If you’ve been a follower of smart independent movies over the past 10 or 15 years, you’re probably familiar with the work of Javier Bardem.

As the star of Before Night Falls, The Dancer Upstairs, Goya’s Ghosts and Jamón, Jamón, the quirky 1992 romantic farce that marked his first big role, Bardem has blossomed into an arthouse favorite who, as the result of critical acclaim and his unmistakable charisma, has been afforded the privilege of dipping into huge Hollywood movies. (Remember him as the shot-calling heavy in the Michael Mann thriller Collateral?)

It’s an enviable position—and one that looks as if it’s about to undergo a noticeable shift. The 38-year-old Spanish star’s staunchest backers might well look back at 2007 as the year that Bardem really broke out.

This fall, Bardem stars in two of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men features Bardem as a nihilistic murderer with a graveyard stare and a funny haircut. His performance was one of the most chattered-about at the recent New York Film Festival, where the movie played to enthusiastic houses. Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera finds Bardem mining the other end of the emotional spectrum, playing a lovelorn character who spends a lifetime making love to every woman except the one he truly loves.

Each film has the potential to make Bardem a major international star. Taken together, his work in the two movies is sure to raise his profile—already at “boldface name” status—to a level he probably never imagined as a teenager trying to land parts on Spanish TV shows.

All the same, he’s exceedingly humble when asked if this is a special time in his career.

“It’s a coincidence,” Bardem suggests of the fact that two of his biggest movies to date are arriving within weeks of one another, “but yeah, I guess it is… People seem to like both movies. You don’t know what people are going to think about them. For sure, it’s something that any actor can be happy with, to work in two movies that are so different from each other.”

“Different” is perhaps not a strong enough term to explain just how little these two movies have in common—or just how impressive it is that Bardem is able to pull off such disparate performances back-to-back. A trained painter who still dabbles with the occasional canvas, Bardem might appreciate the analogy: It’s like watching an artist make pictures of pastoral impressionism in the morning, then switch to postmodern urban realism after lunch.

Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, is about a man named Florentino Ariza (Bardem) and his love—you might call it obsession—for the fetching Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The story, set in Márquez’s native Colombia, spans generations, as their mutual but scandalous attraction—she’s been married, he’s an overeager boy—leads to impulsive decisions. Directed by Englishman Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donnie Brasco), it’s a bittersweet love story that might just please romantics and cynics alike.

There’s sure to be a surge of interest in the movie, given that its source material—the novel published by Márquez 22 years ago—was recently selected as the reading assignment for Oprah Winfrey’s legion of book club members.

No Country for Old Men, meanwhile, has Bardem inhabiting the guise of a wild man with the will and means to kill. He plays Anton Chigurh, a shadowy killer trailing a man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) across the rugged land of the American Southwest. Moss is an opportunist who has hightailed it with somebody else’s money after stumbling across a massacre; Chigurh is determined to track him down. Lawman Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the case, and his job is to piece things together before Anton blows his target to bits.

The movie, directed by the incomparable Joel and Ethan Coen, comes from a novel by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. The film has generated awards buzz ever since it was a contender for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. Fans seem pretty eager, too; one recent post on an Internet Movie Database message board is titled: “Have you ever been more excited for a movie?”

Speaking from his home in Madrid, Bardem says he simply couldn’t turn down a chance to work with the Coen brothers, an experience he describes as one of his career highlights. “For me, the Coens are two of the best screenwriters and directors,” he says, adding that the moviemakers helped him find the essential tics and traits of a character who is far beyond sinister.

“In this character, you can barely see a human being in there. He’s like a machine of violence,” Bardem says. “It was quite challenging, because you don’t have many human elements to hold on to. But you go there and do what you’re supposed to do, which is trying to create some empathy for the character. It’s hard, because you always want your characters to be welcomed by the audience, and that’s not the case in this movie. You have to be that psychopath, with no excuses.”

Brolin says there aren’t many actors like his No Country for Old Men co-star: “Javier has an uncanny ability to transform himself into whatever is most affective for his roles. Vanity in his performances is nonexistent… There isn’t another actor out there that can match his thoughtfulness personally and his imagination creatively.”

To be Florentino, the long-suffering romantic in Love in the Time of Cholera, Bardem had only to summon the memories of the first time he read the book—and the many times he returned to it after.

“I read the novel when I was a teenager, and even though I was quite young, it made an impression on me,” Bardem recalls. “After that I read it three more times. When they came to me about making the movie I was very excited about the idea, but frightened of how the adaptation would be. To be able to portray any novel on-screen, that’s impossible. But the adaptation did a great job of getting the flavor of the novel in my opinion. You can see that they captured what was inside the novel really well.”

Though Bardem read the novel several more times in preparation for the role, “once I started shooting I put it away… I stopped looking at it because I thought that once you’re trying to construct a character, you cannot rely too heavily on how the author described that character. At the end of the day, when they say ‘Action,’ you have to go with your own ideas. It’s great to know what the author has done with a character, but you have to build it by your own instinct.”

A combination of intelligence and instinct has always fueled Bardem’s most memorable performances. “He is one of the best actors that is walking on the earth,” says Julian Schnabel, who directed Bardem in his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls. “I think he works as hard as anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”

But long before he arrived on the radar screen of American indie movie audiences with his portrayal of convention-defying Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Schnabel’s 2000 film, Bardem was fashioning a way of working that would lend his performances a feeling of unmistakable authenticity. He had some small credits prior to the 1990 film Las Edades de Lulú, but he feels like the Bigas Luna-directed movie was the beginning of his career as a working actor.

“It was the first time that I had to deal with a role—a small role, but a role,” he says. “You have to really construct a character and create a behavior and create a person. I realized that that was the thing I would like to do for the rest of my life, because I understood that, through characters, I could really see myself. It’s another way of learning about yourself.”

From there on a string of popular films made Bardem a bona fide star in Spain. He teamed up for a second time with Luna on Jamón, Jamón, starred as a champion wheelchair athlete (alongside Penélope Cruz and his mother, Pilar Bardem) in Pedro Almodóvar’s moving and thoughtful 1997 film Live Flesh, and that same year shared the screen with Rosie Perez and a pre-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini in Álex de la Iglesia’s crime thriller, Perdita Durango.

In the process, Bardem has twice won Best Actor trophies at the European Film Awards, has taken home four acting awards (out of a total of seven nominations) from the Goyas, the top movie honor in Spain, and been nominated for two Golden Globes and numerous other prizes from critics’ groups and film festivals.

But as the media and the movie-going public have grown to admire his charismatic screen presence, Bardem has remained his own biggest—and perhaps sole—detractor. When visiting America recently for the New York Film Festival, Bardem was quoted as saying: “It’s hard to see yourself on the screen. There’s not a single movie that I’ve done that I’ve liked.” Though the comment apparently didn’t quite come out as he meant it to—remember, he’s still a relative newcomer to the English language—Bardem maintains that he needs to put some distance between himself and a particular film before he can appreciate his work on the project.

“There are movies that, watching from the outside, I can say, ‘That’s a good piece of work.’ What I was saying is that you sometimes feel like you could have done it better,” he explains. “I think it’s also a matter of time. Now I can see work that I’ve done five, six, seven years ago, see it with a little perspective and then realize that, under those circumstances—with that experience and at that age—I was able to do that. And then you can more or less say, ‘That’s not so bad’ or ‘That’s not so good.’ But with recent work, it’s impossible.”

But Bardem has found that going back to those older movies can be instructive, too. “There are a lot of actors I know who say they don’t watch their movies, and it’s true, they don’t watch them. I do watch them. When I have a chance to sit down with something that I haven’t seen for five years, I’ll put it on my DVD player and I’ll see what I did and what I wanted to do and see if I achieved anything in there. I think that’s something to learn from. We have this great opportunity to see our work—done—on-screen. I think you can learn from that; not really learn what works, but really see what doesn’t work.”

Bardem’s self-assuredness is, at least in part, a product of his upbringing. If not quite a dynasty, the Bardem family name is well-known in Spain. His mother has dozens of film and television credits; his uncle, Juan Antonio, directed more than 20 movies and was a hit on the international festival circuit in the 1950s and ’60s; his grandfather, Rafael, appeared in more than 100 films; his brother Carlos has been in two dozen movies, including two (Goya’s Ghosts and Perdita Durango) opposite Javier; and his sister Monica has also acted in a few films.

These family members/industry peers have provided Bardem with inspiration and guidance, particularly his mother. “When I started to work as an actor I asked her for advice. She’s always been pretty good with that,” he says. “She was always very respectful—she would never try to give me advice without allowing me the freedom of choosing roles. Any time I had doubts, I went to her. Family are the people that I will listen to, because they know me very well; they know who I am and understand my struggles.”

Ask an actor of Bardem’s accomplishments what he’s proudest of and you’d expect him to mention the Oscar nod or collaborations with latter day moviemaking giants like Almodóvar and the Coens. His answer to the question, however, is much more prosaic—and as a result, charming.

“I guess it’s the fact of having jobs. It’s amazing,” he responds. “I come from a long family of people who have gone through everything—the ups and downs of very long careers—and I saw the inside of what an actor is and what being an actor means. Just the fact that I can choose and I can work on projects that I like, with people I truly admire and respect, that’s a big deal.

“There are many actors I know who are great actors—and they are unemployed. People think that you want to be an actor because of the headlines and the spotlight. They think that actors work constantly, and that’s not true. Ninety percent of people that work in this business are unemployed, whereas only 10 percent have a chance to make a living out of it.”

Recently Bardem has been spending some of his time out of the camera’s glare, and he was proud to point out that Invisibles, a collaborative international work by five directors that Bardem produced, recently won a prestigious award at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. True to its title, the film chronicles the lives of people who, for various reasons, are on the wrong end of societal problems that only occasionally get attention in the mainstream press. Bardem says he’d like to do more documentaries of this kind, but can’t imagine himself directing.

“That’s too much work,” he says with a chuckle. MM

Photo courtesy of Miramax.