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Interview: Javier Bardem on Everybody Knows, Fatherhood, and the Politics of Guilt

The Oscar-winning actor discusses working with Asghar Farhadi and his thoughts on guilt, the power of fatherhood, and more.

Everybody Knows
Photo: Focus Features

Even in his minor roles, Javier Bardem has a way of commanding your attention. It’s in the way he moves his body into the frame just so, giving you an instant sense of his character’s history. And the actor conjures the vastness of that history in the subtlest of ways, though often through the eyes of a tired man saddled by difficult memories. It’s a look that he vibrantly exploits as Paco, a Spanish vintner in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows.

The film unfolds in the wake of a girl’s kidnapping. Paco takes the lead in finding the girl, but his strained and mysterious relation to the girl’s mother, Laura (Penélope Cruz), complicates our understanding of his motivations. The unspooling revelations of the man’s history with the family bring heft to the film’s kidnapping arc. In tandem with Farhadi’s layered, shifting perspectives, Bardem bends Paco’s buried and uncertain emotions into a psychological maze.

I recently had the chance to speak with Bardem about working with Farhadi and his thoughts on guilt, the power of fatherhood, and more.

A lot of Farhadi’s characters are men who hide their true feelings. There’s always a difference between a surface-level motivation and a deeper one. Paco is no exception.

That’s a luxury of being in a film by Asghar Farhadi. If you’re an actor or an actress, you can get something similar in a best-case scenario, but you won’t get better than that. That’s a fact, at least in moviemaking. I love the performances he got from all those amazing Iranian actors—those powerful situations he put them in and the dialogue he gave them.

What kind of preparation did you do for this role?

I was simply present and allowed myself to be guided by one of the smartest, funniest, inspiring, and caring people I’ve ever met. We were shooting for almost four months and for me it was like, like, I don’t know, what’s the word in English? Like a game! Farhadi is so grounded and at the same time so high in his thoughts. He always feels like he’s in contact with something higher than him. It’s like he’s this vehicle of transmission for something very creative when he tells you where to go and how to get there.

Did he guide your understanding of Paco, then? Or did you come into the production with your own concept of who this man was?

No, Farhadi knew exactly what he wanted to do with him. He wanted to create this person who will sacrifice everything in the name of emotion, for a feeling of sensation. Paco isn’t sure what’s right and what’s wrong, or what’s true and what’s false. He feels something, and he really wants to be guided by that feeling because he knows that’s a real feeling. And in that sense, he’s the hero, but he’s also the victim. He’s very open to be manipulated, transformed, touched, harmed, and loved. So, he’s a very rich character. At the same time, he’s a very common man from this village, who works in this vineyard, and because he’s a nice, funny, normal guy, I wanted to get that right.

I might just be cynical, but I got the sense that Paco was mostly motivated by guilt, for his success with the farm, for his past with Laura. Did you see him in that light at all? You talk about him in very warm terms, but I had a different read on him.

Yes, there’s guilt in some of the emotions I played, but it’s not a guilt that has to do with religion. It’s more guilt from the feeling of being betrayed by someone. Also, he betrayed the woman he’s now with, and his vineyard. There’s a lot of guilt there, but I wouldn’t say that guilt is his most important motivation. Guilt is very religious, in my point of view. Spain is very connected to feelings of guilt, which is something I know lot about, by the way [laughs].

The film is a genre-infused work of psychological realism. It’s hard to balance Farhadi’s usual style with the conventions of a kidnapping story. Did you find it difficult to not lean in the direction of just being stuck in a crime thriller or a melodrama?

Some call it soap-operatic, and I guess it helps that I love soap operas! Listen, a quality soap opera or melodrama is nothing less than an opera. There’s a tendency to melodrama in everything around us: people’s reactions, affections, misunderstandings. All of those relationships go to a point where the reality we call reality isn’t real. Sometimes it looks like a movie, feels like a movie, feels too much. That’s what Farhadi captures in his movies: A Separation, The Salesman, About Elly. But he does it so beautifully, so delicately, so richly that you understand that, yes, life is a big fucking messed-up melodrama.

And funny.

Yes, thank God, there are funny moments, or otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But he really is a master of putting all of that into a frame and making us understand that we are creating all of that melodrama because we don’t want to face our responsibilities in life.

You often play father figures who have to suffer in some terrible way or they just fail to be a good dad. I’m thinking of this film, mother!, and in a certain sense Biutiful. Is there something that attracts you to that type of role?

I don’t think so. At this point, I don’t care who the character is or how he behaves or how he dresses as long as he’s rich inside. Of course, when you play such a strong figure as a father, it’s a very intense feeling, because you’re trying to construct a relationship with a son or daughter in something fictional that represents a very important relationship in real life.

Has having children changed your way of approaching that sort of role?

Before, when I was younger, I wanted to eat the whole world, jump into it unprotected. Now I’m almost 50 and, you know, I hate that. Now I understand more the importance of being a father, of being willing to die for a child. To have a family is to be in a room that’s sacred, meaning that I’m not going to let that go or let anything invade that room.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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