The struggles of his mother seem to have left another lasting imprint, persisting for Bardem in an afterimage that still haunts: the unringing phone. “It was black and old, with a rotary dial,” he says. “That fucking phone was like a monster, and we waited for it to roar, one month, three months, sometimes a year between acting jobs. Eventually my sister painted it pink. Employment was an issue for my mother from the day I was born. Even for me: Until ten years ago, I couldn’t jump from one job to another. You think it’s going to be forever—I hope—but each job is just one more chance.”
He leans into the brick wall, hugging himself. “It’s the actor’s insecurity: One day you’re liked and the next it’s ah, nah, not that guy. My mom told me, ‘Just keep doing your job.’ You get something gold, thank you. You suck, thank you. You keep on moving.”
You suck. Those words make me laugh when he first says them at the restaurant; they aren’t exactly the descriptors that come to mind when conjuring Bardem’s talent. Bardem occupies an enviable place in the Hollywood constellation—his dignity remains intact—even though, as he points out, his career has been more like an anti-career. (“What career?” he says. “I’ve always been like, ‘We’re here now. Let’s do this.’ “) Where other Spanish actors left home early to try out American film, sometimes filling the token-Latin slot in a cast, Bardem’s theory was simple if audacious: Pick great Spanish parts and eventually Hollywood would come calling.