Is Gael García Bernal the perfect man? Not your average movie verse player, the Mexican actor and director speaks five languages and boxes. He is also a hands-on father. And there’s more . . . “Politics adds depth to a film just like politics adds depth to a person,” he tells TARA BRADY
The latest feature film from the controversial Chilean director Pablo Larrian, No, arrives here with an Oscar nomination, a major prize from the Cannes Film Festival and the box-office-boosting Mexican superstar Gael García Bernal in the central role. Set in Chile towards the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s military rule, Larrain’s drama mostly plays out in a post-Mad Men milieu of advertising executives, groundbreaking pitches and boy toys.
“Everybody knows how Pinochet came to power,” says Gael García Bernal. “But not many people know how the pure market and materialism that he proposed was ultimately the system that overthrew him.”
No casts García Bernal as Rene Saavedra, a historical composite (in reality the relevant TV spots were fashioned by a committee) and commercials wünderkind, out to convince the Chilean population to vote “no” in a national referendum on whether General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years. Throughout the film Saavedra remains an enigma: are his efforts against the regime inspired by family ties to the Communist Party or is he just out to surpass his boss who is working for the “Yes” camp?
“He’s complicated,” says García Bernal. “But he has to be. Advertising and democracy are a grey area. They are both about shaping our convictions and turning them into something else. Both are the process of trying to convince ourselves if something is right.”
The campaign at the heart of No, accordingly, called for a vote against Pinochet using the happy, clappy grammar of soft drinks and car commercials. The incongruous style – think “I’d Like to Teach the World to Vote” – would ultimately shape Chilean history.
“It was the first time that kind of very American advertising was used in a political campaign in Chile,” García Bernal tells me. “Nowadays, I don’t think you’d get away with it. TV was such a big part of our lives back then. Now it is for football and news. Back in the day, it was still possible to sell the idea that a dishwasher could change your life. Now nobody would believe that. ‘The country will be much better’. Yeah, right.”
The 34-year-old, who has played Che Guevara twice, has long been synonymous with political material and political causes. At 14, he was teaching Huichol Indians and other indigenous peoples how to read; at 15, he was a demonstrator during the Chiapas uprising; in 2003, he denounced the Iraq War on stage at the Academy Awards.
By most US standards, he’s a left-wing firebrand; he’s currently producing a documentary on the Chicano labour rights activist César Chávez and campaigned for the left-leaning presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO) in Mexico’s 2012 election. Two years ago, García Bernal was awarded the Washington Office on Latin America’s Human Rights Award for his work on the Amnesty International Short Documentary Series Los Invisibles.
“Work doesn’t have to be political,” he says. “There are other spiritual and sexual and social things that are interesting to explore. But politics adds depth to a film just like politics adds depth to a person.”
In this, as in most other things, García Bernal is not your average movieverse player. Born in Guadalajara and raised in Mexico City by his actor parents, the former child star was a popular fixture in telenovelas while still in his teens.
“I’ve always acted,” he says. “And I’ve always wanted to act. It’s always been part of my life. I enjoy having a lot of lives. I enjoy that non-committal way that an actor has of looking at things. That only can actor can get away with.”
In the 1990s, he became the first Mexican to gain admittance to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, the alma mater of Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, and Harold Pinter.
“It was a bit daunting,” he recalls. “Now I look back on it as one of the happiest times of my life. It was exciting and experimental and everything was new. They were very good times. But for a while, I didn’t know anybody there, I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Two years into the course the actor got a call from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film-maker arranged for a fake medical certificate citing tropical disease so that García Bernal could appear in Amores Perros without getting expelled from school.
“Until that moment, I knew I wanted to act, but I didn’t think I would be doing it professionally or all the time,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d get the work. But then Amores happened suddenly and Y Tu Mamá También soon after, and there was very little time to think of doing something different.”
He says working in English is “about 10 times harder than Spanish”, but that hasn’t prevented him from developing a bilingual and very international career. To date, one might successfully circumnavigate the globe based on García Bernal’s collaborators, an all-star arthouse supergroup that includes Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuarón, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar, James Marsh, Lukas Moodysson and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The actor speaks five languages, including Italian, Portuguese and French.
“I find most of my work in Spanish,” he says. “But I’m very lucky that I can work in English too. I like being able to play around in different languages. And I’m lucky that times have changed since the old narrative about actors moving to Hollywood. About 30 years, ago it was either that or nothing. But that pressure isn’t really there anymore.”
Crossing borders is merely a symptom of the Mexican’s versatility. He’s malevolent and deceptively doe-eyed in The Crimes of Father Amero and The King; he’s bi-curious in Y Tu Mamá También, girlish as Bad Education’s pre-op transvestite and boyish as a dim-witted bumpkin footballer in Rudi y Cursi. His adaptability suggests an actor who spends months in character and preparation, though he swears to the contrary.
“I’d find it distracting to have a character going around with me all the time,” he says. “I don’t find it difficult walking away from a character or to switch on or off. Although maybe the people around me might tell you something different.”
Most of his Anglophone work has happened in the independent sector, though he has worked on studio pictures, notably the 2010 rom-dram Letters to Juliet. Next year, García Bernal will follow in the footsteps of Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Tyrone Power and Antonio Banderas when he sharpens his rapier for 20th Century Fox’s Zorro Reborn.
“Working with a studio is a different process,” he says. “It’s a whole different approach. It’s a product – an entertainment – and I have nothing against those. But it does mean a lot more conversations, a lot more opinions and a lot more producers. It’s a lot of talking, no?”
Between projects Garcia Bernal runs a production company with his Rudi y Cusi and Casa de mi Padre co-star Diego Luna, distributes socially conscious documentaries and – following a football-related injury – boxes.
“There’s a lot of Irish influences in our culture,” he laughs. “Proudly so. And I think boxing is one. We’re good at it. Like the Irish. And it’s safer for me than amateur soccer.”
Despite all these interests and pastimes, García Bernal spends most of his time between Mexico City and Buenos Aires with his wife, the Argentinian actress Dolores Fonzi, and their two children, Lázaro and Libertad.
“Everything I do is different since becoming a father,” he says. “Everything in my life has changed completely. It’s certainly affected the way that I work – but, I think, for the better. I’m more focused. No was the only film I made that year. I don’t have a computer in the house. That helps. So whenever I have to work or go online, I have to go to a little school that I run.”
Happily, he did find the time to appear in last year’s Casa di mi Padre, an endearingly surreal motion picture telenovela co-starring Diego Luna and Will Ferrell.
“If you think that was surreal you should have been at the script meetings.”
No opens on February 8th