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 thats not true and
as soon as we can understand that, well be free, but also
we will be weaker - and if you feel weak as a person, you are
scared. But thats life.
"Rejas doesnt 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 cant control your life is scary,
because you dont know whats going to happen tomorrow,
its 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 doesnt mean that you are mean or not a good
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?
"Its difficult to find good roles. Its 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
dont even have to pay me well, so long as its something
that I enjoy, so it doesnt matter if I have to work at 7am,
its 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 dont 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 thats the difference with working
with someone like John, who has also directed plays."