Mex­ico’s got tal­ent

Ac­tor, di­rec­tor, ac­tivist, school­mas­ter, boxer, fa­ther, poly­glot Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal talks to Tara Brady

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Tthe 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 al­ls­tar art­house su­per­group that in­cludes Michel Gondry, Al­fonso Cuarón, Jim Jar­musch, Pe­dro Almod­ó­var, James Marsh, Lukas

“There’s a lot of Ir­ish in­flu­ences in our cul­ture. 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”

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

Clockwise from above left: Even the Rain (2010); Rudo y Cursi (2008); Let­ters to Juliet (2010); No (2012). Be­low: Gar­cía Ber­nal with No di­rec­tor Pablo Lar­raín

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