Total Film


GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL returns to Hollywood for M. Night Shyamalan’s high-concept thriller Old, in which his character starts to age rapidly. It’s got him thinking about his two decades as a globally celebrated actor, and how he’s always done it his way…


Want to feel Old? Amores Perros turned 20 last year… GGB holds back the years.

talking to García Bernal over Zoom is a surreal experience, and not only because there are three cameras offering different angles of his face against a black backdrop, making our conversati­on feel like an experiment­al art film. He has an otherworld­ly presence, with bright green eyes peering out of a striking face that’s barely changed since he was a teenager. In fact, so captivatin­g are his features, it takes several minutes to register that his hair is dyed blond.

García Bernal is settling down with Total Film to talk Old, the new M. Night Shyamalan film about a family stuck on a beach that makes them rapidly age. “They put us in these incredible prosthetic­s that transforme­d us completely,” he says, explaining how M. Night’s latest taps into a societal fear of ageing. “We’re all faced with the concept of ageing,” he continues. “Whenever we go out, we see ads for antiageing creams. But for actors it’s more amped up.” Seeing himself up on screen as an old man must have been enough to trigger an existentia­l crisis, then… “In the mythology of this film… everything goes so quickly. It’s like, ‘What’s happening?!’ The characters don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t want to say more because I’ll spoil it.” He laughs. “But in life, you can appreciate ageing. I love getting old; getting older is the best thing that can happen to anyone!”

Easy to say, perhaps, given that the 42-year-old actor appears to bathe daily in the fountain of youth. Looking at his unlined face today, it’s difficult to compute that it’s been 20 years since his breakout role in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, a coming-of-age drama in which García Bernal and Diego Luna got pulses racing as lusty teenagers on a road trip with an older woman.

“I don’t know how 20 years passed since we made that movie,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Very pivotal things happened in that movie that actually changed my life. The first film I did was [Alejandro González Iñárritu’s

jagged crime thriller] Amores Perros, but then immediatel­y I did Y Tu Mamá También, and that one was like the second leg of a football match. I could finally understand the score.”

García Bernal’s character in Y Tu Mamá También is forever changed by his journey, and the film had a similar effect on him. “Alfonso was incredibly generous and invited us into the making of the film,” he explains. “I understood the back and front of a film set and that was transcende­ntal because now I dedicate my life to making films. Y Tu Mamá También is perhaps the film university I never had.”

Following further global acclaim for Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries and Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, García Bernal then proved himself in English-language films, first with a bone-chilling turn as an amoral man hell-bent on revenge in The King, and then teaming back up with Iñárritu for the Academy Award-winning Babel. García Bernal was soon in hot demand in Hollywood. But unlike his Latin-American movie-star peers Benicio Del Toro, Pedro Pascal or Salma Hayek, he never relocated to Los Angeles or had much interest in succeeding on Hollywood’s terms. He has instead worked both in Spanish and English-language films and sustained an extraordin­ary reputation with persistent­ly leftfield choices. The New York Times recently ranked him as the 25th greatest actor of the 21st century.

While he is equally compelling in both languages, he feels a big distinctio­n. ”I don’t have the same flexibilit­y in English and I cannot do the same amount of accents.” Indeed, for Spanish-language audiences he is famed for his chameleoni­c skill with accents. He took on a perfect Argentinia­n lilt to play the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, and a strong Chilean twang as an ad-man trying to keep Pinochet in power in Pablo Larraín’s No. But García Bernal is aware of the potential of speaking in your second language.

“I sometimes don’t speak English well, [whereas] in Spanish, I would not be able to not speak well,” he says. “In English, I am able to make grammatic mistakes and get away with it. So that’s fun.” This was something he toyed with to delightful effect in the Amazon series Mozart In The Jungle. In it, he played Rodrigo, a wunderkind conductor, and the show riffed on the public perception of him as a slightly eccentric creative genius. “It’s like working with another musical scale, with another instrument,” he grins, explaining that he was able to mine the frequent linguistic miscommuni­cations for laughs.

García Bernal’s filmograph­y is filled with extraordin­ary performanc­es in powerful films, often with auteur directors like Michel Gondry (The Science Of Sleep), Werner Herzog (Salt And Fire), Fernando Meirelles (Blindness),

Jim Jarmusch (The Limits Of Control) and Elia Suleiman

(It Must Be Heaven). There are also a couple of quickly forgotten schmaltzy rom-coms and one wonderful Pixar blockbuste­r, Coco, where he voiced Héctor in both the English and Spanish-language versions. He’s a prolific producer of film, documentar­y and television, and has been unabashed with his political interests, championin­g the work and activism of the younger generation.

There has also been talk for years of Jonás Cuarón’s ‘Zorro’ reboot with him as the eponymous hero, but he is tight-lipped on its progress. But García Bernal has mostly avoided the pitfalls of Hollywood simply by choosing films that he was personally excited by. “In a very elemental way, it all boils down to the director,” he says. “The story can be fascinatin­g, but if the director doesn’t have a point of view that sparks my interest, then it doesn’t matter. With Jim Jarmusch, he approached me and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do whatever,’ without even knowing what the film was.”

It’s no surprise, then, that García Bernal chose to collaborat­e with M. Night Shyamalan, a writer-director who is known for taking big swings that sometimes miss, but sometimes land with an almighty thwack to create such unforgetta­ble movies as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakabl­e and Split. That kind of fearless approach appeals to García Bernal. “Something that is not bold, and that is not experiment­al in cinema, I really believe it’s a waste of time,”

he shrugs. “I prefer the carnival in that sense. You know? Let’s just go to the carnival and not make this film.”

Details about Old have been thin on the ground – few filmmakers can shroud their sets in a fog of mystery quite like Shyamalan – but we do know that it’s loosely based on Sandcastle, a 2013 graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. In the adaptation, Bernal is married to Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, and together with their two young children, they visit a picturesqu­e beach peopled by an assortment of characters played by the likes of Aaron Pierre, Ken Leung and Rufus Sewell. Before you can say “Twilight Zone in the noon sun”, something on the beach causes them all to begin rapidly ageing, with the young children turning into teenagers, the adults into the elderly, and the elderly into skeletons. Not ideal, given that no one appears to be able to leave…

García Bernal seems not only to have enjoyed been directed by Shyamalan, but to have found Old something of a learning experience too, much as he did Y Tu Mamá También all those years ago. “Actors experience different film sets with different directors, and that gives you a lot of tools to play around with,” he points out. “I think that’s why films that are directed by actors are always interestin­g.”

García Bernal has directed shorts, TV episodes and two features in Deficit and Chicuarote­s, so he is unsurprisi­ngly keen to ponder the actors who have made exemplary directors. “Clint Eastwood!” he offers with a radiant smile. “Acting in spaghetti westerns, he learned the constructi­on of the action and suspense or western iconograph­y that would later be in his films. And look at Chaplin…”

But back to Old. There is only so much García Bernal can say – with every Shyamalan film, doing interviews is akin to tiptoeing on eggshells – but surely he can at least tell us about shooting in the Dominican Republic at the height of the pandemic? He nods. “We were able to be without shoes for three months at the beach, with the same comfortabl­e costume, and because we were in a bubble, we were able to take the masks off. That was very nice.” Not that the production was one big holiday. “It was hurricane season and we shot in 35 millimetre­s, which led to complicati­ons… but limitation­s are a source of creativity!”

In Old, García Bernal’s young co-stars, Aaron Pierre, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlan are all already sought after, and are now navigating big decisions just as he did 20 years ago. Any advice? “They were the ones who could advise me! They’re so mature and such good actors. It was nice to have fun with them and goof around. I guess that compensate­d for the hours spent in make-up.”

He reflects, serious for a second. “My journey has been very free,” he begins. “I’ve been able to work in different parts of the world and on projects that don’t necessaril­y obey a typical journey of a person that wants to be famous or work in film. I want young actors to know you don’t have to follow a set line to have a career. Sometimes the line is drawn for actors from the English language. But in my case I can reinvent myself all the time.”

García Bernal looks back over the past decades with few regrets, and looks forward to his upcoming projects, including HBO’s post-apocalypti­c mini-series Station

11, with warm optimism. “I’m obviously very grateful and lucky to have these opportunit­ies,” he smiles. “And it’s been my own way of making it, you know?”



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García Bernal with his onscreen children in Old (left).
COMING OF AGE García Bernal with his onscreen children in Old (left).
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As Che Guevara along with Rodrigo De la Serna’s Alberto Granado in 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries (above, second from right).
ON THE ROAD As Che Guevara along with Rodrigo De la Serna’s Alberto Granado in 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries (above, second from right).
One of García Bernal’s earliest successes was in 2000’s Amores Perros (above).
CRASH COURSE One of García Bernal’s earliest successes was in 2000’s Amores Perros (above).

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