In some ways, Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz have trod similar career paths. In the space of two years, both stole the show and won Oscars playing cold-blooded killers, Bardem in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.” 

Both went on to become memorable Bond villains. And they also have a pronounced sense of humor. The latter is on display in their conversation about Bardem’s arguably highest-profile movie in his native Spanish in a decade: Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”), Spain’s shortlisted candidate for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

In “The Good Boss,” produced by Reposado and The Mediapro Studio, Bardem stars as the owner of Básculas Blanco, a small-town industrial scale manufacturer contending for a big regional business excellence award.

At first, Blanco may come across as a kindly patriarch. As the award gets closer, however, the film morphs from workplace farce to a darker parable of power. Blanco crosses multiple lines to eliminate any threat to his company’s image – a protesting fired worker, an off-the-rails foreman, a seduced intern. 

Bardem’s “The Good Boss” has touched a nerve in Spain, grossing a robust €3.52 million ($3.91 million) to date at a soft Spanish box office. It’s also scored 20 nominations, an all-time record, for the upcoming Spanish Academy Goya Awards, and sold to the Cohen Media Group for the U.S.  

Check out the video for the full conversation between Bardem and Waltz, to which Variety had exclusive access.

Preparing Roles

Bardem: The character [in ‘The Good Boss ‘] is based on many people that we know, that we’ve heard of or that we’ve even worked with. It’s this kind of bossy character who has some power – he doesn’t need to be the CEO of a company, he could also be a guy who runs a bar or a shop. It’s about the abuse of power in the work environment. I didn’t do anything special to prepare for the role other than get some personality traits of people that I’ve seen on the news or read about or worked with, bringing them into the script, which was brilliantly written.

Waltz: Wouldn’t you say that the question of how you prepare is actually indiscreet? I personally not only think but am strongly convinced that it is nobody’s business what you do to get to a character. Maybe you don’t do anything. Maybe you go out with friends and talk for five minutes and then you have a great idea. Maybe you have to work for six months in a company that makes scales. Whatever it is, whatever gets you going. Sometimes it’s an intimate thing… and a lot of it happens subconsciously, wouldn’t you say?

Bardem: It’s absolutely true! The most interesting things we do happen subconsciously. You can tell that in a performance, things that were hidden someway for any reason pop out and you’re like “Oh, wow!” it fits… it fits in the story, the character, the moment. That’s great!

Waltz: What do you think about these fabulous stories that people who have to play a gangster, must befriend gangsters and live with gangsters for half a year to learn how to be a gangster. That makes a big impression on the public. It’s not my cup of tea but what do you think about that?

Bardem: I’m 52. When I was 20 of course I wanted to be Marlon Brando, live through the thing, drag myself through the mud. Then I realized: What a waste of time and energy. My best moments were at the catering table or going to the toilet, when the camera was not rolling. The real skill of an actor is to really transform in the moment that you’re supposed to do so and come back. As I heard once, the difference between a mental illness and an actor, is that the actor has a way back. 

Playing Villains

Bardem: We do what we do. We play people. Some people are more mean than others, and that is the way it was written. In this case, “The Good Boss,” is he a villain? He ends up being not a very good person of course. But the story explains that he had to go through a journey to understand the shades of light within himself and we kind of relate to him in some way and in others we despise [him]. Can we relate to that person in any way, because otherwise, we are playing a cartoon. Of course there are great cartoon villains. But even though you play a cartoon villain, you have to bring something that is believable on the human scale, otherwise it’s too detached.

Waltz: Totally. In the case of “The Good Boss,” actually it’s a very good title for a very good dilemma for the audience. Is he a bad boss because of what he did? Can he be a good boss still after all of the bad things he’s done? And I say, ‘yes,’ he can because a human being is not one quality only. One quality only is a computer program.

Bardem: There are many questions which are ethical questions which you must answer yourself.

Waltz: Exactly, to yourself. Don’t expect the movie to solve your problem. You should be grateful for the movie to raise the topic and put you in that difficult situation. And that’s what a great movie does.

Physical Appearance

Bardem: Christoph, what do you think about the physical appearance of any role? Do you think about it very thoroughly, or is it something you don’t necessarily get stuck with? 

Waltz: I always think it’s someone else’s job. I think you looked fantastic in “The Good Boss.” You didn’t look different, you’ll probably look like that sooner than you’d like. You know, so that’s just helping it along a little bit. It’s a story decision for the director, the writer, the producer, and last maybe not least for you to make the decision. It’s good the guy ran the company for many years. Do you look like you’ve run the company for many years? Yes, but you must have started it when you were 12. Then you do what’s necessary.

Bardem: That’s exactly why we made that decision.

Waltz: Then that makes sense. If you’re like “yeah, but he’s also obsessed and has an affair with his dentist so his teeth must look really good…” [Waltz makes a snoring sound]. Wrong story, and everything that we do tells that story. We don’t open little side shows.

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