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Javier Bardem

‘Before Night Falls’

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He had a shot at playing the villain in the 1999 James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. But Javier Bardem — at that point already a major star in Spain — was shaken, not stirred, at the prospect of making his English-language debut in such an overtly commercial enterprise. ”With all my respects,” he says, ”that’s not the kind of thing I like to do … I want to be on risk. Otherwise, this job has not a meaning.”

Bardem certainly got his daredevil druthers playing persecuted gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in the fact-based biopic Before Night Falls. Enlisted by director Julian Schnabel after Benicio Del Toro passed on the role, Bardem had less than two months to learn Arenas’ highly idiosyncratic speaking style. He had to speak fluently in both Cuban-inflected Spanish, which is heavily colloquial, and Cuban-accented English.

To master these argots, Bardem worked 11 hours a day for six weeks with a coach. At night, he listened to tapes of the writer reading his autobiography, a sad task because ”you can hear that he is dying.” (Arenas, who fled Cuba in 1980, contracted AIDS and later died in New York City in 1990.) In one of the film’s most astonishing passages, Bardem enacts the author’s last quarter hour of life in real time.

”I was calling Julian from Spain, saying, ‘Julian, whatever you do, don’t cut that long scene,”’ says Bardem, who recalls talk of radically trimming it. ”The audience has to die with Reinaldo. Dying is not comfortable for anyone, but what the f—. They have to see that ending and think, It’s over. His life is really over, and I was there.” Nobody who witnesses the scene is likely to forget Bardem’s stunning believability in it — or to question why, for Bardem, The World Is Not Enough was not enough.