We know Javier Bardem for many things. For his terrifying and award-winning turn as the serial killer in No Country for Old Men. For playing the charming romantic lead in movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Eat Pray Love. For being, dare we say it, the hunky actor married to Penelope Cruz.
But now audiences will get to know him as something completely different: The legendary narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar.
Bardem will be hitting the festival circuit this fall not only for his still-incredibly-mysterious lead role opposite Jennifer Lawrence (in mother!, of course), but also for the real-life story of Loving Pablo. The film, which makes its worldwide premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 6 and debuts for North America at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, tells a decidedly different tale than the Pablo-themed movies and television shows that have descended on pop culture as of late.
It focuses on the romance between the drug lord and journalist Virginia Vallejo, who fell in love with Escobar during his meteoric rise to power and witnessed everything—the cocaine trafficking, the murders, the opulence. It's based on a book that Vallejo wrote about her experiences, and shows the now-familiar tale from the perspective of people who actually lived through it, instead of the Americanized DEA story. And that's exactly what interested Bardem in the first place.
"Thanks to all the documentaries and films, we know more about Pablo now than we ever have before," he told E! News while prepping to hit the festival circuit. "When I started to dig into this character almost 10 years ago, he wasn't as much in the public eye. I was attracted to this movie because it's about what's in his mind, how he could have that greed when he basically had it all."
It should be mentioned first and foremost that this certainly isn't the only time Javier Bardem has been given the chance to play Pablo Escobar. He copped to being offered many such roles over the years, but he turned them all down. He was looking for something heavier than the stereotypical portrayal of the drug lord—and, quite frankly, a little creepier, too.
"I never felt that human link to any of those roles," he says of the past offers. "I wanted to portray a real Pablo Escobar, because that's the scary part. He was a human being, he was not a machine, he was not an idea, he was a person. I didn't see that in those projects."
Loving Pablo can only be described as a passion project for Bardem. He served as the film's producer, on top of his starring role, and worked tirelessly to get it to the big screen. He tells of spending years knocking on doors to see if anybody would be interesting in making an Escobar movie that hadn't been done before. They had to find the writer, the material, and choose an angle for a story with countless options. And, of course, there's the money. In Hollywood, it's always about the money. "To tell the story of Pablo Escobar you have to show his richness," he explained. "And that richness costs money."
Once everything on the business was squared away, it was time to get into the mindset of our era's most notorious drug lords. Bardem's onscreen history has run the gamut from the incredibly dark to the incredibly lighthearted, but he cautions that something felt even heavier about this character.
"It's very different than playing a psychopath," he said of Escobar. "For example, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, he's a psychopath. He's not at all interested in any emotion, and that makes him very, very scary and dangerous. But I think the person who feels empathy, the person who feels love and at the same time does those bad things, is even scarier and even more dangerous."
Because Bardem had been lusting after the role of Escobar for almost a decade, he had plenty of time to study the real man. He watched countless videos, studying his physicality, the way he moved, and his energy. He took notes on the way he looked, the way he talked and even how Pablo's famous love for hippopotamus, which he famously had flown in to his estate in Colombia, explains everything you need to know about the drug lord.
"I made a link between him and his favorite animal," explains Bardem. "It makes sense because he is the hippopotamus. They seem nice, they're funny-looking, but once they decide that somebody must be killed they just attack. That's Pablo for me. That's the part of Pablo I tried to portray."
And, the actor adds, he had a great team of people working on Loving Pablo to help him complete the transformation every day on set. "I had a good prosthetic person, good makeup, good lighting," he laughs. "And then I gained some weight, too."
While the often-untold love story between Escobar and Vallejo is one thing that will attract audiences to the flick, the chance to see Bardem reunite onscreen with real-life wife Penelope Cruz will likely be a huge draw. She plays the intrepid journalist who falls for Pablo, in an uncanny combination of reality and fantasy. This isn't the first time the couple has teamed up to make movies, but it did represent decidedly darker material for them. The decision to star alongside one another—and, at least for Cruz, to witness her husband transform into a mass murderer every day—was one they didn't take lightly.
Bardem explains that they had a lot of discussions and asked a lot of questions before jumping in. He admits that they were concerned about bringing these two people to life in front of each other, but that they went into filming with a clear strategy to make it out unscathed.
"One of the joys, and the fun of what we do, is to create," he explained of their thought process. "We were very careful [during shooting] to make sure we kept that joy and that we keep being able to create and use our imagination."
He also described that they both felt the need to fully embody the characters on set, to be able to draw a harsh line between their onscreen relationship and their off-screen marriage.
"In this movie I think both of us learned more than ever to do that, because it was necessary for us to be able to get back to ourselves," he said. "To go back home and have a life. And actually it was easy. It was fun and I think we both made a little step towards growing up as performers because instead of stepping around things we really went there. We protected ourselves by being the characters, not by bringing them to us."
That's not to say that everything about making this movie was easy. Bardem did have to spend every day knowing what it was like to be Pablo Escobar, to be the person who, as he put it, changed the world as we know it.
"I really felt like I was there in Pablo's skin," he said. "I felt for a second what it would be like to be him. I felt really powerful. And it was scary."