Chasing ghosts in 'Goya'

THREE YEARS ago the Oscar-nominated Spanish actor Javier Bardem received a phone call from his agent to say that director Milos Forman was in Madrid and wanted to meet with him. Forman was gearing up for a film called Goya's Ghosts, ...

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Published: Fri 20 Jul 2007, 12:07 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 12:12 AM

which seemed to be a biopic about the famous Spanish painter Francisco de Goya.

"That was 2004, I think, or 2005," Bardem says. "I said, 'Could you repeat the name?' 'Milos Forman.' I said, 'Is that the same guy who did Cuckoo's Nest?' It was. I said, 'Oh, my God.'

"So I went to the hotel where he was staying," the actor continues, "and I was very nervous. And there was Milos and (producer) Saul Zaentz. I sat down and, within a minute, I was so loving them and I was so relaxed, because Milos makes you feel like you've known him for years. When he talks, you want to just listen and laugh and think about what he's saying, because his life has been really full of experiences.

"Then, at the very end, he brought up the issue of the movie and asked if I'd be interested in Goya," Bardem adds. "I said, 'Of course."'

Six months later Forman sent Bardem the script. The story did involve Goya, as it turned out, but it wasn't about the painter. Rather Goya helps set matters in motion. The artist is painting a portrait of Brother Lorenzo, a priest of the Spanish Inquisition, and Lorenzo notices a portrait of one of Goya's muses, a beautiful young woman named Ines. Soon Ines stands before the inquisitor, accused of hiding Jewish practices after refusing to eat pork at a tavern. He tortures her, rapes her and leaves her to rot in prison.

The drama picks up again 15 years later. The French, led by Napoleon, have conquered Spain, and Lorenzo has changed stripes and is an Enlightenment revolutionary. Ines has been freed, but she's delusional and a physical wreck, and her teen daughter is a prostitute.

"I read the script and we talked," the actor says, "and I said, 'Yes, I like that role. I would be honoured to work with you.' Milos said, 'What role did you read?' I said, 'Goya.' He said, 'No, no, no. It's Brother Lorenzo that we want you to play now.' I said, 'Oh, my God!'

"So I was really surprised," he says, "but at the same time I thought that it was a risk to take, on his side, because you'd expect a director to want the Spanish actor to play Goya. So it was a very good beginning, actually, and I appreciated that, because the contradictions in Brother Lorenzo are amazing to play."

"I loved this role as Lorenzo," Bardem says during a conversation at a Manhattan hotel. "I think his purpose was to make people believe that he's a believer, not really believing in what he does. He does that to survive in this totalitarian regime. He wants to get something out of what's happening and, if he has to believe in God or in civil rights, he'll believe in whatever it takes. But he needs to survive and hold the power he has.

"One of the things you can take away from this movie is that human behaviour hasn't changed that much, unfortunately, through hundreds of years, because we are committing the same mistakes," he says. "What the French Revolution did to Spain is exactly what the American troops are doing in Iraq."

"The golden apple sometimes can be poisonous," the actor says. "In terms of success, it's a very tricky thing. Yes, working in a job that you like so much and not being unemployed makes you a success. But beyond that, when you are an actor that wants to make a living out of it and wants to hopefully die doing what you like, you have to take very good care of what you do and know what kind of actor you would like to be.

"I don't know (exactly) what kind of actor I'd like to be," Bardem continues, "but I know what kind of actor I don't want to be, and that's the one who really gets burned after two or three jobs. In order for you to love what you do, you have to be totally, totally, totally committed to what you're doing, and you have to give the best of yourself in every performance, and that's only possible if you really believe in what you're doing."

Later this summer Bardem will reunite with Cruz for a comedy currently known only as 'Woody Allen's Spanish Project.' "It's going to be a new experience," the actor says with a laugh. "I'm very excited to work with a foreign language in a different way. Every time I do a movie in English, I work very hard on every word, every line, every speech, to find my own rhythm and the meaning of those words and to put the emotion in the words.

"Here, it's the opposite," he says. "I have to make the language my own, be comfortable and jump off the cliff, because, yes, a lot of it will be improvised. So I am excited about it."

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