Javier Bardem opens the door to his New York hotel suite dressed head to toe in Prada, a short beard framing his craggy features and a courteous welcome in his sleepy, hooded eyes. His room has spectacular views over Central Park. There is a pair of Peeping Tom binoculars on a side table; Bardem is quick to say they're not his - they come with the room.
It's fitting that Bardem should be scaling such symbolic heights. In 2001 he was Oscar-nominated for best actor for his portrayal of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls - the Julian Schnabel film for which the Spanish actor first learned English. He was the quadriplegic lead, stubbornly fighting for his right to die, in The Sea Inside, which won an Oscar for best foreign film four years later. And what with winning the award for best supporting actor at the BAFTAs Sunday night for his role as Anton Chigurh, the psychopathic killer in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, things seem to have shifted into a different gear. With his helmet-haired angel of death, Bardem is considered to have created one of the great cinematic villains.
The movie is also his first big American film and, having been a huge star in Spain for well over a decade, Bardem finds himself on the brink of a full-blown Hollywood career. Though an indisputably great actor, he is something of an unlikely Tinseltown star: barrel-chested; a broken nose; and a thick Castilian accent. Yet People magazine recently rated him one of the sexiest men alive, and the world's finest directors all seem to want to hire him. "It's sort of a great and beautiful accident that has happened to me," he says, flicking the ash from a cigarette into a glass of water.
His turn in Mike Newell's adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera is on general release next month in the US, and Bardem has just finished Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, appearing alongside Penelope Cruz, his old friend and rumored new lover. He's also slated to star in Nine, Rob Marshall's musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2, and in Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro.
In an interview, Coppola singled him out as an heir to, and even an improvement on, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Robert de Niro. After their early successes, these legends became rich and complacent, the director said. But Bardem is ambitious and hungry, unwilling to rest on his laurels and always "excited to do something good."
"It was amazing to hear him comparing me to those major artists," says Bardem. "For you to have an idea [of how amazing], I've always said, 'I don't believe in God, I believe in Al Pacino.'" When Pacino saw Before Night Falls, Bardem chuckles, Schnabel gave him Bardem's number. Pacino phoned him in Madrid, even though it was the middle of the night there, and left a message on his answer phone saying that he wanted to tell him straight away how much he'd loved the movie. "I keep that tape with me," says Bardem. "It's one of the most beautiful gifts I've ever received. I don't care whether it's a lie or not, whether he was just being nice or not. I have it."
Bardem, now 38, grew up in a theatrical family. His grandparents were actors, and his mother, cousins and two siblings are all in the profession. His uncle, Juan Antonio Bardem, was a director imprisoned by Franco for his anti-fascist films.