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  • Feature: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz

    Mon, 18 Aug 2008 12:18:52

    Feature: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz - The <i>Vicky Cristina Barcelona</i> threesome talks about their experience working with Woody Allen

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    Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz repeatedly use one word to describe Woody Allen: genius. There are very few people who would deign to argue otherwise, considering that Allen has penned and directed some of film history’s most beloved comedic treasures. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his latest directorial outing, an exploration of love in the most romantic of Spanish cities. The acting trio at the center of Vicky Cristina—Bardem, Cruz, and youthful Renaissance woman Scarlett Johansson—shared with us their thoughts about the film, working with Allen, and how their fictional ménage à trois turned into a surrogate family on set.

    Javier Bardem:

    On improvising under Allen’s direction:

    Yes, he [Allen] asked me to improvise, but when you have such a jewel, such a diamond of dialogue between your hands, and especially in a foreign language—which is something that you cannot improvise because it’s something that you don’t control totally—I was saying 90% of what was already written. Yes, he asked me to sometimes go and say it [in] my own words, but I was thinking to myself, “What ‘own words’? You’re Woody Allen, the script is brilliant, so I’m not going to try to match you.” So, I didn’t improvise at all. I improvised a little bit here, a little there. The Spanish thing [between his character and Cruz'] is not improvisation; the Spanish thing is a literal translation of what he wrote in English. And of course, once you perform it, you bring a little [bit] of yourself in it—this word here, this word there. But, basically, it was what he wrote [in the screenplay], and that’s why we were able to perform it and for him to understand it, because he doesn’t speak the language, but he knew that we were saying what was written in [the script].

    On Vicky Cristina Barcelona's comedic and dramatic elements:

    I think the difference between drama and comedy is that for comedy you really need to…have a little bit of your mind or your thoughts ahead of what is going on in this very moment. It’s like you need to be faster than when you’re in a drama, because [in a drama], you know if you pull this trigger, [it's] going to have [a certain] effect. I didn’t feel that way doing comedy. When I read the script I had good laugh, but I said, “Well, this is pretty serious. There are people here trying to find something that is impossible to find, some kind of answer that is impossible to find in different ways." And yes, there were lines here or there that I thought [were] funny, but since the grass is greener on the other side, I thought that the funny parts were the [other roles]. I didn’t see that my part [was] funny; I said, “Wow, the rest of the parts are funny and mine is a fucking dramatic one!” [Laughs] … I never thought that I was doing comedy—only one line here, one line there, I [thought], “This is funny.” And with those lines, yes, you have to be careful because when you’re working in a foreign language, there’s something about the rhythm, the tone [where I thought], “I don’t know if this sounds right. I know how I would do that in Spanish, but I don’t know it in English.”

    On playing into Spanish character stereotypes:

    I think that’s exactly what [Allen] did. He uses the stereotypes and he really goes for it. That’s what I think. There are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of clichés. The difference between this story told by some other person and Woody Allen is that Woody Allen is a genius in what he does. My opinion is that he puts the clichés, the big ones, on screen. First of all, he makes fun of them, second he destroys them; he puts dynamite [to] them for us to finally see what’s behind those stereotypes, which is people that share the same fears, goals, needs, and impotence about the same questions.

    On his first impressions after reading the script:

    When I first read the script I felt, first of all, honored—honored [because of] the fact [that I was] reading the script…Second…[I thought], Juan Antonio is this kind of guy [who] looks like he’s one kind of color…and I was worried about that. On the first reading, you're anxious. On the second reading, you're more calm and you read and you realize that there are a lot of doors opening to different directions that give three dimensions to the character, and you go, “Alright.”

    On the portrayal of Barcelona in the film:

    I don’t think that any Catalan person that loves his town can complain about how [Allen] portrayed Barcelona, and they knew that…If you like Barcelona and if you are proud of the town, this movie [contributes to you feeling] more proud of the town.

    On how he cultivates his characters:

    In order to be free [in a role], you have to do a lot of homework. People think that…[to] be natural is something easy…Which, by the way, I hate; I like to be real, not natural. Be real. When you’re real, something really important is going to surrender [itself to you].

    Scarlett Johansson:

    On working with Penelope:

    I would work with Penelope in any way, any form. She’s wonderful…she’s a gem. She’s a lovely, lovely woman, beautiful inside and out, and she’s certainly a fantastic actor. She’s proven herself a million times over and I think that she is a chameleon and she could play anything. She’s completely committed to everything that she does. She comes in with notes and…I felt so out of the loop [laughs]! She and Javier both work sort of in a refined method. [I work] in a different way; I prepare in a different way. I learned a lot about myself as an actor working with them—how to kind of “play well in the sandbox” and go along with the improvisation. All of a sudden the three of us almost became this little family in a way. It made our scenes together so real and so truthful. Of course, we all got along well, which helped…it was just wonderful. I loved working with both of them...Penelope and I have some similarities, we do. I think that’s why we get along so well. I can appreciate certain things about her, she can appreciate certain things about me. We share a certain view. We really formed a really nice friendship.

    On the “steamy” scenes:

    It’s funny. People are so conservative it’s ridiculous. It’s not a big deal in the film. I mean, these characters are in love with each other, so it’s not like I [sat] there biting my nails down to the bone to try to think of how I was going to deal with this…I don’t understand it myself. Somebody said to me earlier, “This was sold as Woody Allen’s steamiest film.” I was like, “Wait a minute. ‘Woody Allen’s steamiest film’?” Those words together are so ridiculous; you’d think he was Bertolucci or something. From all the press we got out of this one kiss, you’d think it was some crazy X-rated [movie].

    [W]e’ve formulated such a comfortable working relationship that...we communicate almost silently.

    On working with Allen:

    I think just because our friendship becomes richer and richer every year, we know more about each other and…we have such a nice time when we work together. We’re good friends and we always entertain each other and search each other out kind of like buddies on a playground…It’s nice; it’s so nice to have that, it really is. It makes everyday a pleasure, to come to set and see his little smiling face. It’s sweet. Also, we’ve formulated such a comfortable working relationship that our communication is so strong. We communicate almost silently, as friends kind of do, and really inspire each other.

    Penelope Cruz:

    On Allen’s female characters:

    I think he’s written some of the most beautiful characters for women from the beginning of his career. All of the characters that Diane Keaton has done, or Mia Farrow, the character that Mira Sorvino did, or the women in Bullets Over Broadway. I think Meryl Streep did one of her first movies with him, Manhattan—a beautiful film; she’s my favorite actress. He’s written some of the best and most complex characters for women.

    On her tempestuous character, Maria Elena:

    I was scared of it when I read it; I said, “Oh my God, this is a very delicate thing. How not to do too much, but really create.” I never wanted to treat her like a crazy person. She’s very unstable, but I really wanted to understand the reality she lives in, because she’s convinced that that reality is the only one that exists, and she defends it to death. That’s what I wanted to understand, where that came from. She explains a little of it in the movie and then I had to build the rest. She explains that she was told she was a genius when she was growing up, and she believes it and she thinks she has to keep being the tortured artist. She’s very self-destructive because she cannot get out of that pattern. Somebody told her she’s too special to be happy and she has to continue suffering because she’s being touched by something bigger, and she has believed all these ideas. That is ruining her because it’s too painful…Sometimes I was worried and I would [say to] Woody, “She hasn’t slept; she cannot sleep; she has all these nightmares; Why don’t I do this scene with no energy?”—just in case I [was] being too loud all the time, too big, too extroverted…[H]e would let me try it like that. He’s very respectful and he listens to the actors, but he also knows what he needs from all of us at each moment. He would say, “Want to go back to the other way [laughs]?” Maria Elena equals chaos all the time, every time she’s there.

    On Allen’s natural “genius”:

    When you meet him it confirms that he’s a genius, because everything that comes out of that mouth has to be in a book. There is nothing gratuitous [about him]; he doesn’t waste any energy. [He’s] so precise, so specific, and every time he says something—anything, it could be about the weather—it’s a treasure.

    — Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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