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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fans of Javier Bardem who think he can perform no better than in his Oscar-winning turn as a hitman in "No Country for Old Men," can now think again.
This week, his drama "Biutiful" lands in U.S. theaters after playing overseas and earning the Spaniard a share of the best actor award at May's Cannes film festival.
Bardem told Reuters the role of a man, Uxbal, who is nearing death and coming to terms with his own life and legacy, was among the most rewarding parts he had ever played and one that pushed his talent beyond its previous limitations.
That is saying a lot for the actor who has worked with the likes of Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Julian Schnabel and for "Biutiful," Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
"It's been rewarding in the sense of putting yourself in front of a mirror where you face your limits and have to deal with them," Bardem said. "This is, by far, the professional experience that has helped me the most when thinking about my craft, about my job, about my responsibilities" as an actor.
Bardem, 41, first gained notoriety in his home country on television and later in Almodovar films such as "High Heels" and "Jamon Jamon." His turn as jailed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" earned him his first Oscar nomination and made Bardem one of the few Spanish-language actors to break into Hollywood's ranks.
By the time he played a temperamental painter in Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," in which he starred alongside his wife Penelope Cruz, Bardem was a bona fide A-list star.
But "Biutiful" was no walk in the park for recognizable name who could claim just about any role he wanted.
Inarritu, whose previous works include the emotionally draining drama "Babel," required him to spend more than five months -- a long time -- in the skin of Uxbal, who is a dying man with two young kids and an estranged wife.
Moreover, he is important to his community of mostly poor, working-class people in the city of Barcelona where the story takes place. Uxbal is a fixer of problems for the others, and "Biutiful" catches him when he has to fix his own life before it ends.
It is a portrait of a man who tries to do right when the world around him seems to be so wrong.
Barcelona was chosen as the setting because, while it is known for its beautiful museums, art and architecture, it has a gritty underbelly filled with immigrants working for low wages or in jobs that are illegal.
"It is there to say we live in a place where there are people from all around the world doing the same thing -- just trying to survive and live a dignified life," Bardem said.
He took the role of Uxbal for several reasons. Among the most important was working with Inarritu, whose dramatic tale "Babel" of intertwining lives of people on different continents earned Oscar nominations for best direction and best film.
"His previous works were, and are still, some of my favorite movies, and the actors have always given great performances," Bardem said. "So, I was very curious what it would be like to work with him because you can tell he knows a lot about acting."
He said working with Inarritu met his expectations because the directors spends a great deal of time working with the actors to get their performances right. Bardem called the director a perfectionist who puts in the time it takes to get exactly what he wants on film.
For his part, Inarritu says Bardem is a "one of a kind" actor who prepares extensively for each of his roles, and the part of Uxbal was no exception.
Bardem adds that, in a real sense, Uxbal caused him to grow up and mature as an actor.
"There were many things going on and many layers to the character. For me, it was about finding something in myself with respect to responsibilities, focus, awareness," he said. "Many things will not be the same after this."
Editing by Christine Kearney