NEW YORK - In one long take, Javier Bardem grandly strides into the latest James Bond film.
Walking slowly across a cavernous lair and toward a foreground where Daniel Craig's 007 sits tied to a chair, Bardem - as the film's villain, Raoul Silva - tells an ominously symbolic story about rats. Resembling something like a sinister Dick Cavett, Bardem, with wavy blond hair and a white jacket, crouches near Bond and suggestively, intimidatingly rubs his thigh.
It comes as little surprise that Bardem as a Bond villain is a lot of fun. In "Skyfall," he provides one of the finest arch-enemies in the 50-year history of Bond films, and plays him as a distinctly more human character than the franchise has often provided - even if with a dose of flamboyance.
"The key point for me was what (director Sam Mendes) told me from the very beginning: the word `uncomfortableness,'" Bardem said in a recent interview. "I don't want him to be someone that threatens somebody, that's threatening to someone. It's about creating a very uncomfortable situation every time he talks to somebody else."
The 43-year-old Spanish actor is already widely admired by his peers and film critics, having won an Oscar in 2007 for another interestingly coiffured villain, Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men," and been nominated two other times: for his breakthrough performance in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" (2000) and for his soulful, melancholy turn in Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's "Biutiful" (2010).
But "Skyfall" is Bardem's largest film yet, the kind of blockbuster behemoth that usually gives little room for even the finest actors to flex their muscles. Yet, rather than be constrained by the Bond movie archetype, Bardem manages to put forth a performance just as nuanced as those in smaller, more deliberately arty films.
"I've never done a movie as big as James Bond, so I didn't how a big monster like this would affect my work on set," says Bardem. "It was a great gift of finding myself in a very, very creative process."
It was Craig who first reached out to Bardem while casually chatting at an event in Los Angeles. Bardem, intrigued, replied that the prospect sounded "pretty cool." He was later convinced after reading the script and finding: "Wow. There's a person here."
"I'm in awe of the guy," says Craig. "He's a passionate kind of creature where everything he does on screen is mesmerizing and electrifying. He put in levels of interest, made it real, but didn't forget he was playing a Bond villain - which is a clever actor knowing full well he's got to play it straight, kind of, and then remember what he's doing."
Just how "straight" Bardem's Silva is has been a question eagerly debated by 007 fans, with some calling him the first gay Bond villain. That's probably overstating it (and what do we really know about Oddjob's private life, besides) but Silva's effeteness, along with his sensitivity and sense of humor, make him an unusually layered bad guy.
"Doing a Bond movie affords you that kind of flamboyance that you can't get in purely naturalistic movies," says Mendes. "As an actor, you get an opportunity to do things that, frankly, are hovering a foot above the ground. They're not rooted in reality. Javier always has a slight theatricality about him, which we just tweaked in this movie."
It was a considerably different process for Bardem than playing the Cormac McCarthy-penned villain of "No Country." Chigurh was virtually devoid of personality, but was rather an embodiment of violence, an angel of death. Silva's terrorism in "Skyfall" is fueled by a past with MI6 head M (Judi Dench), whom he targets in an elaborate cyber scheme. Silva's blond locks and his drive for making public MI6 secrets suggests Julian Assange, though Bardem says the Wikileaks founder wasn't a deliberate inspiration.
Acting runs in the family for Bardem, who grew up watching his mother agonize between parts, waiting for the phone to ring. He initially pursued painting and fell into acting after trying to earn money as an extra. His mother's advice was to commit fully to the work without compromise, a lesson Bardem has long clung to, carefully choosing his roles with uncommon pickiness. (He'll next star in Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder," to be released next year.)
He's also remained a perpetual student, studying for a month every year with his acting coach, Juan Carlos Corazza, in Madrid, where Bardem lives with his wife Penelope Cruz and their young son.
"It's always about really dismantling what you think you know and the security and the safety zone where you are, trying to make a step forward to something new, something that will put you in some trouble," he says.
Making "Biutiful" was particularly draining for Bardem. It took some time to exorcise the character, the dying Uxbal. Playing the more exuberant Silva, though, was less taxing.
"You're allowed to have a different fun with it, rather than being stuck and holding that energy that you need, like `Biutiful,' for so long," he says. "Here, you can release that energy and let it go."