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Javier Bardem on “Goya’s Ghosts”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: Javier Bardem in “Goya’s Ghosts,” Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2007]

It’s a good year for bad deeds, particularly if you’re Javier Bardem. Not only is he receiving praise for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh, a near-mythic hit man in the upcoming Coen brothers film “No Country for Old Men,” he also takes center stage as an Inquisition-era priest who doesn’t mind shifting convictions to accommodate the prevailing winds in Milos Forman’s historical epic, “Goya’s Ghosts,” opening this week.

When you’re approached by American producers, are there any special criteria you use in evaluating those roles?

I think it’s that same as I do in Spain: Would I be interested in watching this story as an audience [member]? If I’m touched by the story — because I think the most important thing is the storytelling — then I do it. I don’t really pay too much attention to who’s behind it. Of course, if who’s behind it is Milos Forman or the Coens, that helps. But at the end, when we have movies that we like so much, we remember the stories.

Is there an aspect of exploration that you need as well?

Once you get there, if the author of that story is telling you something you want to explore, then you take a good look at the role and see if the role helps you to explore that situation, or if it’s a passive character that doesn’t do that much. The insight, for example, in “Goya’s Ghosts” helps you to say, “Okay, I want to take the journey to see what’s behind those lines, what’s behind that man.” And maybe I’m lucky to find something for myself.

The character you play in “Goya’s Ghosts,” Brother Lorenzo, is quite the opportunist, isn’t he?

Yeah, totally. I saw him as a victim. I saw him as a victim of the totalitarian regimes that happened in that moment in history, — Inquisition or French revolution, whether it’s in the name of God or in the name of human civil rights — what [the regimes] were doing was trying to gather power, power through fear. In those moments, I think those regimes create people like Brother Lorenzo, who go so radical because they need to make [others] believe that they are true believers.

Are his actions out of desperation?

Not desperation, but fear. Fear of losing what he has become, fear of losing what he dreams of being in the future, which is being on the top, being close to the high priest or the king. It’s like he thinks of himself as being a grandiose person, and everything that [stands] in the middle of that journey, that achievement, has to be destroyed.

In fact, the overarching theme of “Goya’s Ghosts” is how people trim their moralities to fit the temper of their times.

I think the ethical point of this movie is that ethics are something that people hold inside, they’re not something you can be taught by any statement or any system. You either have it, or you don’t. It appears that my character is the most ethical of all, but in reality he’s the opposite. While Goya, who is just a witness and cannot step forward because then he would be punished, is the most ethical of all. His ethics are his paintings — that’s where he really makes justice. He’s fair with the human race, putting what he sees in there for people not to forget, ever.

What connected you to this story?

The history. The fact that Milos Forman came to Spain and wanted to portray a time when beautiful Spain was like a raped country, where everybody was coming in and abusing [it]. I liked the idea… and also I have this relationship with the Catholic Church that I want to explore. I was raised in the Catholic Church and I have my problems with it. That’s how I chose [Brother Lorenzo’s] voice — it’s a risky voice, but I saw, when I was little, when the Franco regime was coming to an end, I was five, I was six — I saw many of these people speaking with this beautiful voice about being at peace, while acting exactly the opposite. Those things were engraved in my mind: How can you say one thing and do the opposite?

In a number of your roles, you’ve come to explore many gradations of evil. Have you come to understand it any better?

Maybe with the Coens. There was a moment where I felt numb. It’s not that I was overtaken by the role, but I felt numb. When I was doing the role, I had a lot of free time, and I remember watching the news and seeing the horror that is going on out there, and I felt numb. And I said to myself, “Well, now I am dangerous.” I guess that has to do with the evil-minded — they feel numb, they don’t feel emotionally attached to others. That’s why they can make these decisions of killing.

Wanna go back there again?

No. No, no, no, no. I was so happy when I left those characters, especially Anton.

“Goya’s Ghosts” opens in New York, Los Angeles and other cities on July 20, expanding on August 3 (official site).

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