In the USA, he has been a critical darling for nearly a decade. He earned his first Oscar nomination for playing openly gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's "Before Night Falls." More positive reviews came for his turn as a lovelorn, dogged cop in 2002's "The Dancer Upstairs," followed by another lauded performance in 2004's "The Sea Inside" as a quadriplegic fighting for the right to die.
"Before Night Falls" director Julian Schnabel, a close friend of Bardem's, calls him "one of the greatest actors walking on this earth at this time. It's one of those things you get born with. He works as hard as anyone I've ever met. He's very smart. He's very devoted to what he's doing."
On set, says Russell Smith, who produced "The Dancer Upstairs," Bardem is "absolutely, phenomenally serious. When he's acting, he's into that character. The moment he's not acting, he's a lovely ball of fun. When he's not working, he's a lovely man with a big smile. He lights up a room, that guy. When he wants to have fun, he just has fun and makes everyone have fun around him."
He drinks beer. He sings. He loves to dance. No wonder Schnabel calls him a true entertainer: "He's not the center of attention at a party. He is the party."
Though he might come across as aloof at first, it's just the language barrier, Brolin says.
"He's very lighthearted after you get to know him. At the beginning, it seems like he's intense, but he's just shy. The guy just doesn't know what to say. He's trying to construct a decent English sentence. He's that shy about it and that conscious of his English."
And accepting his slew of awards isn't easy, either. "When he gets on stage, it's awful for him," Brolin says. "It's complete torture."
He has a thing about violence
Just as difficult? Climbing into the twisted head of Chigurh. What Carrie Bradshaw is to fashion, Anton Chigurh is to carnage. He simply won't quit. And that left Bardem in something of a quandary. Sure, he was dying to work with the idiosyncratic Coens. But he couldn't drive, a skill required of the roaming assassin. His English left something to be desired. And most of all, he had major issues with Chigurh's profession.
"I have this problem with violence," he says. "I've only done one movie in almost 20 years where I killed people. It's called Perdita Durango. It's a Spanish movie. I'm very proud of the movie, but I felt weird doing that."
So he flew to Manhattan and met the Coens for breakfast in a coffeehouse to dissect his character. And then, he tried to make that leap to a mind-set where pulling the trigger isn't just easy, it's humdrum.
"I haven't killed anybody. But of course, we all wanted to kill someone in our life. You stop the thought because it's crazy, and you don't do it," Bardem says. "But this is a guy who will go ahead with it. It's about filling the gap between the rationality and irrationality of it. You fill the gap with imagination. I would stop here, but he wouldn't stop, so what do I need to fill it?"
On set, Bardem stays in character. Off set in Texas and New Mexico, unfortunately, he sometimes did, too. Being the only foreign actor among the leading men set him apart. So, too, did playing such a miscreant.