms, but also health and beauty issues more commonly the territory of drag queens and Madonna, it’s time to introduce the fart machine. Never let it be said that Bardem will pass up a good practical joke in deference to his earnest nature. In fact, he points out it’s a trait he shares with Ramon Sampedro. “His sense of humor helped us a lot. He was the first one to laugh. He was our compass.” Great. But what the hell is a fart machine? “You press a button and it makes a noise like ‘Phhhht!’ There are ten different noises,” he explains of the contraption gifted to him by Jo Allen, the makeup artist who kept him in the chair for all those hours. As this BAFTA-winner also crafted Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic schnozzle for The Hours, it’s clear she has a sense of humor, but was the rest of the crew amused by Bardem’s on-set farting hijinxs? “I once put it in the bed and started to press the button,” Bardem deviously explains. “Everybody was very polite! I had to say, ‘Man, people, don’t you react to what I’m doing? It’s a machine!’ And then they said, ‘Ah, okay, we thought it was real, that’s why we didn’t’ say anything.’”

Fart jokes are one thing, but don’t expect Bardem to grind the Hollywood publicity machine. One of the first things he tells me about himself is that he’s tired. I ask if that has anything to do with the party Sea Inside’s distributor threw the night before, and he snaps, “I’ve been doing this for three months, man.” He’s equally as impatient with the old “this movie changed the way I look at life” promotional standby. “For human beings,” Bardem allows, “but not for life. Life is not an absolute value. Yeah, of course, life is important, but for some people it is a torture. I much prefer human beings than absolute ideas because morality is relative. Some people might freak out because this man, after 30-years of living, wants to die. I’m talking about the church here, mainly, but they don’t complain when we’re bombing Iraqi without asking those guys if they want to die. It’s a joke.” Bardem has endured the attack the Catholic Church has mounted against both Sampedro and now the film, but is even willing to extend the metaphor to other rights the church can’t help but muck up, like gay marriage. And though Sampedro’s surviving family “all saw the movie and thought his spirit was in it” and gave the project their blessing, the church continues “to be very hard on The Sea Inside,” lambasting it as “a great film with a very bad morality.”

So what would Javi do if he were put in Sampedro’s scenario? His director has already chosen death, but Bardem chooses to change up the question. “I hope not to be in that situation,” he begins, “but it depends on so many things, how old I am, what are my circumstances, who are the people I’m asking for help, but what I’m sure of is if somebody that I love asked me what Ramon Sampedro was asking his family to do, I would feel it was a militant situation and a militant idea, but I would help them it, even if it breaks my heart for the rest of my life.” And though he’s quick to classify most films as “a waste of time and money,” he strenuously objects to be being described as someone who is saying no to Hollywood. “Don’t put that in there,” he yells, “I’m an actor, a Latin actor. And that’s a limitation. I’m very aware of that and I’m fine with it, but I need to work. I don’t have the talent to write and direct so I have to let other people do that for me.” Still, after award season has come and gone and he’s done giving Michael Moore a run for his acceptance speech cred, Bardem describes his next gig as “being normal” and takes glee that his work horizon can be described with one simple word: nothing. Sure, he’s reading scripts, but describes everything as up in the air. Then he allows, “I work every two or three years, I’m not in a rush. It’s not something that obsesses me. It’s not even something I look for. It’s something that appears and if I think it’s worth telling...” And those times he just feels like time and money are being wasted? “I see all these blockbusters and think how many good things we could do with that money. It’s a very simple and cheap thought. But it’s true. I just want to make movies I want to see. And those movies are about human beings.”