Jamie McCarthy / WireImage 1 / 6
Jamie McCarthy / WireImage 1 / 6

He played a quadriplegic in "The Sea Inside" and won an Oscar as a hit man in "No Country for Old Men," but his dying hustler in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's new "Biutiful," out Wednesday, may top them all. Bardem tells Gina Piccalo about losing himself in characters-and why he doesn't perform to win awards.

RELATED: The Buzziest Movie of the Year

The elegant hotel sitting room swelled with the serious mood of Javier Bardem. He was weeks away from becoming a first-time father, just six months into his marriage to the lovely Penelope Cruz. His eyes were weary. But this personal drama wasn't up for discussion.

Instead, on this gray day in Beverly Hills, the Oscar winner was contemplating the grim five months he spent on the toughest role of his career, that of Uxbal, the dying Barcelona street hustler in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful." Bardem furrowed his formidable brow, sometimes stuck for the English equivalent of the Spanish word he wanted to use, as he explained the director's relentless drive "to try to get to the bone of it."

RELATED: The top 10 underappreciated movies of 2010

"Yes, it's the hardest," he told me this month, ranking his performance in his 23-year career. "But it's the hardest, not because of the tasks I had to achieve, which were pretty severe in some ways, but the maintenance of it. To maintain that focus for so long at that level of commitment, that is what has made the difference between this role and others."

Bardem didn't offer specifics. Unlike the young actors crowding this year's awards season, he doesn't court the press with stories of his ardent sacrifice for a role. He dropped 30 pounds for the part, but he was quick to point out, "That's not a form of talent. That's just a strong will." And when repeatedly pressed for details about how his off-screen life was changed while he lived as Uxbal, Bardem, 40, was matter-of-fact. "It's about putting yourself in the place of vulnerability and staying with it," he said. "I don't know how to do it any other way."

Bardem, who played competitive rugby for years, inhabits his characters physically as much as emotionally, projecting volumes with his posture or subtle gesture. Early on in Spain, his sex appeal was front and center in bawdy productions such as his breakout role in 1992's "Jamon Jamon." And as "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and even this year's "Eat Pray Love" demonstrated, Bardem's natural sensuality still works wonders on screen.

"It's about putting yourself in the place of vulnerability and staying with it," he said. "I don't know how to do it any other way."

In the last decade, though, his depth, range, and journalistic research of a character have granted him exalted status as one of his generation's great character actors, alongside Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. "Javier is on another level from the rest of us," Ben Affleck told The Wrap's Steve Pond recently.

RELATED: The hottest internet trends of 2010

Bardem's lack of English delayed his Hollywood debut for years. Then painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel cast Bardem as the gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in his 2001 film, Before Night Falls, when Benicio del Toro left the role. Bardem's performance earned him his first Oscar nomination, the first for a Spanish actor.

From there, Bardem took on a series of earnest English-speaking roles, playing a South American detective in John Malkovich's directorial debut, "The Dancer Upstairs," and the quadriplegic, assisted suicide activist Ramon Sampedro in "The Sea Inside." His portrayal of the murderous sociopath in Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men" finally won him an Academy Award.

Despite years of such devoted performances, though, Bardem still lost himself in Uxbal. His friends and relatives, he said, had to pull him back to shore.

"There's a moment when you feel like you are fine, but you are not," he says, shifting his sturdy frame in a chair too supple to contain it comfortably. "You are behaving like somebody else."

"I never saw somebody with so much investment in a character," Inarritu told a reporter during last spring's Cannes Film Festival.

RELATED: 2010 in fashion trends

It was a complex performance that carried an unrelentingly bleak film. Uxbal is a man of questionable ethics but a loving single father, haunted by his estranged bipolar wife and ghosts of the recently dead, desperate to stabilize his children's lives before he succumbs to cancer.

Reviews have been surprisingly polarized, with one critic calling the film a "gorgeous, melancholy tone poem" and another bemoaning it as a "laborious stretch of designer depression."

Bardem's portrayal has been largely praised, even in the negative reviews. It earned him this year's best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. And his high-profile fans, Penn among them, have been outspoken in their admiration. Still, Bardem was overlooked by the traditional bellwethers of an Academy Award for acting: nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Screen Actors Guild.

If he was disappointed, he certainly didn't show it on the day the SAG nominations were announced. When Bardem says he isn't performing to win awards, he sounds genuine. Indeed, he considers his 2008 Oscar win for his portrayal of the mysterious hit man Anton Chigurh a lucky break. "It was a great honor and a great strike of fortune," he said. "No more than that."

"You can't relate those things to the work," he continued. "It hasn't anything to do with who you are as an actor. There have been major actors who have never been recognized and some others who will never be. And some who have been, I include myself, for things that are OK. It's not about the work. It's about something else."

Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.