Taking a quick break from shooting Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows in Madrid, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz visited the Venice Film Festival this week to promote Loving Pablo, a passion project for Bardem who also serves as producer. The film is told from the point of view of Virginia Vallejo, the Colombian journalist who had a volatile affair with drug cartel king Pablo Escobar. Fernando Leon de Aranoa directs.
Bardem and Cruz spoke with the press ahead of the gala out-of-competition screening and I later sat down with them to discuss the project, why they ultimately made it in English and what it’s like to work together.
While Escobar’s story has been told in myriad forms, including in the current Netflix hit series Narcos, Loving Pablo shines a different light. Bardem told the press this week that as an actor he wants “to understand and get into the head of the people who live on this earth of ours. In this case, it’s a person who was a loving father and created such horror. It’s a terrible contradiction that was very interesting to me.”
Without wanting to sympathize with a monster, Bardem said one of the main reasons to get inside his head was to “explain what happens when, at a personal level, somebody falls in love with this sort of person.”
Cruz, Bardem’s real-life wife said she had to get inside Vallejo “without judging her… She didn’t know where she was going. She was terribly attracted by his magnetism but didn’t know up to what point she was putting her life in danger.”
Given the subject matter and the pedigree of the film, some have questioned why it was shot in English. Bardem told me, “We tried for years, I mean years, to make it in Spanish. We went to many places and they sometimes will say yes, but then you have to put in this and this and this — that’s what we wanted to avoid.”
There comes a time “when you want to do something like this and there has to be scope. There’s a roof there. It happened with Before Night Falls or even Love In The Time Of Cholera and those are in English, or Goya’s Ghosts with Milos Forman. That’s the law of the market which unfortunately hasn’t changed.”
What’s more, Bardem argued, “Having countries like Italy and Spain and Germany that dub every movie doesn’t help because people are not educated to see movies in their original versions. Then you go to a press conference and they ask you why it’s not in Spanish, but at the same time buyers aren’t buying in their native language because people aren’t going to see it. I don’t know what the solution is. It should be what’s the most honest that you can be with the origin of the project.”
Although original language TV series have made headway (Narcos included) and despite the fact that the Hispanic population is a massive movie-going group in the U.S., ultimately, Bardem told me, “We stopped and said, ‘what should we do?’ And I thought about movies I love like Doctor Zhivago. Okay, they were done in English, but they were done in a way that trespassed the language barrier and I thought ‘Wow, what a story, what a performance. I want to do that.'”
He allowed, “Of course there will be people that go, ‘I don’t want to see it because of that,’ but I think that we tell a story in an honest way with the honest tools that we had and I think it’s powerful enough to transmit what we wanted.”
Cruz agreed the decision to shoot in English was an unfortunate byproduct of the law of the market. “If we want to tell this story with this script, it costs that amount. If it costs that amount, it has to be done in English. Does it mean we stop trying for people to see movies in other languages? Do we keep fighting for that or do we have to surrender to what the market dictates?… The market has to follow some rules to save itself, but at the same time, the market has to remain true to the artistic. So why not always have a place for feeding that to the public because the more accessible that is to the public, the more they will demand it I think.”
Still, the English in the film is authentically Colombian-accented. The actors first did the dialogue in Spanish, adapted their own voices and then translated into English. “I always wanted to do a Colombian accent so now I more or less have it. I want to do a project (in Spanish) where I can do it with a Colombian accent,” Cruz said. That’s along with other acting projects, films she’s producing and a desire to direct that gets keener all the time.
Bardem and Cruz’s own love story began with Woody Allen’s Vicky Crristina Barcelona, and the pair are currently doing the Farhadi movie together. So what are the challenges and upsides to working with your partner?
Cruz told me, “It’s always a little scary and you’re going to attach material that is very disturibing so you don’t want that to touch you too much. But at the same time, you have to go deep into those scenes because there is no way to do those scenes lightly. But you always have to have a balance of fiction and reality and be very stable in your reality so that when you jump into that fiction you can be as stable as you can because you are going to come back to your life.”
When she was younger, Cruz told me, “I used to maybe try to force things that were from my own life and I feel like that doesn’t work. It’s like manipulating the audience in a way and also you can always tell. It’s more like an ego trip or a forced therapy session and its not the place for that.”
For Bardem, the challenge is “not to interfere with what we’re doing to be able to capture what belongs to us and what doesn’t belong to us. The positive thing is it really triggers the imagination and creativity to a place it hasn’t been before, in the sense that we are forced to create and imagine because we don’t want to mix anything here with who we are — and that was great and fun because we were very focused on who these people were, how they behaved and talked to each other. And of course it’s us. The actor is always present in his characters, but we kind of got it to a place where we knew exactly what they were doing to each other as if they were two toys and we could see it from the outside and play. We could be tough on each other and be cruel, knowing that none of that belongs to us, and then step out and leave it at he end of the day because you have two kids.”
Cruz next has Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story in which she plays Donatella Versace, an experience of which she “loved every second.”
For now, the pair say they are having a blast with Farhadi. And talk about language differences. The Iranian filmmaker is notorious for taking on challenges in tongues he does not speak. He’s currently working with two translators on set who Cruz says “are amazing, it’s like they become him.”
Bardem adds of Farhadi, “He sees everything. He may not understand a word, but he knows what you’re saying. He only wants honesty to its deepest level so you are really obliged to take the mask off and go there completely naked. I believe in giving it all, but the hands have to be sensitive, caring, nice — that’s why you give it to him. You trust him. And, he’s super funny.”