With a great love for his family and friends and a successful string of movies — including Eat Pray Love — this handsome Spaniard has good reason to smile.

Perhaps you recognize him as the psychopathic hit man from No Country for Old Men (2007) or as the object of three women’s affections in Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But the proud people of his native Spain know the global box-office star as the first Spaniard to take home an Academy Award.

The proverbial die was cast for actor Javier Bardem as his theatrical roots can be traced back to the early days of the Spanish cinema. Clearly, talent is in the genes — his grandparents were actors, his mother a television and film actress, and his uncle is a well-known film director. “With that number of performers in the family, it made it impossible for me not to be [an actor],” he explains. “It would be like trying to escape nature. I studied painting. I did jobs that young actors do. But in the end, you have to be honest with yourself and your calling. And mine was expression through someone else’s words.”

It’s hard to pigeonhole the versatile career of the handsome and brawny actor who often escapes the stereotype of Hollywood heartthrob by selecting offbeat roles that are challenging both physically and emotionally. His portrayal of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (2000) earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor while No Country for Old Men garnered him the Oscar, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Golden Globe (among other accolades) for Best Supporting Actor. And most recently, he received a prestigious Palme d’Or for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as a terminally ill hustler in the drama Biutiful.

Born in the Canary Islands, the 41-year-old actor resides in Spain near family and friends. He speaks proudly of his country, noting, “Spain has a lot of diversity. In food, that means a whole world of flavors. It is also diverse in terms of landscape. If you travel north, you can have a beautiful coast with big cliffs and strong ocean. If you go to the South, you have very warm, calm Mediterranean weather. Madrid is famous for being friendly and being very open to newcomers, for respecting what you may bring with you. They don’t try to change it.”

When the busy actor is not working, he often frequents his family’s restaurant, La Bardemcilla, in Madrid. “It’s a homey place that combines traditional Spanish cuisine with tapas,” says Bardem. His favorite dish is a simple one — a couple of fried eggs with some fries and Jamón Serrano (a Spanish cured ham).

While acting may have seemed like a natural career path, an early interest in painting led to studies at Madrid’s Escuelas de Artes y Oficios (which no doubt came in handy for his role as Brother Lorenzo in the Milos Forman film Goya’s Ghosts, about the Spanish artist Goya). He also played rugby for 16 years and was a member of the Spanish National team.

“I love rugby for many reasons, but if I have to choose one, it’s because of the importance of belonging to a group. It’s not about individuality,” he says. “It’s about a group of people who are fighting for a dream to come true. Either you belong to the dream, or you are out of it. That is a good lesson for life.”

Next up for Bardem is the coveted role as the romantic interest in the best-selling memoir-turned-film Eat Pray Love (Columbia Pictures, 2010). He stars as Felipe, a Brazilian-born gem seller whom writer Elizabeth Gilbert (portrayed by Julia Roberts) meets and falls in love with while in Bali. Bardem explains, “After doing the movie Biutiful, I felt I wanted to go in the other direction … to go to someplace where I could stretch some other muscles — comedy muscles. Being in Bali with Ryan Murphy [the film’s director] and Julia Roberts with a very well-known and good book, on such a beautiful island — what’s wrong with that? It’s the perfect place to be.”

The book is a big hit, particularly among female readers from all walks of life, because it deals with love, divorce, self-discovery, and — ultimately — happiness. When asked about his perspective from a male point of view, Bardem notes, “It’s about love, heartbreak, impulsive needs, rational needs, physical needs, flavors, taste, loneliness, joy, and pain. Whoever doesn’t know any of this, raise his hand! It doesn’t really belong to male or female, it’s just human. That’s why I was drawn to the book and the material. We have all been there in one way or another. It’s why the movie and the book ‘read’ to everyone.”

To prepare for his role, the dedicated actor spent an evening with the real Felipe. “He is a very interesting man. He’s very easy to talk to — and, more important, to listen to — because he talks about his experiences of life in a way that is very funny to hear but also very profound and wise. And after that I thought: ‘I’m wrong for this part!’ ” Bardem humorously details. Gilbert felt the actor completely nailed the role. “Javier has such an openness, sensitivity, and warmth to play the role of her husband. After watching the movie, it made me fall in love with my husband all over again!” she says.