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The Dancer Upstairs - Javier Bardem interview



Feature by: Jack Foley

TAKE one dedicated, but happily married cop, toss in a criminal mastermind and the ensuing battle of wits between the two, and add a beautiful woman - you could, quite easily, have the ingredients for any number of routine Hollywood thrillers.

So what makes John Malkovich's directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, different from all the rest? According to the film's star, Spaniard Javier Bardem, it is the moral and political complexities which help it to stand out.

Speaking from a plush suite at London's Savoy Hotel (a million miles from the poor environs of the film's South American setting), Bardem insists that the character of Agustin Rejas, the honourable detective charged with hunting down the terrorist leader, Ezekiel, is an excellent role for him, given that it requires a range of emotions and challenges.

Based on Nicholas Shakespeare's adaptation of his novel of the same name, The Dancer Upstairs finds Bardem's Rejas attempting to track down Ezekiel at a time when the terrorists' campaign is beginning to threaten the political stability of the country. Inspired by the real-life hunt for the head of Peru's Shining Path guerilla organisation, the film becomes further complicated when Rejas seeks solace in the arms of his daughter's dance instructor, whose secret political affiliations could unwittingly lead him into the eye of the storm itself.

For Bardem, it is the moral conundrum which follows that really attracted him to the role.

"What I liked about the character, is that he is a control freak, he cannot lose control, and I think he feels that he can control his destiny," he explained. "We all think that we can control our destinies, but that’s not true and as soon as we can understand that, we’ll be free, but also we will be weaker - and if you feel weak as a person, you are scared. But that’s life.

"Rejas doesn’t allow himself to get emotional about things, but then this woman comes into his life and he starts feeling things that he cannot hide or control, like a good person, or a normal person.

"To know that you can’t control your life is scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, it’s horrible. You can be in a family and in a happy marriage and then this woman comes along and you have to choose between them. But it doesn’t mean that you are mean or not a good person… and I liked that."

Bardem was also drawn to the fact that there is no clear right and wrong in the film. Malkovich deliberately chose not to take sides, by opting not to name the country in which it is set, while the corruption that is rife within both the political system and legal system hunting Ezekiel is equally as questionable as the methods employed by the terrorists themselves.

"That's what I like. In this modern world there is a sheriff called George Bush, who wants to kill the bad guys, like in a bad western movie, but not everybody is bad.

"Now it's the war between evil and good, but what the fuck is that? Life is a little bit more complicated than that, you should know why those people are so evil.

"And that's what I like about the movie. There is this man, who has actually spent 15 years trying to capture this man, without shooting a gun, while the government was killing everybody. He is a guy who says, "No, I truly believe I can fix this in an honest way." And that can bring some light to what is going on in the world."

Given that Bardem speaks so passionately about the role, it is perhaps surprising, therefore, to find that Malkovich really had to persuade the star of films such as Jamón, Jamón to take part.

"John came to me five years ago with this project, and I was shocked, because at that time nobody knew me out of my country and it was, 'What is this guy doing, talking to me in Spain? I can barely say anything in English and he is giving me this role that I cannot even read!'

"He was like, 'No, I want you. Don't worry, you will learn English, you will do it.' He was so confident. So he spent three years working as an actor, directing plays, trying to finance the movie. And in the meantime I did Before Night Falls."

Before Night Falls, ironically, was the film that helped to catapult Bardem into the American spotlight. His portrayal of gay Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, helped to land him an Oscar nomination (as Best Actor), while also giving him the time to learn English and prepare for The Dancer Upstairs. Yet it was equally as difficult for director, Julian Schnabel, to take on that role.

"Julian knew me from Spain. He called me and told me he wanted me to play the role. I had never done anything in English, so I said, 'Let me see...' And I saw it and said, 'No'. And then he kept on talking to me and I kept saying, 'I can't, I can't, I don't speak English.' And then one day I woke up and said, 'What the fuck am I doing? This is a great role. What am I doing? Learn English.' So I did it."

So has the Oscar nomination changed his career and helped to provide the pick of any role he chooses?

"It was a crazy time for me. It was a great honour, and I feel flattered to have been nominated. But once you are nominated, which was amazing and really emotional, you go there to make the campaign... I felt like a whore.

"I felt like a political campaigner, asking for votes, like saying 'Hey, excuse me! I am the best, vote for me'. That was something that really freaked me out, because first of all, we are supposedly talking about art and art cannot be competitive. It's so subjective, we are not people running 100 metres. At least if we all played gladiators, the five of us, somebody can say, 'Ok, the best gladiator is you'. But what has a gay Cuban poet got to do with a gladiator? Nothing, man!"

And in terms of the roles it has led to?

"It’s difficult to find good roles. It’s a huge effort for me to spend months and months working in English with a coach and I prefer to do it for something I enjoy. They don’t even have to pay me well, so long as it’s something that I enjoy, so it doesn’t matter if I have to work at 7am, it’s something that I like, otherwise I will feel miserable.

"I will do a movie for a cheque, yes, one or two, but not like a career thing, where you put yourself in something that you don’t like, but you have to do in order to be in the spotlight.... I believe that by going little by little, and doing what you believe, you go further."

And, finally, what was it like working with Malkovich?

"I have worked on 25 movies now, actually, and some of the directors have been great and others have been not good, but most approached me with a lot of information; information that I need, because I am a control freak and I need that information.

"In the case of John, we enjoyed that journey, we rehearsed, but once I was on the set, he left me alone, and when he sensed that I was lost, he would come to me and give me a little clue, that was like a trigger for me to go in a certain direction, because he is an actor, he knows. So that’s the difference with working with someone like John, who has also directed plays."

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