When Javier Bardem was a young actor in Spain, he had a powerful dream in which all of the characters he had portrayed were in the same room. Yet they had nothing to say to one another because they had so little in common.
It's a surreal concept that still motivates the 43-year-old Oscar winner, though he concedes that the idea of his growing list of characters never sharing traits is "impossible, of course."
"But chasing that idea is what gives me ...," Bardem says, struggling for the proper English, "what's the word? Inspired. It gives me hunger. It's my goal. I try to bring people to the screen that didn't exist before. When I see actors that do that, I go, 'Wow.' "
An international wave of moviegoers and critics has already been wowed by Bardem's newest addition to the room: the menacing yet quirky villain opposite Daniel Craig's James Bond in Skyfall, opening in U.S. theaters Thursday at midnight.
The battle between the two has propelled the much-awaited 23rd edition of the Bond franchise to already staggering heights. After a four-year wait since 2008'sQuantum of Solace (while production stalled due to MGM Studios' financial woes), the classic British series returns with born-again energy while celebrating an honorary 50th anniversary. Skyfall already has grossed $287 million overseas and looks ready to break franchise records when it opens here.
Bardem's next reunion of his characters will definitely take a turn for the very weird, given the nature of his Skyfall creation, Raoul Silva. He's a way-out-there cyberterrorist who shows the same menace and odd hair as the bowl-cut psychotic hit man Anton Chigurh, whom Bardem portrayed in 2007's No Country for Old Men — a role that earned him a supporting-actor Oscar.
But the freakishly blond Silva has an outsized presence, not to mention a great retro wardrobe, worthy of a classic Bond villain.
"The guy is really, really confident about himself in a weird way," says Bardem. "He definitely thinks he's the most beautiful man in the world.
"You have to work on two different levels," he adds. "One is to make him as real as possible. And the other is to fly a little bit higher than the rest of the characters. You are allowed to do that. Because that is what people are expecting to see when you play a Bond villain, especially since the films are turning 50 years."
It's just what Bond fans want in a baddie, says Bill Desowitz, author of James Bond Unmasked. "Silva is right there with the classic villains Dr. No and Goldfinger as far as fun flamboyance. He's someone who you can really have fun with. But you still very much feel the threat."
Director Sam Mendes says that when he was brought on board to direct Skyfall with the looming anniversary, he wanted to pay tribute to films like the original Bond, 1962's Dr. No. "I wanted Silva to sort of be a throwback to the slightly more theatrical Bond villains of the 1960s. I thought, 'Who would I most want to see playing a Bond villain?' It took me about me about 10 seconds to come up with Javier."
Mendes instructed the team of screenwriters to create with Bardem in mind as they constructed a tale involving a former agent bent on revenge against Bond's MI5 boss, M (Judi Dench), who Silva believes betrayed him in the field.
"The part really was crafted for Javier," says Mendes. "It wasn't much more complicated than that."
Silva's role is also central to the story, even if he physically does not appear until a powerful interrogation scene with Bond exactly midway in the film. "It's a very slow build to the entrance,'' says Mendes. "We tantalize the audience."
On paper, the self-deprecating Bardem might the last person who should have been cast for the tech-savvy freak. One big red flag: Bardem says he is so bad with computers that pretending to look competent in front of a computer keyboard was a bigger challenge than perfecting the long stretches of English dialogue for the part.
"Cyberterrorism — I don't know what that means myself," says Bardem. "Because I basically cannot send an e-mail. That's like a whole different world to me. I'm so behind the technology these days. It's kind of scary. That's why Sam put the camera behind me when I was at the computer.''
Second red flag: Bardem also shows a marked lack of interest in firearms, which are pretty key with villains in general — especially in Skyfall when Silva's hunt for Bond and M intensifies into an on-the-ground manhunt.
"I'm lost in that, too," Bardem says, conceding that he didn't recognize the kind of gun he was given. "I didn't even know what mine was called. For the most part, I just put in some earplugs and just shoot."
But Mendes knew as soon as Bardem appeared in full Silva attire for his screen test that he had his villain.
"We rolled camera, he looked into the lens, and he was this character. He didn't even open his mouth," says Mendes. "It was shocking and amazing all at the same time."
French actress Bérénice Marlohe, whose alluring character warns Bond about the deepest fear that Silva is capable of instilling, says Bardem earns that compliment. "He managed to combine this ability to be highly unpredictable — like his life is not directed by any rules — but at the same time, you can feel his humanity. It makes him even more evil."
Longtime Bond producer Barbara Broccoli says Bardem pumps life into the character. "When Silva is evil, he makes your skin crawl. But Javier is also so sexy and attractive.''
Bardem says Silva's greatest weapon is "uncomfortableness."
This is very much on display in the sexually charged first encounter, in which the seated and bound Bond is teased close-up by Silva, who even (gasp!) touches the eternally macho agent's chest.
"You can feel that energy in the scene. The camera captures that strange, slightly unhinged quality," says Mendes. "They got the giggles a couple of times, particularly when Silva starts undoing Bond's shirt."
Despite the overt sexual overtones, Bardem says the scene is more about a poker game between the two adversaries.
"I bet, (then) he bets stronger," says Bardem. "I'm trying to dismantle him, and he's trying to dismantle me. Within that, everything is allowed."
As to whether Silva is truly attracted to Craig's Bond or just playing the game, Bardem doesn't show his cards.
"Everyone will have their own opinion. My interpretation? Silva is a man who is really not attached to anything or anybody. And not to any label. In other words, he's there to really move forward with his plan."
And is Silva seeking more serious relations with Bond? "Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. That's the question the audience has to answer."
There are some mysteries about Silva that are revealed in Skyfall, including the reasons for his outlandish attire. Mendes makes clear that the strange coif — however different — will cause some to think Bardem is harking back to his No Country for Old Men character.
"(Silva's hair) is completely a character choice, not an actor choice," says Mendes. "It wasn't 'how can I make this different from the last thing I played?' "
Bardem won't say whether it's a wig or dye job — "that's a 007 secret." But he doesn't see the wild hair as any more or less important than any other feature for his character.
"Hair is part of the physicality as much as the eyes, the hands and the ears," he says. "It's not something I'm obsessed about or married to."
Nor does he buy into the idea that playing villains is more enjoyable than other types of characters. After all, he has earned rave reviews for roles as diverse as a quadriplegic seeking the right to die (2004's The Sea Inside) to a love-besotted artist in Woody Allen's 2008 romantic comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which Bardem starred alongside future wife Penelope Cruz. (They wed in 2010). He'll next appear as a soul-searching priest in Terrence Malick'sTo the Wonder, due in April.
"As long as there's a human being behind the character, with some kind of conflict, as we all have, then it's interesting to play anyone, whether it's a villain, good guy, bald, long hair, tall or short," says Bardem.
It all goes back to the characters in Bardem's imaginary room. But should Skyfall's Silva and No Country's Chigurh, who famously used to flip a coin to determine the fate of his victims, ever meet in one of his dreams, they would have at least one thing in common.
"Maybe they could have a chat about their hairstyles for a second. I think Silva has a strong sense of humor, so he would make fun of Chigurh's hair. And I guess Chigurh would not like that at all. And he would flip a coin. I don't know what happens after that."