But boy does he make an impression.
The James Bond film franchise turned 50 this fall, and is commemorating the golden anniversary with the release of its 23rd film, Skyfall, out in American theaters Nov. 9. It’s a reverent homage to classic Bond while taking the franchise in a new direction. Fans get the closest thing yet to a 007 backstory, while the film brandishes an emotional through-line that fires as sharply as director Sam Mendes’s slick, explosive action sequences. With every element of Skyfall as polished as Daniel Craig in a Tom Ford suit, it’s no small praise that Bardem, playing bleached-blond cyberterrorist and psychopath Raoul Silva, is Bond 23’s undeniable highlight.
Skyfall presents a vulnerable, doubtful Bond (Craig), one who runs away on a Mediterranean bender after he’s presumed dead and who, betraying the icon’s typical suave confidence, thinks his best days are behind him. It’s Bardem’s Silva who, after orchestrating a vengeful attack on M (Judi Dench) and MI6, and compromising all British agents, brings Bond back to brutish form.
While classic Bond villains—Blofeld, Goldfinger—are colorfully cartoonish in their nefariousness, Bardem, as Silva, shades a characterization that is decidedly stirred, not shaken. Arriving with a shock of blond hair, and playful eyes, and wearing a near-perpetual wily smirk, he paints a textured portrait of a megalomaniac, one whose pain reverberates through his maniacal bad-guy laugh.
“I was very struck by the power of the material,” Bardem tells The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘This could be fun.'”
Bardem’s gloriously staged entrance, when it finally arrives, drips with grandeur—a single-take shot of Silva slinking toward a bound Bond while delivering a theatrical monologue about metaphorical rats and the allure of cyberwarfare. How thrilled was Bardem when he read the script and saw his juicy introduction?
“I was not that excited,” he says, chuckling. Escalating the pressure, Bardem says he wasn’t told until the day of shooting that the monologue would be filmed with a single, steady shot. “When I saw the film and saw the distance it looked like I had to walk, I said, ‘That’s not fair! It was way longer than that. It looks so much shorter!'”
That Bardem nails the tricky scene shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed his career.
He’s earned Academy Awards nods for his breakout role as the late gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls and his devastating performance as a father facing terminal illness in Biutiful. In 2007, he won Best Supporting Actor for playing terrifying killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
His personal life catches the understandable attention of tabloid rags and paparazzi lenses—he and Penélope Cruz are not only among the world’s most unfairly beautiful married couples, they have a child together—but he famously never discusses his family with the press. The Bardem-Cruz clan resides in Madrid, where Bardem runs a bar with his sister when he’s not acting. He calls going to L.A. to shoot movies “going to the office.”
It’s worth noting, however, that despite his A-list recognition and awards success, Bardem has never top-lined a box-office smash. So what persuades an actor who sticks largely to Spanish-language and independent films and routinely rejects the flashing-bulb circus of Hollywood to sign on for an installment of one of film’s most iconic—and widely seen—franchises? Mendes, he says, played a large part in the convincing, as did the hallowed call sheet of actors who would be joining him on screen: Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and Daniel Craig.
But perhaps the most persuasive person in getting him to agree to the part was 007 himself. “James Bond is James Bond everywhere,” he says. “I remember the first one I saw was Moonraker. I was 12. I was with my father. I remember looking forward to and waiting for the next Bond movie. So being a part of that is a great privilege, especially being a part of this movie, specifically, because it’s the one that celebrates 50 years.”
Throughout Bardem’s career there have been memorable turns: as the sizzling Spaniard caught in a love quadrangle in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the hunky focus of the “love” narrative in Eat Pray Love. But Chigurh in No Country for Old Men remains the role for which Bardem is most known.
In the film, Bardem’s saucer eyes, almost bug-like, are steely and wide. His skin tone is made to look nearly jaundiced, contrasting with his pale, plump lips. His look as the ruthless assassin is so naturally menacing that the measured delivery of the line, “Hold still,” before he wastes a target chills to the bone. Now indelible, Chigurh ranks high on numerous lists of Best Movie Villains.
Already so indelibly tied to one iconic film baddie, Bardem was concerned about playing another. Especially, since, once again, this character sports utterly ridiculous hair. As much talk as Bardem’s brilliant turn in No Country received in 2007, there was nearly equal focus on the laughably hideous pageboy hairstyle he wears in the film. The Skyfall outfitting may be even more absurd. As Silva, Bardem dons tacky white linen suits and a bleached-blond shag that is seemingly inspired by a combination of Julian Assange’s mop, a Halloween costume wig for Fred from Scooby-Doo, and the pelt of an albino rodent. And just as in No Country, the completed look is, somehow, absolutely terrifying.
While he had initial reservations that Silva would “be more of the same,” Bardem says that an early conversation with Mendes left him reassured that this was an entirely different character.
It’s also an entirely different kind of Big Baddie for Bond. Audiences are more than familiar with Bond’s license to ladykill—steamy trysts with Hollywood’s hottie du jour are as integral to the 007 franchise as chase scenes and martinis. But Silva may be the first Bond villain to be characterized as as sexual as his foe.
One particular erotically charged scene between Silva and, yes, Bond, has caused some loyalists to nervously loosen their bowties. When the two characters first meet, Silva runs his hand down Bond’s chest, caressing it in a manner typically employed on buxom Bond Girls. Asked if he’s being made to feel uncomfortable, Bond coolly replies, “What makes you think this is my first time?”
The scene quickly dominated headlines as American critics previewed Skyfall and as the film was released overseas. Silva's—and Bond’s—sexual proclivities is among the things Bardem’s been asked most about on the Skyfall press tour. “What can I say about that?” Bardem says, his mouth morphing into a sly grin. He recounts a press conference during which Craig was asked about the scene. “Someone suggested that Silva may be gay,” Craig said, smiling mischievously. “And I’m like, I think he’ll fuck anything.”
“He’s right,” Bardem says. “This guy lives on an abandoned island, and he’d do anything to really create a very uncomfortable situation.” As for the “Is Bond gay?” hoopla being made about such a fleeting line exchange in the movie: “What people make out of that, that will depend on their own personal opinions and certainties.”
This week marked another milestone for the 43-year-old Oscar winner. He produced and narrated the new documentary Sons of the Clouds, which spotlights the political and human-rights plights of the refugees of Western Sahara, a group of 100,000 people who, after their former Spanish colony became occupied, in part, by Morocco, were forced to live in refugee camps in the desert.
After traveling to a refugee camp—where he lived with the families in their tents—for a film festival four years ago, Bardem partnered with filmmaker Alvaro Longoria to produce the documentary four years ago. As much as Sons of the Clouds is about the plight of the Western Saharan people, it chronicles Bardem and Longoria’s frustrating crusade to raise awareness of their struggle and crash through the bureaucratic wall to enact change.
The documentary is available on iTunes and became available on VOD Nov. 6, a marked contrast from the release Skyfall, which has already set international box-office records. “I didn’t make the movie to break the box office, but to bring more attention to these people,” Bardem says. “They’re in the worst possible scenario, but they believe in the cause and it keeps them waiting for the rest of the world to sort out their situation.”
There you go. In Skyfall, Bardem skillfully plays a cybervillain hell-bent on destroying much of the world. But in real life, he is trying to save it.