For Spain’s Javier Bardem, the opportunity to portray a gay writer persecuted and jailed in Cuba who dies of complications from AIDS at age of 43 was “a gift from heaven.”
Bardem’s incarnation of Reinaldo Arenas, whose memoir “Before Night Falls” is the subject of a new film by director Julian Schnabel, is about a world of political oppression he never experienced. But what you don’t know politically, he says, you can try to reach personally.
“I didn’t grow up in a dictatorship,” says Bardem, “but most of us have parts that are oppressed. As an actor you have to find them and let them out. It’s painful, but it makes you free.”
Initially, Schnabel did not pick Bardem to play Arenas. Once he did, the actor rejected the idea because he spoke no English, had no familiarity with the Cuban dialect and no interest in delving into the island’s politics. But after reading Arenas’ novel, going to Cuba and speaking with people who knew the writer, Bardem changed his mind.
“As an actor you make good movies and bad movies, but you don’t usually make important movies,” he says. “In a movie like this you work with words like ‘freedom,’ ‘intolerance’ and ‘homosexuality.’ When it’s over, your mind is a lot more open.”
As a Spaniard and an acting alumnus of director Pedro Aldomovar, Bardem’s crossover success in an American film naturally brings comparisons with Antonio Banderas. Though flattered, Bardem insists that he’s not made for his countryman’s level of stardom.
“It’s not because I don’t want to be one kind of actor or another,” he says. “It’s because to stand the pressure of always being the focus is not something I can even stand in my own country. I can’t imagine it here.
“When everybody’s watching you,” he adds, “you don’t learn anything except hiding yourself, which takes me away from my goal as an actor — to watch, to learn, to understand.”