Dance Like Desi Arnaz: Javier Bardem Talks Becoming a Musician in ‘Being the Ricardos’
'Before filming any scene, I’d dance rumba, conga, I moved my hips and I’d go into the scene with the music inside.'
Before being cast to play Desi Arnaz in the riveting Being the Ricardos, Javier Bardem had never seen an episode of I Love Lucy.
“The show wasn’t popular in Spain,” says Bardem, speaking in Spanish on a recent Saturday morning from his home in Spain. It was only when Bardem began to dig into the history that he fully understood the vast scope of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, her Cuban-born husband and business partner.
“The more I read, the bigger and the more iconic the man became,” Bardem says. “This man brought Cuban flavor to popular American culture. He took what he knew, made a remix, presented it to the American public — and the American public went crazy with the conga. And that’s only one thing. What he did production-wise is beautiful and very epic. The fact that such a strong production company was led by a woman and an immigrant in the 1950s and 60s says a lot about both of them, and their quality and capacity to deal with so much adversity.”
Although Bardem is based in his native Spain, his ascent to the pinnacle of his profession (three times nominated for Academy Awards, Bardem won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for 2007’s No Country For Old Men) as a foreign actor with an accent in some ways mirrors Arnaz’s remarkable immigrant story.
The Cuban-born bandleader also forged his way into film and television, marrying up-and-coming actress Lucille Ball, with whom he would eventually create production company Desilu and the sitcom I Love Lucy, where he played her also Cuban bandleader husband. The show became America’s most successful sitcom, watched by over 60 million every week in the 1950s. Arnaz single-handedly ushered Cuban music into the American mainstream.
Being The Ricardos, produced by Amazon Studios and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is a multi-layered and nuanced look into the complex professional and romantic relationship between Arnaz and Ball, played by Nicole Kidman (who already won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama).
In playing Arnaz, a part he got after producers auditioned several other actors, Bardem does his own remix. In an astounding six weeks time, he adopted a Cuban accent and took voice, guitar, conga and dance lessons in order to render his version of Arnaz on screen.
Here, he tells us how he did it, from dancing before every scene to speaking with Arnaz himself.
While you live in Spain, you’re doing mainstream film, which is not easy for a foreigner to do. Much like Arnaz did, right?
He was an immigrant, and I’m not. But there were things I recognized because I’ve lived them. Like gaining respect. Being judged by what you can offer, by what you bring to the table, rather than being judged by your accent or your origin, which has happened to me. But I’m also a very fortunate person, as was Desi. Of course, aside from luck, you need talent, and you need to show your worth. He did it. I don’t know if I’ve done it, but I’ve been lucky. What is true is that being an immigrant back then had different difficulties than it does today. In a way it was more complicated, because it was more of a novelty — but today’s immigration policies are very harsh.
I understand several actors had auditioned for the role before you got it. And then, it was a rush to prepare. Tell us how you did it?
I was working in another movie. I began to study and read [Arnaz’s] autobiography, which is titled A Book. I saw the series, I saw interviews — and the more I read and saw, the bigger this character became. At the same time, since I only had a month and a half to prepare, it helped to focus and understand that I needed to get as close as I could to him, but understanding that I wasn’t supposed to imitate or personify him, but rather recognize the essence of the character and get close to the spirit of this person and what he represented. His energy: Charismatic, attractive, musical, fun, stubborn, dynamic. Many things come to mind.
So, what was your assignment?
The assignment was: I was filming a movie for 10, 12 hours a day. And before or after filming, I would take an hour of voice lessons, an hour of guitar, an hour of conga, an hour of Cuban accent, an hour of English. I didn’t sleep more than four hours a night for a month and a half.
You’re not a musician, and the most you’d done was play some drums as a kid. It must have been intimidating to be told, “You have to sing, play percussion and lead an orchestra…”
It’s a lot. For me, music is the most complete artistic expression, without a doubt. It’s immediate, it’s emotional, intellectual, physical, sensitive, and it lasts forever. You hear a song every time as if it were the first time. It’s extraordinary.
How are your singing chops?
My singing chops are inexistent. [Laughs.] I had an excellent vocal coach called Fiona McDougal, who’s done a lot of musical theater and musical film. The first few days, I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. And Fiona, very patiently, would say: It’s a question of time.
For me, there’s nothing more intimidating than singing. The exposure of a person opening his or her mouth and sharing a sound in public is not comparable to anything else. But the more I practiced and worked out my vocal chords, my voice started to come out. I started to sing at home, in my dressing room, during my lessons. Suddenly I had opened up a means of communication that I didn’t know but I liked a lot.
You sang all your singing parts. How challenging was it to play with a band? Was it harder, or, on the contrary, did you feel more backed up?
When I got to the set of Ciro’s –which we built in the Queen Mary—up until that point I’d been playing “Babalu” and playing the conga alone in my house. And suddenly there’s 20-something guys. The big musicals were shot in a single day. It was very quick.
Were you worried that the orchestra would think you were a non-musician impostor?
[Laughs.] Of course! As an actor I’m always worried about that. From the band to the producers. I always carry that insecurity with me. That day, doing “Babalú” and “Cuban Pete,” especially “Babalú” which is such a Desi Arnaz trademark — I was in front of the band, the cast, production, there were easily 150 people in the audience. I was banging that drum live, singing live, and I had to do it again and again. That was tough, but since I was very well prepared, there was a moment when it all clicked. Being on a stage, singing, making music, it’s something that can’t be compared with anything else.
You were in Desi Arnaz’s skin, so to speak, for several weeks. How would you describe him as an artist?
I think he found the perfect balance between being an entertainer and a musician; that was his mark. Being able to do both things brilliantly. He was a hugely musical man and that’s one of the things I worked on in the film. Even if I was sitting down, or merely talking with my wife, I wanted to have the body of someone who dances, who moves, who feels, who has his head loose, who isn’t still. He was never still. I’m a big person, and before filming any scene — even a dramatic scene — I would dance, dance, dance. I’d dance rumba, conga, I moved my hips and I’d go into the scene with the music inside.
And of course, you also took dance classes?
Yes, but we had to wait until I got to Los Angeles, because dance classes via Zoom? I did it once and said, “Stop.” It’s absurd to rumba without a couple, in front of a video. It ended up being four one-hour classes, which isn’t a lot. That’s why I say, he helped me, from wherever he was. I know he likes the film because he knows it was done with so much respect. I always spoke to him. I believe in that a lot. If I got the part after others auditioned, it’s because he chose me.