“Loving Pablo,” about Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, is a passion project for Javier Bardem. He clearly relishes the title role in which he plays opposite his wife Penelope Cruz, who plays Escobar’s lover. The pulpy biopic, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival before moving to the Toronto festival, is directed by Spain’s Fernando Leon de Aranoa, based on the book “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar,” by Virginia Vallejo, the Colombian journalist with whom Escobar had an affair. Bardem spoke to Variety about the challenges of bringing “Pablo” to the screen and what it was like to work with Cruz for the first time since they’ve become a couple.
You are one of the producers on “Loving Pablo,” which has had a long gestation. How tough was it to bring to the screen?
I had long been been intrigued by Pablo Escobar. When I started to dig into this character almost 10 years ago, he wasn’t as much in the public eye. And during that period I was offered [projects with me playing] him several times, but I never felt a human link to any of those roles. I wanted to make a movie about what was on his mind; about his personal side. And I really wanted to make this movie in Spanish. But we tried and tried, and just couldn’t find the financing. Then, to move things forward, we decided we would do it in English, with Spanish accents, and we were able to mount the production.
So “Pablo” will be dubbed in Spanish for Spanish audiences?
Yes. But in Spanish-language territories it will also be going out in English.
Are you going to dub yourself in Spanish?
No. I have tried to dub myself in Spanish several times for my American movies. But at this point [in my career] my dubber is better than I am at capturing the nuances in Spanish of how my voice sounds in English. Also, Spanish audiences by now are used to his voice. So If I dubbed myself in Spanish, it would throw them off.
How did you prepare for the part, besides your prosthetic belly?
I tried to learn where his monstrous behavior came from. I was very interested in diving into Pablo’s inner self. What was going on inside Escobar’s mind that made him capable of so much harm, while at the same time he was very loving, and took care of his family and his lover. He was not somebody who appeared outwardly threatening. He moved at a slow place, like a hippopotamus. That is the physical aspect of his energy, but he could very quickly become a monster.
This is the first time you and Penelope Cruz work together since you’ve become a couple. Did this help, especially in the erotically charged [albeit devoid of nudity] sex scene?
It was easy working with Penelope. She is a great actress and we can always challenge one another to go farther, deeper, bigger and smaller. She can immediately tell what I’m doing; where I’m going. We know how to play with each other and try different things. All it takes is a little look, or a word here and there. So we pushed each other to be more daring. Like in the climactic scene [towards the end] where Virginia confronts Escobar and asks him for $80,000 to leave the country and make a new life, and he responds by threatening her physically. That confidence that we have in each other is a great thing.
Had the two of you done sex scenes on screen before?
Yes, in Bigas Luna’s “Jamon Jamon.” which won the Silver Lion at the Venice festival in 1992 and launched both of our careers.
Since then, both of your careers have flourished in Hollywood. To the point where you are dubbed by a regular Spanish dubbing actor, just like Tom Cruise. Would you like to work more with Spanish directors, besides Fernando Leon de Aranoa? What is your rapport with the Spanish film industry?
I want to work more with the Spanish industry, but they think I’m too expensive. What I want to tell them is: I’m expensive; but I can also be less expensive, if I like the project.