September 2004 By Philip Berk
Gael Garcia Bernal has one of those angelic faces you’re more likely to see in an art museums than on a movie screen.
But for the past four years he’s become Mexico’s top export thanks to his appearance in the award winning Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien.
At the moment he is starring in two highly acclaimed films, Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education and Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries, both of which are strong contenders for the upcoming Academy awards.
In person he’s surprisingly diminutive, with very small hands, and less handsome than he appears on screen.
But what impresses you most about him is his intellect and his remarkable command of the English language which puts most American actors to shame.
At his press conference for Motorcycle Diaries in which he plays the young Che Guevara, he’s soft spoken, polite, and very friendly.
A few days before in a published cover story in Interview magazine, he admitted he was in love — “sort of,” he had said.
The object of his affection at the time was actress Natalie Portman.
Asked about it he declared, “I don’t talk about that.”
Natalie had the same response six months later.
But by then it was all over.
Gael has that androgynous quality that makes him attractive to both men and women. And in fact Almodovar, who cast him as a drag queen in Bad Education, identified that duality. “The right side of his face is like a woman, the left side a man,” he recently told me.
If Gael was there he’d consider that a compliment.
Gender differences have never been important to him.
Motorcycle Diaries is likely to appeal to a wide audiences but Bad Education. which involves scenes of explicit gay sex. is another matter.
Wasn’t he taking a huge risk in playing a drag queen, and will it impact his machismo image at home? I ask him.
“Machismo as you define it is not what we think of machismo in Mexico. It’s very different. In Mexico a person is considered more macho if he, forgive me for the word, fucks another man. That’s machismo in Mexico”.
So he didn’t think twice about playing a gay man?
“I act to be free, to do whatever I want and get away with it. I never have moral issues with the films I choose.”
And he’s not bothered by the controversy?
“I think the controversy is created by the media, not by the film. It also happened with The Crime of Father Amaro. That controversy was raised before anyone had seen the film, some journalist saying, ‘Hey there’s going to be a film about priests,’ and someone saying, ‘Don’t watch it.’ And then everybody wants to watch it because we’re tired of being told what not to watch. And in fact, the film wasn’t as controversial as people were told, and the same thing with Bad Education. The important issues are human. It’s more about emotions than criticism against the church.”
Motorcycle Diaries follows the journey of two young men, the young impressionable Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, in which Che discovers his place in the world.
How daunting was it to play such an iconic figure? I ask him.
“Daunting is a good adjective to use because when trying to explain it in English I might have used complicated, but daunting is the better word. There are a lot of ways to play him; so you get to a point where you’re almost an historian interpreting the facts. And then as an actor you have to give life to them. So when I was offered the role you think about what people all over the world think of him, and you try to do justice to that. At first I was very scared so I prepared as much as I could; I read the biographies, the material he wrote. Fortunately he was someone who documented his life, especially the key moments in his life. And I got to meet a thousand people who had met him, even his close family.
“But for me the moment of epiphany was when I spoke to the real Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo de la Serna) who I consider perhaps the most modern person that exists. He said something beautiful, really beautiful which was like the gateway, the key to understanding my character. He came over to me on the set and he said, ‘Don’t try to copy his voice, don’t try to imitate him, Use your voice. Use your voice because Ernesto (Che’s given name) at 23 was the same as you. That’s all he was.’ And that did something for me, made me realize he was just a young Latin American kid who wanted to know his country. And that’s the reason why he wrote this history and why we are reading it right now.””
The film was shot on location in five different South American countries.
Does he see a parallel between the character he played in Y Tu Mama Tambien and the young Che he plays is Motorcycle Diaries?
“In the sense that they both embark on a journey of self discovery going from adolescence to maturity, learning to understand the world that surrounds them. In both films the social context is as important as the characters.”
He and de la Serna were together eight months making the film.
How hard was it to say good bye?
“It was very sad, but it was an optimistic goodbye. Because even though we became really good friends almost immediately, we are still good friends. When we made the film we were really close. We smelled each other’s armpits for eight months. As they say in Mexico, we were nail and dirt. The dirt gets under your nails. Like the characters we sometimes had big fights, but they were stupid ones, and even now we are very loving and really good friends. We’ve seen each other a lot since, and I hope it continues for a long, long time.”
He’s also close friends with his Y Tu Mama Tambien costar, Diego Luna, whom he considers a brother, even though he has two of his own.
They’ve known each other since they were kids.
Both his parents are stage actors.
Is that why he became an actor?
“It’s very evident,” he replies in his Spanish idiom. “I actually started when I was twelve. I did a play, and then I did a soap opera when I was thirteen, and after that five more plays until I was like eighteen. Then I started to travel and spent a year at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London where I studied theatre.”
Thoughtfully he adds, “But you’re not acting when you’re little. You’re just playing.”
How many films has he made?
“Nine. I did a short film when I was fifteen and another when I was nineteen. I was twenty when I got Amores Perros.”
And how old is he now?
He’s so fearless in his choices.
Doesn’t he have any insecurities?
“Not really because I am more interested in acting than making a career out of this. I am married to this profession.”
Isn’t he seduced by fame or awards?
“It’s something I’m completely oblivious to. They are of no importance.to me. I don’t spend my time thinking about it, even though I know they exist.”
Yet it’s opened up doors for him?
“What it’s done for me is given me the opportunity to not work that much,” he jokes, ‘which is nice. It’s good to be able to relax.”
Hasn’t it changed his life?
“My perception of myself and my development as a human being is not the same as how other people view me. So I can’t answer that question. I wake up with myself every day, I see myself, and I don’t feel a definite change. I see a little change, like hair falling out, but I don’t feel anything.”
Unlike his friend Diego Luna, who’s made four films in Hollywood, he’s worked only in Spanish language films.
Would he like making English language films?
“I’m still very uncomfortable with the language,” he replies.
No plans to work in Hollywood?
“I don’t have any plans about anything. I find it uncomfortable here. I think it’s intrinsic in my nature to speak Spanish. With English I have to think like four times more, and it makes acting difficult. It’s a great advantage to speak another language and to work in another language, but it’s not easy. If the opportunity arrives, and it’s a good opportunity, I will take it, but I’m not seeking it.”
He seemed to be having fun on the red carpet last year in London?
“In that case it was fun because it wasn’t a job. I was there to support my friend Alphonse Cuaron and his film (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.) But when you have to talk about yourself a lot, because it’s your film, it is very tiring because you find yourself repugnant. I was proud of the film (Bad Education) and I had fun in Cannes promoting it, but it was hard work,”
Where does he live now?
“In Mexico City.”
“I live by myself.”
If there was anywhere else he could live, where would that be?
“Mexico City,” he replies with a broad smile.
And yet Mexican actors who go Hollywood are usually scorned in their own country. Has he sensed any resentment?
“I haven’t felt any at all. It’s cool.”
And his hobbies or interests?
“Football. Many others.”
“My passion is to respond to instinctive needs, to be with friends or not to be with friends, going on holiday or not going on holiday.”