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Javier Bardem's performance in Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside won him the Best Actor prize at the 2004 Venice Film Festival. A European Film Award followed, as did a Golden Globe nomination. It's worthy of all its accolades – not least because it's a role that denies him most of the physical resources an actor usually relies upon.
Like his Oscar-nominated role as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, the hugely-talented 35 year-old actor from the Canary Islands is once again playing a real-life figure – this time as Ramón Sampedro. A euthanasia advocate, Sampedro campaigned for six years for his right to die after a diving accident left him paralysed from the neck down and confined to his bed for nearly three decades. "I only ever felt admiration for him being that brave, smart and open-minded," says Bardem.
Gaining weight and spending five hours daily in makeup to transform into the middle-aged Sampedro, it marks the second time in his illustrious career that Bardem played a paraplegic; Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh was the first. "When I was doing Live Flesh, I was rehearsing with people that were in those conditions and I was struck by how strong they were," he recalls. "They had my support and admiration, and they made me feel physically inferior – even if I could walk and they could not."
While researching the role, Bardem says that everyone he met pleaded with him to convey Sampedro's infectious sense of humour. "First of all, he's laughing at himself and then laughing at all of us, in the sense that he used his humour as a weapon to destroy the pity of the people that were approaching him. He was like, 'I don't need your pity. I don't need your goodwill. I don't care about it. I need you as a human being with your own thoughts. I don't want you to feel like me - or let your thoughts be stolen from the church, the politicians or your own fears. Just look at me and think.'"
Pointing out that Sampedro's case was made famous in Spain when he ended his life in 1998, with both the Spanish and European courts overruling his right to die, Bardem is unsure whether he would like to see the law changed. "I would like to open a debate and see very clearly what the situation is and what we can do. There are many people like Ramón Sampedro and there are many others who want to live, and they both have to be listened to. Euthanasia is a very delicate issue. There are many cases, but in a case like this, I don't see why institutions - such as the most fanatical and extremely violent institution ever, the one called The Church - are able to say 'no' to that. Are you telling me your life doesn't belong to you but belongs to God? Excuse me, but what the fuck are you talking about? God doesn't come in to wake me up. God doesn't do anything for me. God exists because we think of him."
Though he has since appeared in such English-language films as the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men – for which he won an Oscar – and 007 adventure Skyfall, it's projects like The Sea Inside that are closest to his heart. He calls it “a masterpiece,” a given that the film won the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, he's clearly not the only one who thinks so.
“I've done 20 movies in 14 years and this is the first time I've said something like that,” he admits. “I never like what I do as an actor. I'm not talking about my job; there are things I like, and there are some things I don't like at all. I don't really care. What's important here is that man, that statement and that movie. I think the movie's a masterpiece, honestly. It takes you to some places you don't usually go."
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