Javier Bardem in Skyfall
Skyfall director Sam Mendes encouraged Javier Bardem to improvise in his role as Silva (above)

Javier Bardem was not the most obvious casting choice when it came to finding a villain for Skyfall.

The Spanish actor had built his reputation on arthouse works such as the acclaimed 2000 film Before Night Falls, where he played a persecuted gay poet, and indie films such as 2007’s No Country For Old Men, which won him a supporting actor Academy Award for his chilling portrayal of a psychopath.

His more commercial work, in romantic comedies such as Eat Pray Love (2010) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), has been viewed by some as ill-fitting of his talents. Critics thought the same might apply to the latest Bond film, where he is 007’s nemesis, Silva.

Not him. Despite how cartoonish Bond baddies have often been in the 50-year-old film franchise, he saw potential in what he could do with the role.

“It’s not something that you do logically,” replies the 43-year-old at a roundtable interview in New York earlier this month. “I read the script and saw a good two or three options to follow that imply some complexity rather than some cliche.”

If in Silva Bardem appears to be channelling a typically flamboyant Bond adversary, his villainy signposted by an eccentric appearance and mannerisms, then it is a nod, says the actor, to the history of the franchise.

“This movie is a big homage to these 50 years (of Bond films), so the villain also has to have something classic about him.”

But this is not, he insists, your garden-variety Bond flick. On set, director Sam Mendes constantly encouraged the cast to improvise, and made several bold choices himself, especially in filming the scene where audiences see Silva for the first time.

Javier Bardem in Skyfall

“Nothing was determined, and everything was open to different interpretations,” Bardem says. “This was real movie-making. It gave me goose pimples. I felt like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t look like a James Bond movie – it looks like a laboratory of actors.’

“I knew this was going to be great and also creative, which is the word that always matters to me.”

At the time of the interview, the actor had not yet seen a final cut of the movie, but told reporters that when he eventually does, it will be the one and only time.

“I need to see it once, what I did, but then forget about it,” he says, explaining that this is due partly to a streak of professional perfectionism and partly to vanity.

“I never ever, ever, feel that my goal as an actor is achieved on screen. The need to perform doesn’t have anything to do with the need to watch that performance. You do something and then the camera registers it. Whatever the hell it was, you don’t know,” he says wryly.

And although it can be nice to see his younger self on screen, Bardem – who has a one-year-old son with Spanish actress Penelope Cruz – says it can be difficult to compare it to how he looks now, even though his many admiring fans would disagree. “I mean, I was 20 years old once, and of course you want to see yourself, but that was a long time ago, and now it’s like, ‘Oh god, here it comes!'”

He winces just as much when the character, like this one, looks nothing like him.

“Neither is easier. Because when you look like yourself, you go, ‘S**t, do I look like that?’ And then when you don’t look like yourself, it’s like, ‘What the hell is that?’ So you are never happy.”

Skyfall is showing in cinemas now.

This story was first published in The Straits Times newspaper on November 3, 2012. Read similar stories online in The Straits Times Life! section.