BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Javier Bardem sounds almost as happy as he was the night he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for “No Country for Old Men” in 2008. No wonder. He is recently married, to fellow Spaniard and Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz — his memorable costar in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — and he’s costarring opposite No. 1 box-office actress Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” the highly-publicized movie of the No. 1 best-selling 2006 memoir.
Asked how it feels to join the roster of Roberts’ leading men such as Richard Gere and Hugh Grant, Bardem says, “Who? Hugh . . . Oh, yes, him. Oh, how does it feel? Yes, wonderful! They make me the offer, I have to wait a few seconds before I say ‘yes.’ I didn’t shout, ‘Si, si, si, claro que si, hombre!’ (‘Yes, yes, yes, of course yes, man’) — but that’s how I felt.”
In Spain, Bardem has been a leading man for a long time. In Hollywood, he’s still making his mark, although he was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor for “Before Night Falls” (2000) as a gay Cuban writer. And he won international acclaim for another lead role based on a real person, Ramon Sampedro — a quadriplegic who campaigned for assisted suicide — in “The Sea Inside” (2004); he played Sampedro at 55, even though Bardem was in his 30s (he was born in the Canary Islands in 1969).
There’s no question that Bardem is more versatile than the last actor from Spain to make it big in Hollywood, Antonio Banderas. When this is mentioned, Bardem laughs heartily and adds, “Antonio has a prettier face. My face, it can be very mean.”
He was quite mean in “No Country for Old Men,” which Roberts had seen before meeting him. She’s been quoted as saying she’d half expected him to be moody and “weird” but was soon pleasantly surprised. She may not have known how nervous Bardem was before meeting her and joining the “Eat Pray Love” cast and crew on location in Bali.
The story, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir-cum-travelogue, takes place in Italy (eating), India (praying) and Indonesia — actually on the Hindu island of Bali, where love in the form of Felipe overwhelms Roberts’ character, Liz.
“When a movie company is working together, it becomes their own small world,” continues Bardem. “Sometimes it is like a family, and an outsider is an outsider. But it is more . . . tight, more like a family, when they are on location, outside the studio, in another country. And then here I come, and there is Julia, the big lady, and I think, my god, they are going to resent me and she, if she doesn’t like me, and I have to be careful to speak English perfectly and . . . Oh, my god.
“But what happens, it is excellent! The company, they know how it has to be. The story has three parts, it is in three countries. It is not my fault, it is how it is written. Maybe they save the best for last — Bali, it is so beautiful. It is peaceful, it helps to make you less nervous. It is so green, the people so nice. It is hot and tropical, but very civilized, and I sound like a travel promotion, no? But it is; it is a place to love — and to fall in love. And it is . . . spiritual, not religious. Very nice people, tolerant, not fanatics like in so many countries now.
“Anyway, but about Julia . . . We talk, no, first she smiles, then we talk, and she smiles more, and she laughs, and we both laugh, and we get along. Excellent!”
Roberts has said she soon liked Bardem a lot, that he was just right for the romantic role of Felipe. In fact, Bardem met the real Felipe, who put him at ease by saying he could do anything he liked with the role. Bardem recalls, “He was nice and sweet and intelligent, so I didn’t ask the question (that was) in my own head: ‘Why did they choose me for this role?’ ” he chuckles.
Was working with Julia easier than he’d thought? “Oh, yes, of course. She is very generous. Much discipline, but generous.” As for how he decided to play the role, he responds loudly, “With passion! Of course.”
Bardem has the credentials to play a romantic lead as well as all sorts of characters, from offbeat to villainous. “I can play anything,” he boasts, having grown up in a family of actors and worked without the coddling or image-tending of the movie-star system.
He notes, “Julia is very nice. It is surprising how normal she is. She is simple. She is nice. She makes the effort to make others feel comfortable, as she did with me. I was surprised and impressed. In her position, I would be a very real big diva!”
Is Bardem ready for more romantic turns opposite Hollywood’s biggest female stars? “Always I am ready to work,” he says modestly. “Romantic, mean, nice, smart, dumb: If you have a good role, call me.”
“Eat Pray Love” was produced by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment, and Pitt is one of two executive producers on the Columbia film. When Pitt’s name is brought up, Bardem roars, “Oh, my god! Don’t ask me about Brad. He is very nice too, but he is one I might not want to work with. If they put us in a movie together, he will be the nice blond boy and I will be the horrible one who tries to destroy him and is himself destroyed. Oh my God.
“Hollywood has to get used to me as a lover,” says Bardem after he has calmed down. “Then I can pick and choose the roles I like best.”
“Eat Pray Love” opens Sept. 17