Oscar Nominee Javier Bardem's Work Speaks Volumes

Javier Bardem, the jig is up. For years, the Spaniard relied on a fallback line when American directors came calling: He simply didn't speak English. That's what he told Ethan and Joel Coen when they approached him about playing a stony, roaming, coin-tossing assassin in "No Country for Old Men."

But since nailing the role that has earned him a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, Bardem has conquered that linguistic beast, a stray grammatical error here or there notwithstanding.

"Lucky enough, I can speak English, more or less," he concedes. "Today, I'm tired."

The fatigue stems from a lengthy night out with his "No Country" co-stars to celebrate their Screen Actors Guild win for best ensemble cast. Bardem and his buddy Josh Brolin stayed out well past dawn. And now, Bardem is feeling the pain.

"I used to be a good party boy. I'm old. I'm an old man," says Bardem, 38, sighing with mock exhaustion. "You pay the consequences. I'm just fine with a couple of drinks, no more than that.

"I enjoy my time at home, reading a good book. Especially if you're an actor, it's important for you to read books. Because otherwise you are reading scripts, which are most of the time the worst literature ever."

Bardem is a barrel-chested slab of a man, casual in a gray Dockers T-shirt paired with dark pants and white Prada sneakers. Now, in the early afternoon, he leans back on the couch in his suite at the Chateau Marmont, smoking cigarettes and pondering how he came to be the front-runner to win the supporting-actor Oscar on Feb. 24.

Bardem's Anton Chigurh murders with a methodical, efficient ferocity that is chilling and inescapable. And Bardem's executioner in the film, still playing in select theaters and due on DVD March 11, is killing critics and audiences alike.

"Who knew Chigurh would have this impact on people?" Bardem marvels. "One good thing is to be surprised by what comes to me. You do what you can. You try to be surrounded by talented people and talented projects, but at the end, things have to be touched by some kind of grace."

He pauses and smiles slightly. "Of course, it's very helpful to be surrounded by people like the Coens."

He is deadly serious on-screen and nearly as intense in person, but he has a sly sense of humor.

Brolin, who plays his "No Country nemesis," calls Bardem "a compelling guy. You spend time with him, and he's opposite of how he looks. He comes across as De Niro in that he has a severe face. But he's the sweetest human being I've ever met, bar none. I met his mother, and she's the same way."

Bardem, asked about being selected as one of People magazine's sexiest men alive, replies: "When they told me that, I thought, 'That's funny. Every time I wake up, I see myself like somebody beat me up.'"

Those who know him say he hasn't gone Hollywood -- and is wary of becoming a celebrity. His core group of friends includes guys he has known since he was 11. He lives in Madrid, walks everywhere and stays out of the tabloids, even though he's reportedly dating fellow Spaniard Penelope Cruz. But don't bother to ask him to comment on it.

"The personal thing is something I have never talked about. And I never will. That is prohibited. My job is public. But that's it. When you're not working, you don't have an obligation to be public."

That attitude has helped him deal with fame in Spain, where he's already a big star.

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.

"It wasn't fun to be him because there's something that stays with you, whether you like it or not, the essence of the character," Bardem says. "You change your behavior. There was a moment where I felt a little emotionally detached from people on set, in my day life. This whole thing of being a foreigner, of being on my own, was matched by the fact that I felt (removed). I'm kind of social. But that thing happened, and I wasn't aware of that. Josh was aware of that. He helped me tremendously to take me out of that."

Perhaps the most difficult part of inhabiting Chigurh was the most obvious: that demented schoolboy hairstyle Bardem had to sport for three long months. As anyone who has ever had a disastrous cut knows, it's traumatizing.

"You see yourself, you see the haircut. You don't realize that it's affecting you in a very delicate way, through your own psyche. What happened to me was that after a couple of weeks, I was a little bit -- a little bit -- strange to myself. There was something that was not familiar. It was like, what am I doing here?"

Brolin helped him get back to normal. "He was depressed during the process. The haircut, he felt he wouldn't (have sex) for three months. Full-blown depression. I mean, bad. Didn't like it. Didn't like the way he looked. He'd stay home for hours on end. He wouldn't go out.

"I tried to get him to go out, see a movie. We'd go out, and he'd sing karaoke."

Now all that drama is paying off. Bardem has wrapped the latest Woody Allen project, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and is on tap to star in Rob Marshall's musical Nine, set to start shooting once the writers' strike is over.

And now that he's riding the wave of critical adoration, Bardem, who comes from a family of actors, wants to take his time and not make any false moves.

"I have certain aims. I've been working since I was 18 years old. I know what I want to do. Sometimes you have to fight for it, and it's not easy. But in the end, you are lucky, because you have the privilege of choosing. You have the privilege, so why not choose? I want to die doing this job."

Being the standout darling this awards season also has left the modest Bardem, who still hasn't mastered the art of red-carpet banter, feeling overwhelmed.

"This moment is really kind of surprising. Very rewarding, especially the Screen Actors Guild. That's one of the most precious things I've ever gotten. It's a great honor. You celebrate it, and you forget about it. You can't put it on your back. It's an awful weight."

Bardem grins. "And it's a really heavy statue."