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Javier Bardem and the Complexity of Playing Desi Arnaz

In 'Being the Ricardos,' the versatile Spanish actor transforms himself yet again

Javier Bardem stars as Desi Arnaz in the film Being the Ricardos

Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services

Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz in "Being the Ricardos."

En español

A virtuoso actor and Oscar winner, Javier Bardem has worked with great directors including Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick and Woody Allen, in addition to creating one of the creepiest villains in the James Bond canon (Skyfall’s Raoul Silva). But Bardem’s most recent film will surprise even those familiar with his remarkable versatility.​​

Being the Ricardos (helmed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7) finds Bardem playing an icon of American culture: Cuban musician and producer Desi Arnaz, partner of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), both in romance and the iconic situation comedy I Love Lucy. Focusing on a moment of personal and professional crisis for the couple, Being the Ricardos is an uneven movie, but Bardem’s performance is worth the watch. AARP spoke with the actor about his creative process and the film’s emotionally charged ending.​​

What attracted you to the role of Desi Arnaz?

His complexity, perhaps. Someone capable of having so much talent as a musician, comedian and producer. Someone with such a contagious energy, able to fill the room with humor and joy. He was very inclusive. He cared about others being part of the process, no matter what it was. And at the same time, so temperamental. Success didn’t come easy to him, and it was all informed by the way people acted and spoke during the ’50s. At a time when being a foreigner was nothing short of extraordinary. There are many different reasons to love a character like that.​​

Did anything surprise you during the research process?

Many things, because I wasn’t that familiar with his life. His autobiography, A Book, is notable for expressing the vision of an era, both in Cuba and the United States. What surprised me the most was his sense of sacrifice, combined with his integrity and a deep faith in his own talent. Evidently, luck plays a part, as it does for all of us, but Desi was fully prepared when the opportunity arrived. He didn’t give up easily. He fought hard, and that’s always admirable for anyone with such a strong commitment to his art.​​


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Javier Bardem smiles on the red carpet at the Los Angeles Premiere of Being The Ricardos

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

When I watch your films, sometimes I forget that the character onscreen is you acting. This happened to me on both Being the Ricardos and Skyfall. It almost feels like an elaborate, Houdini-like magic trick. How do you do that?

The best thing you can tell an actor is that you believe what he does. Of course, many people would tell you the exact opposite [laughs.] Everyone has different tastes and a different reaction to what they see. That’s the beauty of it, the subjective part of the experience. Creativity thrives on that. What’s good for you may be lacking for someone else, and vice versa. There were people in France during the ’30s who thought Picasso’s paintings were abominations.​

At the end of the day, your goal as an actor is to move yourself out of the way. The older you are, the more difficult it becomes. We accumulate tricks and tics and things that stick to our bodies like magnets, both in life and art. Your job is to discern which elements detract from the role you’re playing. I rely on my acting teacher, Juan Carlos Corazza. I’ve been preparing my roles with him for over 30 years. He possesses the objectivity to tell me: “I’ve seen this, you’ve done it before.”​

And at the same time, we are who we are. My body and voice define me. This face of a brute, the raspy voice, the walk like a penguin. Inevitably, I drag my stuff along, the tools of my trade. The important thing is to suddenly touch something untapped. That, after so much experience and years of work, is what you would describe as magic — something we all aspire to achieve.

Javier Barden stars as Desi Arnaz in the film Being the Ricardos

Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services

Your portrayal of Desi is layered, full of contradictions.

You read his autobiography and realize what a complex man he was. How and where he was raised, the image of masculinity instilled in him. His uncle took him to be initiated with prostitutes when he was young, and this was celebrated as a positive event. This attitude about women leaves an imprint. He was also incredibly sensitive, the life of the party, able to make all that music and sing, manage a production company together with a woman while also being a foreigner. Something that hadn’t been done before. I had the opportunity to talk with his daughter. Everybody told me he was a lovable guy, fun and approachable. All emotion and impulse, and he was not able to restrain that sexual impulsivity. I’m not trying to justify him, but rather explain that all these complexities were part of a single person. Just like the rest of us.​​

At the end of the movie, there’s a scene involving Desi’s potential infidelity. The expression in your face is unforgettable. What was that moment like?

​The entire movie is resolved at that point. We just rescued the character of Lucille Ball, wiped the slate clean and orchestrated a new beginning, and this happens in the middle of the celebration. The expressions — both his and hers — had to convey the end of the road. Even though we love each other, we cannot stay together anymore. It’s a well-written scene, and we shot it during the third day of filming. I had met Nicole only four days earlier. It’s the part of this business where you ask yourself, how can I possibly do this? I remember we jumped into the scene like lions, without knowing each other. Nicole is an amazing partner, and Aaron helped to protect our space. The orchestra was on-site and we asked them to play the I Love Lucy theme in order to enhance the urgency of the moment. We cannot resolve this now. Once again, it’s time to go on stage.

Ernesto Lechner is a contributing writer who covers music, film and culture. A frequent contributor to the Latin Grammy Awards, his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, and Billboard, among other major publications.