All art is po­lit­i­cal

His­re­cent impassioned Os­cars speech re­minded ev­ery­body just how civic-minded and politi­cised Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal is. But in per­son, there’s no hint of self-right­eous­ness. In fact, he’s fan­tas­ti­cally good fun. The star of ‘Neruda’ talks to Tara Brady

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“You can’t sep­a­rate art from pol­i­tics,” says Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal. “Art doesn’t hap­pen in iso­la­tion. Ev­ery movie or piece of art takes a po­lit­i­cal stance.”

He laughs. “And when it doesn’t take a po­lit­i­cal stance, that’s a po­lit­i­cal stance, too.”

Re­mem­ber the Os­cars? Be­fore that busi­ness with the en­ve­lope? Re­mem­ber when Meryl Streep went to town with her Trump-bash­ing ac­cep­tance speech for the Ce­cil B DeMille Award at the Golden Globes? “Over­rated” Meryl, al­ways a tough act to fol­low, en­sured that the Academy Awards would prove com­par­a­tively ret­i­cent on pres­i­den­tial mat­ters.

And then Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal – star of the in­com­ing Pixar film Coco – took to the stage to present the Os­car for Best An­i­mated Fea­ture Film. “As a Mex­i­can, as a Latin-Amer­i­can, as a mi­grant worker, as a hu­man be­ing, I’m against any form of wall that sep­a­rates us.”

We should not be sur­prised. The ac­tor has pre­vi­ously railed against the cur­rent US pres­i­dent for his out­ra­geous char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Mex­i­cans as “rapists and drug-deal­ers”, and has long been a politi­cised and civic-minded chap. Aged 14, he was teach­ing Mex­ico’s indige­nous Hui­chol peo­ple to read. Aged 15, he demon­strated dur­ing the Chi­a­pas up­ris­ing.

He has sub­se­quently worked with Ox­fam and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and has cam­paigned for fair trade, mi­grant rights, eco­nomic par­ity, and Syr­ian refugees. In 2005, he and fel­low-ac­tor Diego Luna founded the Cine Am­bu­lante project, which screens award-win­ning doc­u­men­taries from around the world at pub­lic parks and on streets, for free.

Pol­i­tics on screen

His act­ing CV re­flects his po­lit­i­cal bent. The 38-year-old has played Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara twice; once in TV minis­eries Fidel, and then in The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries. In 2014, he starred as the Ira­nian-Cana­dian jour­nal­ist Maziar Ba­hari in Jon Ste­wart’s di­rec­to­rial debut Rose­wa­ter, and also played a shaman who takes on de­for­esters in the re­sis­tance drama The Burn­ing. He has pro­duced a se­ries of films with Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, de­tail­ing the dan­gers faced by Central Amer­i­can mi­grants, and an­other se­ries of TV doc­u­men­taries on the un- solved mur­ders of more than 300 women in the bor­der city of Ci­u­dad Juárez.

A po­lit­i­cal be­ing, both on and off screen, I won­der, con­versely, if there are roles he has re­fused for po­lit­i­cal or eth­i­cal rea­sons?

“Maybe I have,” he says, slyly. “But, it’s far more in­ter­est­ing to say that I’ve said yes to a few roles be­cause of po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Mainly, be­cause they carry a po­lit­i­cal com­plex­ity that I’m ex­cited to em­brace and ex­plore in a film. Those are the type of films I like to watch as well.”

He ought, one feels, to be self-right­eous or overly earnest. In­stead he’s fan­tas­ti­cally good fun and a gifted comic. If you haven’t caught his an­tics op­po­site old pal Luna in the Mex­i­can com­edy Rudo y Cursi (2008) or his ridicu­lous turn as a drug lord in the Will Fer­rell te­len­ov­ela Casa de Mi Padre (2012), then you re­ally must make haste. He has, ad­di­tion­ally, just landed a Golden Globe for his turn as an un­con­ven­tional Latin Amer­i­can con­duc­tor in Ama­zon’s much-ad­mired hip­ster com­edy Mozart in the Jun­gle. No­body looked hap­pier to re­ceive a gong that night.

The show has been an amaz­ing jour­ney, he says. “It was quite daunt­ing to shake the ba­ton for the first time. Never mind do­ing it in front of real mu­si­cians. It’s one of the cra­zi­est ex­pe­ri­ences act­ing has given me. To con­duct the LA Phil­har­monic for real – which we did for the open­ing of the sec­ond sea­son – is way more sur­pris­ing and shock­ing than win­ning a Golden Globe. Mind you, I was go­ing crazy with hap­pi­ness when they men­tioned my name af­ter they opened the en­ve­lope. Won­der­ful.”

Lon­don re­call­ing

To­day, the ac­tor is in Lon­don on pro­mo­tional du­ties for Neruda, a twisty lit­er­ary biopic of the Chilean politi­cian-poet. He ar­rived in this same city in 1998, the first Mex­i­can to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He worked (il­le­gally) in bars and lived in grotty bed­sits. These days, his Lon­don stopovers are a little more com­fort­able.

“Lon­don was very dif­fer­ent al­to­gether. Ac­tu­ally, Lon­don has changed more than just my ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing there. All the neigh­bour­hoods be­came quite sim­i­lar amidst the rush that peo­ple go through when liv­ing there. It feel that peo­ple have less time to won­der than when I was a stu­dent. Or maybe it’s me who ap­pre­ci­ates it dif­fer­ently.”

Neruda re­unites Ber­nal with di­rec­tor Pablo Lar­raín ( Jackie), for the first time since their col­lab­o­ra­tion on 2012 po­lit­i­cal drama No, a thrilling ex­am­i­na­tion of the1988 plebiscite, when the Chilean peo­ple pon­dered whether or not dic­ta­tor Au­gusto Pinochet should stay in power for an­other eight years.

By now, they have de­vel­oped a kind of telepa­thy, says the ac­tor.

“It was great to be back among the fam­ily that Pablo has been build­ing and grow­ing around him over many years,” he says. “We are sim­i­lar in lots of ways. But what I love about Pablo is that there is al­ways some­thing new about the an­gle he takes. In No, we go through the cam­paign through the eyes of ad­ver­tis­ers and pub­li­cists. With Neruda, it would have been im­pos­si­ble to make a biog­ra­phy, be­cause he lived many lives not one. So the film needed a new way.”

That new way casts Ber­nal as the Chief of the In­ves­ti­ga­tions Po­lice of Chile Os­car Pelu­chon­neau, or at least as Lar­raín’s fic­tion­alised ver­sion of him.

“I play the de­tec­tive that per­se­cutes Neruda af­ter he was forced into ex­ile in 1947,” says Ber­nal. But we didn’t base the char­ac­ter only on him. There was a po­lice chief with that name. But this is the prod­uct of dreams and po­ems and imag­i­na­tion.”

He laughs. “Who maybe be­comes real in the end.”

Tak­ing cues from the sur­real, dense, No­bel Prize-win­ning liter- ature of Pablo Neruda, the film play­fully sets up a cat-and-mouse game be­tween the tit­u­lar com­mu­nist and his fas­cist pur­suer. Com­mu­nists, notes Pelu­chon­neau dis­mis­sively, en­joy speak­ing French and burn­ing churches.

“He’s very straight­for­ward,” says Ber­nal. “He be­lieves in law and or­der. We played around with the hu­mour. Be­cause he’s a dan­ger­ous point of view. But he’s also ridicu­lous.”

Cul­tural legacy

Ber­nal, mean­while, is build­ing a cul­tural legacy of his own. Born to Pa­tri­cia Ber­nal, an ac­tress and a model, and José Án­gel Gar­cía, an ac­tor and di­rec­tor, and raised by his mother and step­fa­ther – the cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ser­gio Yazbek – has been in the spot­light for most of his life.

He was still a baby when he made his first tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance. Aged 11, he scored his first role in a te­len­ov­ela. Three years later, he made a kids’ show with Diego Luna, the ac­tor who would go on to be his co-star in Y Tu Mama Tam­bien and Rudo y Cursi. The pair, who co-founded the pro­duc­tion com­pany Canana Films in 2005, have re­mained best pals ever since. I won­der how Ber­nal felt watch­ing his old­est chum plot­ting with the Rebel Al­liance in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

“It was great. He did a very good job. I liked the film a lot. I like the fact that there are less su­per he­roes and that the ac­tual rays from the weapons can kill the char­ac­ters. Diego also brought a lot of truth to the world they build. If there is such thing as truth in Star Wars.”

Re­leased later this year, Pixar’s Coco marks Ber­nal’s first proper Hol­ly­wood fo­ray since the 2010 rom-dram Let­ters to Juliet. “I haven’t seen it yet,” he says. “I’m very ex­cited for it. I hope my kids love it.”

Ber­nal, who cur­rently divides his time be­tween Mex­ico, Buenos Aires (where he has two chil­dren with ex-part­ner Dolores Fonzi), New York (for Mozart in the Jun­gle) and wher­ever else work brings him, has no in­ten­tion to re­lo­cate to La La Land.

“It’s im­prac­ti­cal and far away from my cen­tre of en­ergy. Fam­ily, work, the in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sions; ev­ery­thing hap­pens in Mex­ico. At least for me.” Neruda is out now and is re­viewed on page 10-11

It was great. He did a very good job. I liked the film a lot. Diego also brought a lot of truth to the world they build. If there is such thing as truth in Star Wars

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