Javier Bardem: the Next Antonio Banderas?

VENICE, ITALY — Spain's macho star Javier Bardem, whose films include the sexy romp Jamon, Jamon and Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh, impressively switches gears in Before Night Falls. Bardem plays Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, an artist who was tortured by Castro's repressive police after he was imprisoned, chased like a fox by hounds, and censored.

In his portrayal of the poet — who died of AIDS in New York City in 1990 — Bardem gives Arenas dignity, passion, and humor, while never ever letting anyone forget that he was a brilliant writer who happened to be homosexual.

Bardem credits his director, artist Julian Schnabel — whose first feature, Basquiat, premiered here in Venice five years ago. Schnabel had originally approached Bardem to play a supporting role, until he called 10 days later at 2 a.m.

"He said, 'I want you to do Reinaldo,'" Bardem remembers, "and I said, 'I can't! I don't speak English, I don't speak Cuban. And I'm a big guy and Reinaldo is real [small].' He said, 'I think you have a strong sense of pain inside of you and you know what pain is and Reinaldo has a lot of pain.' I thought, 'That's a good reason.'"

Eventually Bardem lost 35 pounds and studied English six hours daily and Spanish from Cubans in New York. He says, "I went to Havana before I said yes to the movie, because I wanted to have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I met gays and writers who are still living in Cuba, who … had passed through this hell, this madness [Castro's persecution], and we're almost crying when talking about Reinaldo. I wanted to do it, but it's not a problem of Cuba, it's human beings, we don't like differences in each other."

Gay Role Shocks Some Back Home Bardem grins as he confesses that back home, "some are a little bit shocked by my doing gay roles. They think I'm doing this because I'm trying to rip an image I built and am proud of. But an image doesn't answer to the career I want to do, the need of doing different roles and being able to surprise myself."

As for any awards or future nominations, Bardem is putting on the brakes.

"Let's see if people like this and then think about awards. Who doesn't want to win an Oscar, of course? We haven't done this movie for awards. I did this because I believed in who Reinaldo Arenas is.

"All of [Arenas' memoir] Before Night Falls, that is the basis of the movie, he couldn't write it because he had AIDS. He did all of the book on tape with almost his deathly terminal voice. You can tell, when you listen to the recording, [that] he's recording and can't breathe. It's something shocking to hear."

Following Antonio to Hollywood? As for the reaction in Spain that Bardem may follow Antonio Banderas to a Hollywood career, he admits, "They are scared I lose my way if I make a career out of Spain. It's called 'natural envy' and it happened with Antonio and it's stupid. One person cannot forget his own country because he's leaving his country for a while."