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Bardem watched nearly every 'I Love Lucy' episode to prepare to be Desi Arnaz

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new movie about the Hollywood power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is in theaters now. "Being The Ricardos" is writer Aaron Sorkin's take on the hit TV show "I Love Lucy." Our colleague Debbie Elliott talked with one of the stars - Javier Bardem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In the 1950s, America was in love with the Ricardos, Cuban bandleader Ricky and his mischievous wife, Lucy. But the perfect marriage we saw on TV was more complex offscreen. The new film "Being The Ricardos" centers around a scandalous week for the couple. It's during the Red Scare, when Lucille Ball, played by Nicole Kidman, is accused of being a communist, and she suspects he's having an affair. Desi Arnaz, played by Javier Bardem, fears "I Love Lucy" will be cancelled.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

JAVIER BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) This is a critical moment, Lucy.

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) If I'm going to die...

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) You're not.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) ...I would rather die standing up.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) You saw the headline.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) You can see the headline from outer space.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Then please...

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Grandpa Fred raised me from when I was age 4. He cared about workers' rights. It was a tribute to him. And to say that I checked the wrong...

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Grandpa Fred, Grandpa Fred - Grandpa Fred was wrong, Lucy.

ELLIOTT: Javier Bardem didn't grow up watching "I Love Lucy" in Spain, but he told us he watched nearly every episode to prepare for this role.

BARDEM: I was absolutely obsessed with Ricky Ricardo and trying to get as close as his mannerisms and energy and voice as I could.

ELLIOTT: So the real Desi Arnaz was a singer and a bandleader.

BARDEM: Oh, yes.

ELLIOTT: And I understand you took music lessons so that you could sing and play the bongos.

BARDEM: Oh, yes. As a very good actor would ever do, when they ask you if you can ride a horse, you say yes. If they say - if they ask you, do you sing - me? Oh, man, you should listen to me. And then comes the moment when they say, OK, the job is yours, and you go, oh, my God, what do I do now? I felt it's very exposing. To sing a song, it's one of the most scary things.

ELLIOTT: You not only had to sing, you had to sing "Babalu."

BARDEM: "Babalu," yes, which is a song that was not included in the first draft of the script because Aaron Sorkin didn't want the actor who would play it to sing "Babalu" because he thought it was way too challenging. But when I saw the footage of Desi Arnaz playing "Babalu," I said it's his trademark.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

DESI ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo, singing) Babalu, Babalu.

ELLIOTT: So can you still do "Babalu?"

BARDEM: I can - I can do "Babalu" if you give me a month to prepare.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: You've said in interviews that you enjoy playing characters who are full of contradictions, right? I'm thinking of your role as a terrifying killer in "No Country For Old Men" or the small-time criminal in the film "Beautiful." What contradictions did you find with Desi Arnaz?

BARDEM: I will pick at one, that he was madly in love with his wife. He worshipped his wife. But also he was a man who was educated at a time and in a place where manhood has some very narrow definition in terms of a man has to be the man. So the contradiction between how much he really wanted to be with her and how much he adored her and the life that he was doing when he was not with her is like two lives in one. And I didn't know him. I know a little bit his daughter, Lucie, which has been so helpful and so caring and loving. But I would say that I don't think that contradiction made him happy and ultimately was the reason why the marriage broke up.

ELLIOTT: I want to tap back into what you said about Lucie Arnaz and how she helped you prepare for this role. She provided some old home recordings of her parents, and I would imagine these were some of the warmer moments in their relationship, right?

BARDEM: That was like holding a treasure in your hands. And that - that itself is a lot of responsibility, I mean, when someone gives you the privacy, the intimacy of their own family. I played the recordings and they felt so close to him because I was into the living room. Then I heard some recordings with him and some producers, and you can tell that he was making sure that they understood that he was the boss (laughter) because even having the power that he had still was having to fight against some - I don't - I think the word is racism. The fact that he was a foreigner was always present.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

TONY HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) Bob was saying that you are really the title character of the show because you are the I in "I Love Lucy."

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz, laughter) Jess, patronize me again, and I'll stick my hand down your throat.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to talk for just a moment about the remarkable backstory to Desi Arnaz's life, right? His family fled a revolution in Cuba in the 1930s. This was even before Fidel Castro. It was a time when an earlier dictator came into power. I wonder, as you were preparing for this role, did you feel any sort of level of understanding having yourself grown up I know in a very different country, you were in Spain, but it was the end of a dictatorship there in the 1970s, right?

BARDEM: Yes. And he - funny enough, the political vision of the world, it's something that I wouldn't share with Desi Arnaz. I'm far from what he thought politically. He was a person who supported Nixon, for example. He was very against communism, as you can imagine.

ELLIOTT: Right.

BARDEM: And there was a moment in the movie where he speaks about that, and that was a moment where it was like, huh, that Javier had some problems with it. My family comes from a different background. My uncle was a very important person in the figure of the Communist Party in Spain. My mom, who passed away months ago, and I adore her and I love her...

ELLIOTT: Oh, I'm sorry.

BARDEM: Thank you. She was very active in the Communist Party. It's not that I'm a communist, but I've been very outspoken against the extreme right that is raising up in Europe and especially in Spain. So those parts were not the ones that I were sharing with him. And still, I adore him and I loved him. We don't have to cancel each other. We have to try to understand each other. And once I understood Desi Arnaz, I was madly in love. And I know that he was also part of his circumstances. And it was one of the most amazing challenges that I ever had as an actor.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

BARDEM: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "THE END OF A DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.