Javier Bardem made the leap to international stardom in 2000, when he played Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls.” The Spanish actor’s performance won him an Academy Award nomination as best actor. Now he’s back playing a Latin American police officer struggling with domestic problems while trying to track down the leader of a rebel movement in “The Dancer Upstairs,” the screen directorial debut of actor John Malkovich, who was once quoted as saying that Bardem was the best actor in Europe. And this coming summer he will be seen as a bellicose unemployed worker in “Mondays in the Sun,” a Spanish film that recently won him a Goya Award—the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar—for best actor.

In a recent Dallas interview the 34-year old star was modest and self-effacing, far more like the quietly intense character he plays in “Dancer” than either the hyperactive Arenas or the brooding figure he plays in “Mondays.” He looked very different than he does in any of those roles, too. Bardem explained that one of the reasons he looks so different in “Mondays” is that he had just stopped smoking and gained thirty pounds. (When he told director Fernando Leon de Aranoa that he would be “heavier” in the role, the helmer replied that he knew he was a good actor, and Bardem had to explain that he meant it literally.) But he added that changing his appearance is something he finds helpful in taking hold of a part. “Once you construct a body language you are able to construct the inside,” he said. “Otherwise, you are always doing the same [thing], and you get bored doing the same [thing]. The problem is not about me doing these physical changes, the problem is finding the material that allows you to do these physical changes, and directors that allow you to do it. And these are difficult to find—the roles and the directors that give you the opportunity to explore and to take a risk.”

Malkovich was certainly one of them, Bardem continued, but he admitted that working with the lanky American was not what he expected. “I was maybe expecting more,” he said. “I thought that maybe it was going to be like an acting course, that I was going to learn a lot about acting. And I didn’t learn anything….Let me put it this way—and you have to write everything I’m saying—my own expectation was far more than what he gave me. What I mean is, what he gave me is something that I realized like right after I did the movie; the way he directed me was something I hadn’t experienced before—very subtle, without telling you too much, but letting you [be] really free, letting you express yourself, being responsible for your own choices. And at the same time you don’t feel like someone’s directing you because he’s over you—sometimes you miss him, but at the very end you realize that he’s taken you to exactly the place he wants, in a very smart and dedicated form that I never experienced before. Because [some] are used to using their power to let you know that he’s the director, and you have to do what he wants—which is fine until the time that that implies a lack of freedom, a lack of creativity. That was amazing…[John] knows as an actor the actor’s fears and limitations, and he was so specific and so exact that you didn’t even realize that you were [being] directed.”

Bardem mentioned two aspects of his role in “The Dancer Upstairs” as particularly difficult. One was “trying to make believable—I don’t know if I did it or not—that I’m a person in control, who doesn’t lose control, who can deal with his emotions more or less. I’m a more temperamental person.” The other was the fact that though the story is set in Latin America, the characters speak English. “I must say that as a Spanish speaker, sometimes I had some problems with that. It’s difficult for me to put my mind in a place where the people speak Spanish but you have to speak English.” Bardem added that the fact that he still struggled some with English increased the difficulty. (When asked whether the language barrier led him to be nervous about doing interviews in English, however, he smiled. “Can I be bad—very mean?” he said. “Basically the questions are mostly the same, so I already know the answers. So you see, my English is very good.”)

Bardem created a stir when he spoke out against the war in Iraq when accepting his Goya award. “We went there on TV to say what we think,” he said of himself and his fellow winners. “We are right or we are wrong, but it was our moment and we are citizens. People said you are an actor, you are not allowed to say what you think—well, that’s not what is called democracy. I’m a citizen—my job is to act, but I’m a citizen. The way the government attacked us…was something I hadn’t seen before. I thought I was living in another kind of country, where you have the right to express [yourself]. They were saying I was some kind of terrorist. And I would say that seeing the ceremony, the whole population woke up to the real government we have.”

The intensity with which Bardem spoke of the Goya controversy pointed to his interest in roles—like those in “Night,” “Dancer,” and “Mondays”—that have political meaning. When asked if he looked for such parts, he said, “The answer is yes. I think that we are all political. It’s impossible not to be political, in the world we live in. Even if you decide not to be political, you are taking a position. So yes, I would like to go in that direction, but that direction doesn’t depend on me, because I don’t know how to write one word after another—I’m not a screenwriter. I think it’s very difficult to write. So I have to work as an actor with the stories that other people write, and they are not very common—stories like this [‘Dancer’] and ‘Mondays in the Sun’—not at least what I’ve been offered. What I’ve been offered more is some blockbuster thing where you’re a bad guy, or a comedy where you’re a Latin hot guy. It’s difficult to find material that makes you think and consider the world that you live in. It’s not because I want to give answers; I don’t think any piece of art—literature, writing, music—gives any answers. But it makes you feel less alone. And that’s why I love to make movies.”