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Robert Wittman's 'Priceless' Pursuit Of Stolen Art

Robert Wittman founded the FBI's Art Crime Team and tracked down more than $225 million worth of stolen art and cultural property — including a $36 million self-portrait by Rembrandt. He describes the heists in his memoir, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures.

21:26

Other segments from the episode on June 24, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 24 2011: Interview with Robert Wittman; Interview with Javier Bardem; Review of the film "Bad Teacher."

Transcript

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Robert Wittman's 'Priceless' Pursuit Of Stolen Art

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest,
Robert Wittman, spent 20 years as an FBI agent. He did plenty of
undercover work, wearing body wires and meeting criminals in hotel rooms
with suitcases of cash. But Wittman wasn't usually buying drugs or guns
in his sting operations. He was more often looking for a Rembrandt or a
headdress worn by the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Wittman specialized in stolen art and antiquities, and his efforts were
aimed as much at recovering the stolen treasure as catching the thieves.
Wittman founded the FBI's art crime team, and by the bureau's
accounting, he saved hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of art and
antiquities.

His memoir, with writer John Shiffman, is called "Priceless: How I Went
Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's now out in
paperback. I spoke to Robert Wittman last year, when the hardback
edition was published.

Well, Robert Wittman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin by
giving the audience a taste of what your life was like for years,
working for the FBI on recovering stolen art and antiquities. And I
thought maybe you'd tell us a bit about recovering a Rembrandt from a
heist from a Swedish museum, from a robbery that took place in 2000.
It's such an interesting heist. Just tell us about the robbery itself
first.

Mr. ROBERT WITTMAN (Co-author, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to
Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures"): Well, that was an interesting
robbery. It occurred in December, late December of the year 2000, as you
said. And what happened there, three individuals went into the Swedish
National Museum in Stockholm.

They had machine guns. They put everybody on the floor, the guards, the
few visitors that were there, and remember, it's late in December. It's
around 5 o'clock. It's near Christmastime, very dark at that point in
Sweden.

At the same time, their compatriots set off two car bombs on the two
main roads leading to the museum, which is on a small peninsula right on
the water. So there's really no way to get there except those two roads.
The reason for that was to stop the police from responding quickly. So
they had about 40 minutes before the police could get there.

So the car bombs go off, they put everybody on the floor, they continue
at that point to run through the museum. They stole two Renoir paintings
and a Rembrandt, and the Rembrandt was probably one of the finest pieces
in the museum.

It's a self-portrait. It's done on copper, and it's the only one that
was ever done by Rembrandt on copper. It was done in 1630, when
Rembrandt was at the age of 24 years old. He actually used gold in the
paint to make it iridescent, to make it luminescent, so it glows at you
when you look at it. But they stole that piece, as well. The total value
of that heist was $42 million.

At that point, then, they made their way out of the museum, and as I
said, it's on a peninsula right on the water, in a harbor there in
Stockholm. And they made their getaway in a high-speed boat.

DAVIES: Right, so the cops are all trying to get through this traffic
jam caused by (unintelligible) cars, and away they get on the water.

Mr. WITTMAN: They sped away, absolutely. It was a very, very good, a
good scripted robbery. But as I often say, you know, many times in these
cases, the thieves are very good art thieves, but they're terrible
businessmen because it took them five years to try to sell the
paintings, and at no point did they ever make any money.

In the end, we ended up catching them, and it's because they were trying
to sell the Renoir and the Rembrandt for very little money compared to
what the value was.

DAVIES: Right, not easy to move a piece of art like that. Now, I wanted
to also talk about the moment at which you catch these guys because you
worked undercover, very often posing as a crooked art dealer or someone
representing a crooked art dealer. You're the one that's going to give
them a briefcase full of cash in return for the stolen art. And it often
comes down, as it did in this case, in a hotel room. Tell us what
happened.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yes, sometimes that's the way it works. Sometimes, we'd
work a cash-for-paintings deal. In this particular case, we developed an
informant who was out in L.A., and we worked with the Los Angeles FBI,
who did a great job on the case.

We ended up going to Stockholm and also to Copenhagen to work that case,
and I was undercover at that point as an authenticator for an Eastern
European mob group.

After about two weeks of discussions with the thieves, who were still in
Stockholm - and again, we were in Copenhagen, about a six-hour train
ride away - we negotiated the point down to $250,000. And we actually
had 250,000 in cash in the hotel room. And we were bringing it back and
forth to let them see it, to make sure they knew it was real.

So at the very last end, the last day, I told the thieves, come down
tomorrow, bring one person, bring the painting, we'll make the deal. At
that point, the next morning, we found out from our surveillance teams
in Sweden that three individuals were coming down on a train.

They took the ride down, and they had a bag, and inside the bag was a
square object the size of the painting. They asked me, should we take
this down now, should we arrest them? I said no, no, hold off, wait, see
what happens.

After the six-hour ride, they came to walk to the hotel. Two people
stayed outside with the bag, and a third individual came back in to see
me.

DAVIES: Now, if I can just get into the story at this point, you're in
there on your own. I assume you are unarmed, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Right.

DAVIES: But there is secret videotaping going on.

Mr. WITTMAN: Absolutely.

DAVIES: You're dealing with criminals. You don't know what they might
do. They might kill you and take the cash. Where's your backup?
(Unintelligible).

Mr. WITTMAN: We had a Danish SWAT team in a room next door, and they
were ready to go upon my signal through a video camera. They would come
into the room and make the arrest.

But you know, one thing we always did in the FBI, something we always
said in the undercover unit was your backup team was there to avenge you
but not to save you because by the time backup teams get into those
situations, usually it takes too long.

And, you know, it's not like the movies where, you know, if something
bad's going to happen, you know, the bad guy stands there and points his
gun at you and stands there and tells you about it for about 20 minutes.
No, if it happens, it happens very quickly because that's how it goes.

DAVIES: And in this particular case, you went through a run-through to
make sure everything was set, and you discovered a snag.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, right when they were coming into the hotel, I checked
the key to the room that the SWAT team had, and the key didn't work. So
I had to run downstairs very quickly and, you know, with all the support
that you have and the dozens of undercover agents that are outside and
all the SWAT teams and everything, in the end, it always comes down to
the one guy in the room. So I checked the door again...

DAVIES: It's one of these little magnetic keys.

Mr. WITTMAN: They key, right, didn't open the door.

DAVIES: And the SWAT guys' key would not have worked.

Mr. WITTMAN: That's right.

DAVIES: You would've been there on your own if you hadn't checked.

Mr. WITTMAN: If I hadn't checked. So I went down and got a new key, came
back and handed it off to them and went back into the room, at which
point the individual came up. He had the - he wanted to look at the
money. He did look at the money. He said it was good.

So I said, go get it. Go get the painting and bring it to me, we'll do
this deal. He goes outside, he gets his two friends, and they run away.
And I get a call from the Danish police, saying what happened? What did
you say? And I said, I don't know. I said, I didn't say anything. I
can't understand why they would run.

And they said, well, do you want me to arrest them? I said, no, hold up
again. See what happens. Well, what they did was they went to another
hotel, they got a fourth individual, who had come down the night before,
and he had the painting.

So the bag that they carried was nothing but a decoy. Had we taken an
arrest at that point with that bag, we would've had nothing. But they
got the fourth person, they got the bag, and they came back, and that's
when they brought it to my room. And at that point, we were able to
recover that $36 million Rembrandt, which was, as I say, it was probably
the finest piece in the museum.

DAVIES: Right, and you - since you're the phony authenticator, you take
the painting into the bathroom and said let me look at it real
carefully, and then the signal for the SWAT team to come in was what?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, basically it was this is a done deal. And so what I
would normally do in these cases is take the painting into usually a
darkroom and a safe room. And if you think about it, the only place in a
hotel room that's really relatively safe with a lock is the bathroom.

So I would take it in the bathroom, take a look at it, make sure it was
right. In this case, I'd had a chance to look at the back of the
painting through pictures, and I noticed that the clips holding the
painting into the frame were at a certain angle.

So at that point, I looked at the painting itself and noticed that the
clips were at the same angle. So I could tell he had never taken it out
of the frame. So I mentioned to him, I said this you've never even taken
this out of the frame, have you? And he looked at me, he says, of course
not, it's a Rembrandt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: So he showed me some respect for the actual artwork itself.
At that point, I made the signal. I went to the door. I had the painting
in my hands right at the bathroom door, and I looked over, and they were
having a hard time getting into the room.

DAVIES: The SWAT team.

Mr. WITTMAN: The SWAT team, yeah. It seemed like they couldn't get the
door open. So I started to reach for the door to try to open it for
them, okay, while the other guy while the bad guys had their back to me.
And at that point, I guess the key did work because they did make it in,
and I immediately bolted out with the painting.

DAVIES: And the signal was we've got a done deal.

Mr. WITTMAN: We've got a done deal, that's right.

DAVIES: And you've been in this situation so many times, where people
that you have befriended over many months, suddenly, armed men burst
into the room, and they realize that you are indeed a cop, and they have
been had. What kind of interactions occur between you and the crooks at
that point?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, at that point, my feelings are one of, you
know, relief that it's over, okay, because we've finally gotten the
piece back that we wanted.

But in some cases, it's actually interesting because in some cases,
there is a feeling of being let down, as well, all right. And that is
because when you work undercover, and you do a good job, all right, you
have to identify traits in people, in your targets and whatnot, that are
human. If you don't do that, then you can never ingratiate them. You
can't become friends with a person that you can't stand.

So sometimes in those cases, you know, you see the good sides of people,
as well as the bad. And as a result, you know, you can identify with
some of those good traits that they have. And, you know, when you see
them get in trouble, and, you know, their families are going to suffer,
then you feel a little bit of pity in that situation, and you, you know,
you have to go live with that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert K. Wittman. He's a retired FBI agent
who spent many years tracking down stolen art, artifacts and
antiquities. He's written a book about his experiences. It's called
"Priceless." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former FBI Agent Robert
Wittman. He's written a book about his years recovering stolen art and
antiquities. It's called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the
World's Stolen Treasures."

The FBI didn't have a stolen art unit before you got into their lives.

Mr. WITTMAN: Right, right.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about your own knowledge and affection for
art.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, what happened was I never really thought
I'd be involved in the art and artifacts division of the FBI, if there
was one, I didn't even know there was one at the time. And there wasn't.
We started in 2005.

But when I joined the FBI in 1988, I had grown up in a household where
my dad was an Oriental antiques dealer. And he would sell Japanese and
Chinese artifacts, not artifacts but art.

And I grew up in Baltimore. He had a shop on Howard Street, and we
would, you know, we worked together occasionally on Saturdays, and I
would help him in the shop as he got older.

So I got my background in the business of art, which is totally
different from art history. The business of art and how to buy and sell
art has nothing to do with art history, okay. It's all about how to make
a deal.

And so when I came into the FBI, the first case I was assigned, along
with my new partner, Bob Basen(ph), who was the art guy in Philadelphia,
was a theft from the Rodin Museum.

And he and I worked together on that. Once we solved that particular
robbery, we were actually given another one, which was the theft of a
large crystal ball, which was owned by the dowager empress of China. And
she - that was stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of
Archeology and Anthropology. So we recovered that, as well.

After that happened, the bureau sent me to art school at the Barnes
Foundation, and I did a year of actual art history and recognition of
art. And then they sent me to the GIA in Santa Monica for a -
Gemological Institute of America for diamond school and then to Zales
Corporation in Dallas for gemology.

And once they send you to all these schools, you got to start using that
technique, that knowledge, and that's why I got into the art and
antiques.

DAVIES: And so you could sometimes come off to a criminal as someone who
was an art appraiser, for example.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, sometimes - usually a dealer, sometimes an
authenticator, depending on the specific type of artifacts I was looking
at. But again, the real knowledge that really helped me was the
knowledge of the art business because, you know, when I did a case - say
I did in a case in Santa Fe for six months, and I was undercover there
buying Native American Indian artifacts that were illegal.

And I didn't have to know a whole lot about that, but I did have to know
how to make a deal, all right. And so what I convinced the dealers I was
working with, they called it a Santa Fe Mafia in some circles because
there was a $50-million Native American business there in artifacts that
are illegal.

And what I convinced them was I was representing buyers from around the
world who were interested in buying these artifacts, but I wasn't real
knowledgeable. So I needed their help to make sure we got the best
material for these buyers.

DAVIES: And you got this guy to give you, what was it, a Comanche
headdress?

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, at one point, we did get a Comanche war bonnet. It
had eagle feathers with a number of different types of decorations on it
that were illegal.

Another piece we got was a piece of wood that was carved into the shape
of a corn cob. And this was actually a corn god, and, you know, when we
get into the Native American artifacts and these sacred items, these
pieces are very valuable to the communities, communities that they
represent. And it was an amazing education.

DAVIES: Let's talk about one of the cases that you solved and that you
write about in the book, a couple of items taken from the Antiquities
Museum at the University of Pennsylvania: one Egyptian, one Chinese.
Tell us about what was missing.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. The Chinese piece was a wonderful crystal ball. It's
the second-largest crystal ball in the world. The only one that's bigger
is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This particular one weighed
more than 50 pounds. It's a perfect crystal, perfectly round sphere. It
took 10 years to create, okay, in a tube with water and emery powder,
and it was turned constantly to make this sphere. And as I say, it was
owned by the Dowager Empress and was collected in the early 1900s by the
University of Pennsylvania.

That particular piece and also a statue of the god Osiris, which is the
god of the dead, were stolen together.

DAVIES: And that was an Egyptian piece, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. It was an Egyptian piece, yeah, from 3500 B.C. So
we're talking about this piece, the crystal ball and the god Osiris
being stolen together at one point. And, you know, we had no clues for
about two years.

DAVIES: Did they simply open the museum one day and find them missing?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, we never did catch the actual thieves
themselves, but we did recover the items. My assumption - you know, this
is my opinion, and I don't know for a fact, but they were doing a lot of
construction at the museum at the time.

And I know that the - some of the workers were going outside the museum
taking a cigarette break during the day, and they would leave the door
open, all right, and that's how the intruders got in and stole the
pieces.

Well, the next morning, we found what they call the wave(ph), which is
what the crystal ball would sit on. It's a silver sculpture that the
crystal ball sat on, and it was on one of the pylons on the South Street
Bridge. It was just sitting there. So, obviously, they couldn't carry
all this stuff. The Osiris was too heavy, along with the crystal ball,
to carry at one time.

It took us about two years. Finally, we cracked the case. What happened
was one of the workers at the museum went to a secondhand shop, and
she's walking through, just rummaging through, and she looks in the back
and there is the god Osiris, and she sees it.

DAVIES: This is just a coincidence of museum worker saying, hey, wait a
minute.

Mr. WITTMAN: That's exactly right. She had been there. She's a
volunteer. She knew the place, and it was a $15,000 reward offered, as
well. So she went back to the museum, you know, excitedly and told the
director. They went down to the antique shop and they made the claim. Of
course, that was the god Osiris. The piece was worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars. You know, it's a 5,0000-year-old statue.

So we got the - you know, my partner Bob Bazin, again, and I, we went
into the shop. We found out where this piece was being - had been bought
from. It was bought from a picker who was going around walking around
the area with a shopping cart picking trash, and that's what he did. We
found him, interviewed him, and we found out which house it came from.

We went to the house, and there was an individual there. And we knocked
on the door and we said sir, you know, we're here to talk to you about
the god Osiris that you gave to the picker. He says, yeah, about two
years ago I found it in my mud room just sitting there by itself.

DAVIES: My mud room, what did he mean by that?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, he had like a little mud room outside of the back of
his house.

DAVIES: Oh, like an entryway where you knock mud off your...

Mr. WITTMAN: Exactly, into the back of his house which was set on the
back on the side on South Street. So we said well, did you find anything
else? And he said well, there was this lawn ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: He called it a lawn ball. And we - my partner and I said
you mean like a crystal ball? He said yeah, exactly. And I said well,
what did you do with it? And I'm hoping he didn't throw it away. You
know, I was just terrified that he threw it away. And he says, well, I
gave it to my housekeeper. And we said well, why would you do that? And
he said, well, because she's a witch, and she needed a crystal ball.
So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: So, yeah, we said okay, this is great. Call your
housekeeper. Find out if she still has it. Turns out she lived up in
Trenton, New Jersey. So at that point, my partner and I, we ran up to
Trenton, New Jersey, and we knocked on the door, and she still had the
piece.

And we went in and she said oh, yeah, we have it upstairs. So she takes
us upstairs into her bedroom, and there's a young lady with blonde hair,
very pretty, and she said, and here it is. And right on her dresser, the
crystal ball was sitting on a little stand with a baseball cap on it.

Now, we're talking about, you know, the Dowager Empress of China's
crystal ball from the 1800s, worth maybe $350,000 at the time, sitting
on this young girl's dresser with a baseball cap on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: She had no clue, you know, what it was.

DAVIES: And so in that case, no reason to doubt the good faith of
anybody you talked to, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals.

DAVIES: No criminal charges in this case.

Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals. No. We basically we could not prove
that anyone had any criminal liability at that point because they didn't
know what they had. They didn't even know what the crystal ball was.

DAVIES: You have to tell the story about the time the diamond buyer was
involved, and you were going to meet him at a hotel.

Mr. WITTMAN: There was a situation where an individual went into a
jeweler, and what he wanted to do, he wanted to buy diamonds and he was
trying to tell the jeweler that he was working for the CIA and that he
was paying his informants in diamonds, with diamonds in Europe.

So, of course, the jeweler became suspicious, and he showed him checks
worth $15 million, and he wanted to buy millions of dollars worth of
loose diamonds. So the jeweler called us at the FBI and said, you know,
this is the situation. What's the deal?

And, of course, as soon as we heard that, you know, CIA agents don't
carry identification. They don't have badges to say CIA on them, which
is what this guy was showing. So we said look, make the deal, and we'll
go do the delivery. So at that point, we waited a weekend, and that
Monday, I was the one who was going to deliver these $15 million worth
of loose diamonds in a satchel, briefcase.

And while I was discussing that with the individual, he was asking me
are you going to have that, you know, handcuffed to your arm? And I
said, yeah. That's how we usually carry them. I'll have the satchel
handcuffed to my arm for safety and security. And he said okay.

So we went up and we met him in a hotel in Philadelphia, and I met him
in the lobby, and he comes down. And it was strange. He was coming down
from his room, and he came off the elevator, and he had a heavy coat on.

DAVIES: And the plan was you were then going to go up to his room to
make the exchange. Right.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. We weren't going to go out. We weren't supposed to go
outside at all. He just comes on the elevator from his room with a heavy
coat on. That was very suspicious right off the bat. So we spoke for a
little while. I noticed he was starting to perspire, but he wouldn't
take his coat off.

So then when he suggested we go to the room now and go make the deal, I
said okay. So we started walking towards elevator, and at that point I
called in the SWAT team that were sitting around reading papers and
whatnot in the lobby. And when he was arrested, he actually had a
pistol, which is as we expected. But he also had a hatchet.

And the plan was to cut off my arm up in the room and then grab the
satchel and jump out the window and jump into his car, which was parked
right underneath the window. And he had left a whole bag full of
bandages there as well in case he got hurt so he could bandage himself
up. So it was pretty interesting. I guess he had some pretty nefarious
ideas in his mind when he was going to do that deal.

DAVIES: So pretty clear after this came down that you could see that he
planned your murder and dismemberment.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, I would think so. I would hope he'd kill me before he
cut my arm off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, no. But, you know, those things happen.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Wittman, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. WITTMAN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Robert Wittman's memoir is called "Priceless: How I Went
Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's now out in
paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Javier Bardem Reflects On A 'Biutiful' Acting Career

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, won an Oscar for his
performance as a psychopathic serial killer in the 2007 Coen Brothers
film "No Country for Old Men." He played a seductive Spanish artist in
the Woody Allen film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Bardem has been a respected actor in international cinema for years. He
earned seven nominations for the Goya, known as the Spanish Oscars, and
he's won four times. His films include "Live Flesh," "Before Night
Falls," and "The Sea Inside." He earned his third Academy Award
nomination earlier this year for his performance in the film "Biutiful,"
by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It was nominated for
best foreign film. It's now out on DVD.

In "Biutiful," Bardem plays a small-time criminal in Barcelona who runs
a crew of African immigrants selling knockoff goods on the street. He
also has connections to a sweat shop of illegal Chinese immigrants. But
he's a loving and attentive father to his two children. Their mother,
his wife, suffers from bipolar disorder. And on top of it all, he learns
he has a life-threatening illness.

I spoke to Javier Bardem earlier this year and asked him about playing
the lead character in "Biutiful."

Mr. BARDEM: It was very challenging, and I was scared to death to do it,
but I thought it was going to be a very rewarding experience, which it
was, not only at a professional level but also a personal level.

DAVIES: Yeah. And why at a personal level?

Mr. BARDEM: Because you have to face yourself. It's impossible to do a
character like this from the outside. It's impossible to be five months,
almost 12 to 14 hours per day, six days per week, submerged in this
emotional state and not be affected.

When you are portraying somebody and that has a very, I don't know, I
mean a very specific weight, emotional weight, you feel like you are
starting to really, I don't know, to abandon your own body and go to
someplace else.

And then when you come back to yourself, people that know you well,
family and friends, they know. It's like: Why did you say that, or why
are you doing this, or why are you behaving this way? You are not like
that. But you, yourself, you don't realize because it's so unconscious
that you don't have control over it.

DAVIES: Now to the director, the Mexican, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I
know that you and he were friends before this, and he wrote this part
with you in mind, in part. And he describes himself as a perfectionist.

And this is hard to believe, but I read that the scene in which you talk
to your doctor, and your doctor informs you that you have cancer, your
character. I read that you took 50 takes of that scene. Is that right?

Mr. BARDEM: I don't know if 50 but a lot, a lot. He likes to - yeah, he
likes to shoot and shoot and shoot, and which that explains why he's - I
don't know. I would say he's the best actor-director I ever met. And why
is that?

Well besides shooting 50 takes, which is very exhausting for everybody,
it's about putting the camera in the right way, in the right place, at
the right moment, and letting the actor breathe and letting the actor to
take the time to take the journey. We both got to a place where we want
to give the best of ourselves, and that's why we went through this
journey together until the very end.

DAVIES: A lot of people saw you in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a
romantic comedy, in which Barcelona looks just terrific. I mean, the sun
shines, and the scenery is beautiful, and the sea is glistening. In this
film, "Biutiful," it's a very different side of Barcelona. Do you want
to describe a little bit some of the neighborhoods that this takes place
in?

Mr. BARDEM: Yes. This Barcelona is more the Barcelona of people and
communities that are full of people that are coming from outside of
Spain. It's more of a landscape of immigration. And it's around the
exterior neighborhoods, out of the town.

But also, in the middle of the town, there are many places where you can
walk through this major and very famous shops, and two doors down the
street, there is a big building full of, I don't know, people that are
trying to survive there.

But basically most of it happens out of the Barcelona that we know,
which is the Barcelona that was portrayed in Woody Allen's movie, which
by the way is a beautiful Barcelona. But as any other town in the world,
it has two faces.

DAVIES: Well, we have to talk about "No Country For Old Men," the Coen
brothers' film, where you play Anton Chigurh, this truly scary,
sociopathic killer. First of all, just explain how you got the look of
this guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Well, Tommy Lee Jones brought a book, a photo book, of
photos that were taken from the frontier - old Mexico. And there was
this guy who was in the photo, it was kind of a black and white photo
with a prostitute in a brothel in the frontier.

And Joel and Ethan Coen brought that picture to me, and they said: We
want this. And the photo actually was very blurry, and I said: I don't
know what you mean. They said: You'll know. You'll know soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: So they put me in the makeup and hair trailer, and the
hairdresser, which is a great, great man, he did this horrible haircut
on my hair, with my hair.

And there was no mirror. So I turn, and I look at them, and they were
laughing so hard that one of them fell off on the floor, ha, ha, ha, ha.
And I said: I need a mirror. I need a mirror right now. What's going on
here? And I saw it. And it was like: Wow, that's really insane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: But again, it's the Coen brothers. It so brilliant idea. I
mean, it's so brilliant. I mean, I knew that they gave me 50 percent of
my character with that haircut. It was their idea.

DAVIES: Right, and for people who haven't see it, it's - you have long
hair. It's not particularly stylish. A.O. Scott of The New York Times
called it the lost Beatle from hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: That's a good one.

DAVIES: Right. So let's hear just a little bit of you in this character.
We have a clip here from the film, and for those who haven't seen it,
the plot involves, there was a bunch of drug dealers, and there was a
shootout, and this guy who happens to be a welder, who's played by Josh
Brolin, comes upon a satchel full of drug money and is running.

And your character, Anton Chigurh, is trying to track him down. And what
we're going to listen to is a phone call between you and this guy who
has the money, and one of the things that is referred to in the call is
that you know where his wife lives and is headed to Odessa, Texas, and
the clear intimation is that you will kill his wife if he doesn't bring
you the money.

So let's just listen to this conversation. This is our guest, Javier
Bardem, and Josh Brolin in "No Country for Old Men."

(Soundbite of movie, "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You need to come see me.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (Actor): (As Llewelyn Moss) Who is this?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You know who it is. You need to talk to me.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) I don't need to talk to you.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I think you do. Do you know where I'm going?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Why would I care where you're going?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I know where you are.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Yeah? Where am I?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You're in the hospital across the river, but
that's not where I'm going. Do you know where I'm going?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Yeah, I know where you're going.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) All right.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) You know she won't be there.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) It doesn't make any difference where she is.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) So what are you going up there for?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) You know how this is going to turn out, don't
you?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Moss) Nope.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Chigurh) I think you do. So this is what I'll offer: You
bring me the money, and I'll let her go. Otherwise, she's accountable
the same as you. That's the best deal you're going to get. I won't tell
you, you can save yourself because you can't.

DAVIES: And that's one of the 10 scariest guys I've ever seen in a
movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: That's our guest, Javier Bardem from the film, the Coen
brothers' film, "No Country for Old Men."

You know, your character, Anton Chigurh, we don't really know anything
about him in the film, and I gather in the novel, the Cormac McCarthy
novel, he's also not so clearly defined.

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Did you have a back-story in your head that told you how he
became what he was?

Mr. BARDEM: That's a very funny and very interesting question. No, I
didn't, and actually, that's one of the things I love to do the most, to
create a story, a back-story, in my head that will help me to understand
what I'm doing.

But in this case, I've prepared a role with my acting teacher, Juan
Carlos Corazza, which he's been my acting teacher since 22 years ago.
And, of course, once - when I go there with Juan Carlos, with my acting
teacher, I go based on the idea that the Coens wanted me to do. It's not
something that he will direct me how to do it, and then I will go to a
set and do what I want, no. It's like I took two good actors, they tell
me what they want, I go there to the laboratory, try different things,
come back to them, and they choose what they want.

And I was working with Juan Carlos, and we found, like, there is no way
there's a back-story, and that's the great thing. He's not a human
being. There is no back-story. He is a symbol. He is a symbolic idea of
violence. He is a man that comes out of nowhere and goes to nowhere at
the end. So he's death himself. He's violence himself.

And that's why we wanted to create this thing where you are not sure
what is him, if he's a man or a machine or a Biblical plague or what.
And that was funny to do but also very delicate to not cross past the
line, and in that, the Coens had a lot to say because they were
directing me on the set in a very, very, very subtle way but also
without losing a sense of humor.

DAVIES: Sense of humor, huh?

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah, that look, that way of walking, that way of throwing
one line here and there, that's something that the Coens were, I mean,
they were pushing me - not pushing me, like, asking me to do. And
sometimes I would go, like: Why, why? You don't need that. You don't
need - why, why would he do that? And they were laughing. And they'd
say: You'll know. You'll know when you see the movie.

DAVIES: Can you think of an example of one of those things that you said
why do you want me to do that, and then it made sense later?

Mr. BARDEM: I don't know. There's a scene where I go to the trailer
park, and I ask for Josh Brolin's character, and there's this woman
there, and then I ask where he is, and she says: I cannot give that
information.

And then I naturally look at her, and I went away, and they said no, no,
no. You look at her, and you stay there for two minutes. And I was,
like, what? Yes, we want you to look at her and stare at her for two
minutes, I mean without blinking. I said okay, I'll do that.

And I thought at the moment it was a little bit too forced, you know,
too pushy. But no, they knew exactly. And that's one of the moments
where I think, and I know, people love the most, with that look. So
that's - those are the things that the Coens know how to do the best.

DAVIES: Yeah, I remember that scene, too, and she says: Sir, we can't
give out no information. And you just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly.

DAVIES: You stare right back at her.

We're speaking with Javier Bardem.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to my interview with Spanish actor Javier Bardem
recorded in February when his film "Biutiful" was released. It's now out
on DVD.

You became a really leading actor in Spanish cinema. Did you aspire to
act in English then at all?

Mr. BARDEM: Well, I'm 42 years old so I guess my generation, we all grew
up with "Taxi Driver" and "Apocalypse Now" and great performances done
in English, along with some of the great performance also in Italy,
France and, of course, Spain, which I had the chance to work with some
of them. But no, I never thought about going out of Spain and working in
a foreign language ever, because that was totally out of my radar, no?
It's like no, that's not going to happen. But it happened. That's the
weirdest thing and if you ask me why I can't tell you.

There is this lovely man called Julian Schnabel, which I love and I
adore, who had the guts to say I want you to do "Before Night Falls" and
everybody around was like, why? Why? Who is that guy? Why? Why? Why him?
But he said well, because I like him because he saw some of my movies in
Spain. At that time I didn't speak any English and he said we are going
to make this together. Don't worry. It's going to be fine. And I had one
of the best experiences of my life doing that movie. I will never forget
it and we worked hard and we made it and I guess that brought some
attention.

DAVIES: You really didn't speak English before getting into that movie?

Mr. BARDEM: No. I mean just hello and give me a glass of water. That's
all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: I'm always saying that I know how to curse very well because
I learn English listening to AC/DC.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: So I'm a huge fan of AC/DC, and so I was translating the
lyrics so I know how to curse.

DAVIES: You have to start somewhere, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly.

DAVIES: Well, we should just pause a minute on this film because it was
a real important one for you. "Before Night Falls" directed by Julian
Schnabel, it's -you play the poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas who...

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...was a gay man persecuted in Cuba during the revolution. It
kind of takes us through the '60s, through the Mariel boatlift when you,
his character, ends up in New York and gets AIDS.

Mr. BARDEM: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: I mean, it's a really dramatic role. And one of the things
that's fascinating to me about it is that it takes place in, Cuba but
much of the dialogue is in English. How is acting in English different
from acting in Spanish for you?

Mr. BARDEM: It's a different - it's a totally different situation and
it's like here, I'm trying to express myself and share some opinions and
be relaxed and there's this office in my brain full of people working at
the same time that I'm talking to you trying to not, be wrong with the
intonation, with the words and so it's very exhausting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: The office is translating. Right. Okay.

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly. If I speak Spanish that office is closed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: There's nobody in the office. I mean I'm fine by my own.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You got to work with Woody Allen on "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
How did you get that role?

Mr. BARDEM: Well, I had a call from Mr. Woody Allen, which I was very
impressed by. He told me briefly, I have a script for you. I want you to
read it. And he hung up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: And I said, okay. Whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: And then I read it. I read it and I thought it was fun and
it was very, very, I don't know, smart because it's about the
stereotypes and the people behind those stereotypes. And then he called
me back and said, do you like it? And I said, yes. Okay, you are on. It
was that easy.

DAVIES: So let's listen to a clip. This is a moment early in the film.
You play this romantic painter, Juan Antonio, who approaches these two
young American women who are in Barcelona, played here by Rebecca Hall
and Scarlett Johansson and make a pretty forward proposal. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) American?

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (Actress): (as Cristina) I'm Cristina and this is
my friend Vicky.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) What color are your eyes?

Ms. JOHANSSON (Actress): (as Cristina) They're blue.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I'd like to invite you both to come with
me to Oviedo.

Ms. REBECCA HALL (Actress): (as Vicky) To come where?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) To Oviedo for the weekend. We leave in one
hour.

(Soundbite of glass clinking)

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) Where is Oviedo?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) A very short flight.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) By plane?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Mm-hmm.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) What's in Oviedo?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I go to see a sculpture that is very
inspiring to me, very beautiful sculpture. You'll love it.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Oh right. You're asking us to fly to Oviedo and
back?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) No. We'll spend the weekend. I mean I'll
show you around the city and we'll eat well, we'll drink good wine,
we'll make love.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Yeah. Who exactly is going to make love?

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Hopefully the three of us.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (as Cristina) Oh, my god.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) I'll get your bill.

Ms. HALL: (as Vicky) Jesus, this guy. He doesn't beat around the bush.
Look, Senor, maybe in a different life.

Mr. BARDEM: (as Juan Antonio) Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life
is full of pain and this is a chance for something special.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Javier Bardem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...putting moves on Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall in
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

You dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Have you ever done anything like that in real life?

Mr. BARDEM: No way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Actually, I was shooting that scene and I say who in the
world, who in the world is going to believe this? But Woody Allen did it
right. I guess some people thought it was funny and those two girls were
crazy enough to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right. And then off goes romantic triangles, quadrangles and
entangles.

Mr. BARDEM: I think it's a great movie and because it's really about, I
was saying before about the stereotypes, about the cliches, the Spanish
cliche and the American cliche, actually and the people behind those
cliches - that basically, we are all the same, we have the same fears,
needs. And the way it's put together I think it was very fun but also
very pointed, and very delightful to watch.

DAVIES: Right. And Penelope Cruz comes in in a terrific performance.
Some people probably saw this as an antidote to the Anton Chigurh
character where you're this, you know, psychopathic killer in "No
Country for Old Men." Did you see it that way at all?

Mr. BARDEM: Not really. No, no, I don't see - I don't have a plan. I
don't have a plan in my head. I mean if things happen, things have a
meaning to you then you do it and there's no way that you can do a next
step based on the previous one. That doesn't work that way in my
opinion. I mean Woody Allen gave me this call, he showed me this. I
thought it was going to be fun and a great cast, Barcelona and I said
well, why not? Let's do it. And once again, Woody Allen was shooting one
take, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: ...it's a different experience, for 30 takes to one take and
no reversals, so it was kind of jumping off the cliff for me. Because
the scenes are very long and there's no cut so it was very challenging
and also very and rewarding.

DAVIES: Yeah, I was going to ask you how he was different from some of
the great international directors you've worked with. That's one way.
One take, huh?

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah. Yeah. One take and no rehearsal and I don't know if I
ever came to him and said I would like to speak about my character but I
think I did that and he looked at me like I kill someone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: Like what? What is that? I said no, don't worry, I won't
bother you again.

DAVIES: Really? You just...

Mr. BARDEM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: You give me your interpretation and it will work, uh?

Mr. BARDEM: Exactly. He's one of those who says I do the cast and I do
the cast because I know you can play it so don't come to me and bother
me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARDEM: ...with your method questions, but in a very funny way. And,
of course, it's Woody Allen so, of course, you say, of course, Mr.
Allen. Whatever you want.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Actor Javier Bardem recorded in February. He earned an Oscar
nomination for his performance in the film "Biutiful." It's now out on
DVD.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new comedy "Bad Teacher."

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
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Class Is Dismissed: 'Bad Teacher' Is Crude, But Fun

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The new film "Bad Teacher" centers on a woman who teaches children who
would be too young to see this movie. It's an R-rated comedy starring
Cameron Diaz as, well, a bad teacher. Directed by Jake Kasdan, it also
stars Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel as an out-of-shape gym teacher.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Bad Teacher" is a raunchy comedy about a conniving,
alcoholic, druggie middle-school teacher played by Cameron Diaz who'll
do anything to get the money to buy herself some bigger breasts so she
can marry rich and not have to do the job at which she's, yes, bad. How
bad is she?

I won't give away specifics, but every scene is contrived to make you
say, that is a bad teacher - much as another R-rated film about someone
not living up to the responsibility of interacting with children, "Bad
Santa," made you say, that is a bad Santa.

So the movie is one broad joke on the theme of how-bad-is-she repeated
over and over, and most of the early reviews have complained about its
coarseness and vulgarity. My response is easily stated: Get off your
high horses. "Bad Teacher" made me laugh harder than anything this year
outside Broadway's "The Book of Mormon," which is filthier and still won
the Tony.

As Elizabeth Halsey, Cameron Diaz does not walk when she can sashay, and
almost always in short, tight dresses and stiletto heels. She looks,
frankly, used, dissipated, hungover, her make-up smeared, her wide mouth
looking unusually lewd.

She's wonderful - but then, she's often wonderful, despite recent high-
profile embarrassments like "Knight and Day" opposite Tom Cruise mugging
it up and trying too hard to be funny. Diaz doesn't need to mug. Her
great, big features are gorgeous and clown-like at once.

As "Bad Teacher" opens, Elizabeth is departing John Adams Middle School,
where she's been teaching for a year without even learning the names of
her students - a matter of crushing indifference to her, given her
coming marriage to a rich boy. Alas, he dumps her - or, rather, his
mother insists he dump her for racking up staggering monthly credit card
bills. So it's back to bad teaching.

On her return to the school in the fall, Elizabeth comes face to face
with her opposite number, played by the brilliant British actress Lucy
Punch, often a sexpot in movies, but here the soul of primness.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bad Teacher")

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. LUCY PUNCH (Actor): (as Amy Squirrel) There she is, Elizabeth
Halsey. Woo-hoo. I am so excited we're going to be across-the-hall
mates, but I am so sad it's because your relationship ended.

Ms. CAMERON DIAZ (Actor): (as Elizabeth Halsey) Who are you, again?

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Amy Squirrel.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) Squirrel?

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Yeah. You know...

(Soundbite of squirrel noises)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Don't worry. You were kind of a lone wolf
last year, and so busy planning the wedding.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) I found him in bed with somebody else.

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Oh, my gosh.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) It was another man.

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Shut the front door.

EDELSTEIN: That lie about him being with a man, it evolves the more she
tells it. You can imagine - or maybe not.

What "Bad Teacher" most reminds me of is old Bill Murray comedies like
"Stripes" or "Meatballs," but with a woman talking dirty and using
everything in her arsenal to get what she wants: cheating, lying, and
being incorrigibly sleazy and opportunistic in the great American
degenerate movie huckster tradition. There's a Bill Murray figure here,
too, a pudgy, pothead gym teacher played by Jason Segel, who watches her
with amusement, admiration and unconcealed lust.

One thing, though: As taken as he is by her gonzo ways, he doesn't
collude in her bad teaching. He thinks she should do something else.
Although Elizabeth isn't punished for breaking almost every law there
is, ethical and legal, she's not rewarded, either. Where she ends up is
very satisfying, even touching.

Director Jake Kasdan loves his actors and gives them room to breathe -
and in some cases, hyperventilate. Along with sterling turns by Diaz,
Segel, Lucy Punch and Phyllis Smith from "The Office" as Elizabeth's
mousy colleague, Justin Timberlake defies expectations as an insipid
little bespectacled nerd with a fortune from his family's watch business
- a performance of gentle weirdness that builds to a non-sex sex scene
with some of the most inspired nerdy-dirty language I've ever heard.

I've missed gonzo. I don't mean fake gonzo, like the Judd Apatow movies
in which child-men act out before they have to grow up, or swill like
the "Hangover" films that reinforce American males' sense of
entitlement. "Bad Teacher," like "Bad Santa," is blessedly free of
redeeming social value.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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