Though barely into his 30s, Mexican-born actor Gael García Bernal has established himself as one of the most daring, accomplished performers of his generation. Since breaking through with the one-two punch of 2000’s Amores Perros and 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, he’s worked with international filmmaking giants in dissimilar projects that share an overarching ambition. He’s played Che Guevara twice, first in the 2002 TV movie Fidel, then in Walter Salles’ critically acclaimed 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. In 2004, he played a preoperative transsexual in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education; in 2006, he was Michel Gondry’s moody, imaginative surrogate in The Science Of Sleep.
Bernal broke into directing with the 2007 Mexican drama Déficit, and he recently contributed a short film about education to 8, an anthology about social issues featuring shorts from Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders, Gaspar Noé, and Mira Nair. Bernal can currently be seen in Jim Jarmusch’s enigmatic road movie The Limits Of Control. He’s also in Rudo Y Cursi, an entertaining comedy-drama about a pair of nouveau riche, soccer-playing brothers, which reunites him with También co-star Diego Luna and co-writer Carlos Cuarón. (También director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos’ brother, co-produced Rudo Y Cursi.) The A.V. Club recently spoke with Bernal about channeling Gondry, directing, and playing Che.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with Rudo Y Cursi?
Gael García Bernal: I’ve known Carlos Cuarón since we did Y Tu Mamá También, so that’s where I got involved.
AVC: What appealed to you about the script?
GGB: Well, it was a football movie. I got really excited about it. Also, it was very well-written. It was a very interesting, broad story full of complexity. It interested me to be part of it, and I knew we were going to have a lot of fun doing it.
AVC: You’ve described Y Tu Mamá También as being an intensely politically involved film. Do you feel the same way about Rudo Y Cursi?
GGB: I think it definitely plays a part. But not forced, it doesn’t have that kind of element. It’s just part of everything, you know. Everything has a political complexity, and this film has a very particular point of view that includes political commentary. But it wasn’t purposely done for that, nor was Y Tu Mamá También. They end up being very political because of this element.
AVC: Class plays a big role in both films.
GGB: Exactly, social class and cultural divide. The city vs. the country.
AVC: How has the Mexican film industry changed between Y Tu Mamá También and Rudo Y Cursi?
GGB: It’s changed a lot. It’s been eight, nine years since Y Tu Mamá También, and now it’s so different. Fortunately, for the better. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s new films, new voices expressing themselves and telling their stories without asking permission. And there’s more elements, more instruments to get the films in place. And that’s fantastic. It’s definitely changed a lot, and there’s a captive audience also, which is incredible. It didn’t use to be like that. Not only in Mexico, but also outside of Mexico, and that’s fantastic.
AVC: After Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También—your breakthrough films, internationally—did you get a lot of offers from Hollywood?
GGB: A little, yes.
AVC: Was that appealing to you?
GGB: Yeah, it’s appealing in the sense that it’s nice that somebody offers you a job only out of the work that you’ve done. That feels really nice, definitely.
AVC: You come from an artistic family. Do you think that affected your decision to become an actor?
GGB: Yeah, of course it did. My story about becoming an actor is a completely non-romantic one. I became an actor because my parents were actors and it seemed like a very… I knew I was going to act all my life, but I didn’t know that I was going to be a professional actor. I thought I was just going to work as an actor every now and then.
AVC: More of a casual thing.
GGB: Yeah, even community theater or something like that.
AVC: You acted in a soap opera as a teenager. Was that a good preparation for doing more serious film acting?
GGB: It was fun. I had a lot of fun doing it, actually. But the rhythm that they work in television is crazy; it’s really, really tough.
AVC: It seems like having to shoot so much dialogue every day would be draining.
GGB: Yeah, well it definitely prepares certain skills, because it’s a really tough job. It goes really quickly, and you have to keep on going and going and going. I don’t know if I would be able to do something like that now. I guess I would be very nervous.
AVC: How important was going to drama school in London for you in terms of developing your craft?
GGB: It was definitely very foundational, very influential. I went through the whole process of what everyone goes through in drama school, and it was in England, so everything came into play—not only being in drama school, but also being in a country where I’m working and studying a language that isn’t my own. That was very complicated.
AVC: Was there a culture clash? Did it take you a while to become acclimated to the culture of London?
GGB: No, but it took me a long time to be able—even if you know and understand another language, it’s great to be able to go slow into it. That takes time. But culturally, it didn’t take me long. On the contrary, I was very open for it.
AVC: In terms of your process, when you’re acting in an English-language film, is that substantially different than when you’re speaking in your native tongue?
GGB: Yeah, absolutely. It’s much more different. I have to work 10 times more in English than in Spanish.
AVC: Is it harder to be more natural, to act on instinct?
GGB: Yeah, exactly. It’s difficult to act in a language that’s not your own. It takes a long time to put your head around it and feel confident with it.
AVC: What was it like getting away from drama school to shoot Amores Perros?
GGB: One night for Amores Perros, I had to be in school, and I ended up just skipping one week in Mexico doing the film. I had to invent this justification and stuff. I guess even after they found out, they were really nice.
AVC: What was the pretense for you leaving?
GGB: I invented an illness. And they were really cool about it.
AVC: You directed a short film recently as part of the 8 anthology. Was it intimidating being part of such a distinguished group of filmmakers?
GGB: Well, it was very nerve-racking. It was really interesting to be able to do it, to find some kind of story to tell that explored the theme. And that was very nice, it was a really great exercise.
AVC: What is your film about?
GGB: The subject or theme I had to do was education. It’s about achieving global education, primary education, for the year 2015.
AVC: This is the second thing that you’ve directed, the first being Déficit. How did that affect the way you saw the filmmaking process, including acting?
GGB: It definitely affected a lot the way that I see cinema. It’s much different to practice the craft of filmmaking. It’s a difficult one. It’s not easy. It was just very nice, very interesting to play around with it. But it affected it for the better, fortunately. I want to hopefully do a film soon.
AVC: Did you come away with a new respect for directors?
GGB: No, actually, I lost respect for directors. [Laughs.] I mean, yeah, the respect was always there, it was just realizing how difficult it is, how complicated. Whenever you dedicate to something, you realize how complicated it is.
AVC: You’ve worked with many of the greatest filmmakers in the world. Who influenced your filmmaking or your direction the most?
GGB: It’s very early to say, because I’ve only done one film and one short. Also, I don’t want to have a career as a director. I want to direct every now and then, but I don’t want to be a director. So I guess who made the cinema that I empathize most with, that I like and enjoy seeing and admire a lot, is Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Those two have influenced me a lot.
AVC: You have two movies currently out in theaters here, the other being The Limits Of Control.
GGB: I just got a phone call from Jim [Jarmusch], and as soon as I started to talk to him, I was already in it. I wanted to be in it, definitely. And I only worked for like a week in Spain, that was it. I hardly knew what the other stories were about. It was very nice to not know what you were falling into; it was a nice experiment. I trusted Jim because he’s a wonderful filmmaker, and the films he’s done are incredibly… I don’t know, he’s got a style of his own. He’s invented a way of seeing cinema that’s really interesting. I admire him, and it was very fun to work with him, definitely. Very fun and very easygoing.
AVC: Another filmmaker with a strong, distinct personality is Michel Gondry. How much of Gondry was there in your Science Of Sleep character, and to what extent did that inform your performance?
GGB: Actually, quite a lot. Sometimes even Michel wouldn’t realize, but there was a lot of copying him, imitating him. That was very fun too, because it’s great to have the subject of study at hand, you know?
AVC: It seemed like playing Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries was an immersive experience for you—you rode a motorcycle, you did lots of research. Do you think that infected or influenced your politics at all?
GGB: “Infected,” you just had a Freudian slip there. Well, I think it definitely involved a lot, my engagement into what’s happening in Latin America and the rest of the world, in a way. It really had a big impact, and it reaffirmed many things. It surprised me in many ways that I never thought it was gonna surprise me. What was amazing was the experience of having traveled there.
AVC: It feels like the movie is about his intellectual journey, his path to manhood, and you couldn’t play that role without echoing it in some way.
GGB: Definitely. I had to live that journey to understand what was happening and be able to portray it.
AVC: Looking over your filmography, it seems like you gravitate toward dark, intense characters in serious, ambitious films. Does the prospect of doing something fluffier hold any appeal for you?
GGB: Appeal not so much, but curiosity, yeah. A romantic comedy wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it doesn’t appeal to me to pursue it.
AVC: What great directors haven’t you worked with yet that you would like to work with?
GGB: Oh, so many. I would love to work with Martin Scorsese.
AVC: Anyone beyond that?
GGB: Beyond, there is no one beyond that. [Laughs.] Michael Haneke, Emir Kusturica.
AVC: Maybe you could do a romantic comedy with them.
GGB: Yeah, with Emir Kusturica, I’m sure he would be up for it. [Laughs.]