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Spanish actor dances with politics

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Actor Javier Bardem strolls in for an interview crunching an Oreo cookie and sipping a diet Pepsi. But despite his offhand demeanor, the Spanish actor is as disarmingly forthright in his views as he is charismatic.

Notoriously selective about his choice of roles, Bardem now stars in two politically themed movies. Though vastly different in approach, the films could be seen as flash points for worldwide problems today.

In John Malkovich's Latin-American thriller "The Dancer Upstairs," Bardem plays a police detective on the hunt for a terrorist; in Fernando Leon de Anaroa's "Los Lunes Al Sol," he's an unemployed longshoreman who faces a court appearance for breaking a streetlight during a workers' demonstration.

"Who's not political in these times?" says Bardem. "Yes, I am a political person along with every citizen of the world who has an image of how he'd like the world to be.... Yes, I like to make movies that have something interesting to say.

"When John first talked to me about ['Dancer'], I could barely speak any English," says Bardem. At the time, in the mid-90s, Bardem had already made his mark on Spanish cinema in romantic comedies such as Biga Lunar's "Jamon Jamon," costarring Penélope Cruz. But he was little-known overseas.

Bardem received international acclaim - and an Oscar nod - in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" (2000) in which he portrayed the openly homosexual Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was imprisoned, left Cuba, and committed suicide in New York. It was a role that was linguistically very demanding. With only six weeks before the cameras rolled, Bardem mastered a Cuban-accented English [and Spanish] by studying with Cubans in New York for 10 hours a day, earning a reputation for hard work and attention to detail.

"I can't imagine really having done this film without Javier Bardem," says Malkovich of "Dancer." The film recently opened in major cities and will roll out nationally throughout May. "He was critical to the role."

It's not hard to see why: Bardem convincingly brings a moral dimension to his portrayal of law-abiding police detective Agustin Rejas, whose job it is to track down an elusive guerrilla leader - and manage to steer clear of endemic corruption in the police force and the government at large. "[Rejas] isn't power hungry," says Bardem; "he is a very principled, moral man and is doing this for his country."

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