[Published in The Huffington Post, 5 September, 2012]
At the Locarno film festival in August, I had the chance to catch up with and interview Mexican actor Gael García Bernal regarding his starring role in Pablo Larraín’s latest film, No (2012). Based on true life events and characters,García Bernal plays an ad executive who comes up with a plan to defeat Pinochet in the 1988 referendum. Tackling the delicate issues of political repression while demonstrating the necessary pragmatism behind any political campaign, Pablo Larraín’s feature smoothly creates a serious drama while the aesthetic layers of the film—camera, light and colour—remains faithful to that of 1980s cinema. García Bernal takes his character (René Saveedra) and portrays the subtle nuances of political dialogue and familial complexities. We begin our conversation discussing age, as García Bernal at 33 is one of the youngest recipients of the Locarno Film Festival’s Excellence Award.
Q: Isn’t it scary to be given an award for your career and you are in your early thirties?
GB: It’s scary in a way a little bit but there is something to be added to that scariness which is something quite unconscious because I never thought about doing films so it was never a possibility. I dreamed about doing them, of course, like we all dream about being rock stars or with the Olympics now I want to be a diver, but I never saw it as a real possibility. It was never a possibility. Now that I have passed the age of thirty I have started to wonder about the real and practical reasons behind my becoming an actor and working in films. And for most of this, it is not my fault: it’s that people called me and I have put myself “there”, you know? I think the reason why I started to make films was because I was going to be able to travel a lot, to meet a lot of people and to have a lot of challenges, to play, to have fun [he laughs] and to learn. Basically you learn a lot. This film gave me—gave us—a lot of thought. So these are the real reasons why I wanted to do films. I can’t say it’s because “I love films and I want to make them,” no. I love watching them, yes, but I like doing them for another reason, not because I like watching them. Whenever there has been this kind of recognition it’s always really surprising and quite unconscious—I don’t think I’m really aware of this process which is a good thing because it’s a celebration and a party and I am really grateful.
Photo by Raquel Tardivo
Q: So did you ever have a key experience in adulthood where you saw you have a talent for acting? And do you think this award goes to your talent?
GB: The story goes a little bit like this: I didn’t want to be an actor because my parents were actors which is quite common not to follow in one’s parents’ footsteps. I started to study philosophy in Mexico and there was a student strike at the UNAM, the university, and so at that point I decided to travel. I ended up in London. I had never been in Europe before and so it was the first time I went to Europe and I ran out of money. So I started to work in bars and restaurants and then I started to get really bored of just doing that and I wanted to study something in the meantime. I was 18 and I had no idea what I wanted and I went to do a theatre course. Why not? It’s England, “the land of theatre” [he enunciates in a dramatic voice] and I started to see the courses and I saw there was the whole career. I said ok, I will audition to get into this school. I think I decided to make more films or rather…for Amores perros I wasn’t aware what was happening. I always tell this story but at the end of the shoot I asked for a VHS from the producers so I could show my family the film eventually because those films in Mexico never were seen by anybody, so I wanted to show it to my family. And then Amores perros became what it became and then I did Y tu mama también. Then at that point I remember thinking consciously, “I like doing this” and I liked also the fact that I got to travel, embody a lot and I discovered that I like cinema. But when I say “I like cinema” this is not from an actor’s perspective, it’s from a producing and directing perspective. That is when I took a conscious decision to get closer to the cinema world or to be there because I want to do it. If I was asked if I prefer to act in a movie or in a play, I would always say a play. If I am asked, “What do you prefer to direct, a movie or a play?” I would always say a movie. Cinema is done more behind the camera. In front of the camera you just put yourself generously there and then there is someone else who can [he gestures to a snip] which is wonderful as well. It is an act of faith. You are playing around and hopefully there is someone there who is a good director.
Q: Does this mean you don’t recognise yourself in a movie?
GB: The best case scenario is when you have ownership of a character and later this character has an other life to you. Now, for example, I wonder what Julio form Y tu mama también is doing, you know? What are those characters doing? I am sure Alain Delon with Rocco e I suoi fratelli, they are wondering what has become of you. They become these parallel lives. I like playing that kind of thing where life continues—you visited, you gave life or you embodied the life of this character that already existed and all of a sudden you are the representation of this character. Then you start to develop a family with brothers. In the best cases this happens and in the worse cases, those characters have no life. I don’t even remember them…
Q: You come from a country with its own history such as the massacres of Tlatelolco, where massive student protest occurred in response to government violence, and then contrast this to the horrors of Argentina and Chile. Yet you play a character, René, who had to take the position of how to sell the “No” campaign to Chile, to oust Pinochet in the face of 3,000 desaparecidos (disappeared), whereas in neighbouring Argentina there was no sale necessary in large part to the 30,000 desaparecidos and the anger towards that dictatorship. You play a very subtle character who had to negotiate the passion of politics within the reason of salesmanship. So how did you approach the character of René because he was not an angry, revolutionary type in the least?
GB: I think the character by itself in the script has an existentialist approach. The character is based on two real people, García and Sanzero, the creative people in the campaign who organised and put the group together and moved it all around. But there is a third person here: me being a foreigner, I play an exiled person. This was an element that wasn’t considered in the beginning of the film. We found this creates a much more complex character. Basically this gave life to a character and at the same time he sees all the contradictions and ambiguities of democracy and he speaks for us in a way. This is what the world is going through I think. We are at the stage where we have reached a post-adolescence of democracy and now we are seeing that real politics is about the small win is not the total win. It is the small win that opens up the bigger picture. We were so naïve to think that elections would change everything and elections never have. So some people from Chile might say, “But nothing changed.” But this election was won in minor ways. There was a huge campaign that had to happen to register voters and imagine registering voters during a dictatorship, putting your name down. People were really scared. Then they went to vote—they never thought it was going to be a secret vote…at all. So this work that the politicians and activists made was incredible. And what is most incredible is that nobody thought they would win! Imagine a dictator who says, “I am going to do a referendum.” But that is something very interesting about Chile—they were the only country that has overthrown a dictatorship with votes, without blood, and it is just incredible. And it is just a fallacy to say that nothing changed. Of course it changed. Pinochet was out! As a foreigner I see a strong link between the student demonstrations in Chile and No vote in 1988. There is a huge connection. Of course a lot of things didn’t change, but that is what we are living in a democracy: we think very innocently that the elections are the end of it all. And there is more to it. Radical democracy happens every day, it happens every moment. The optimist message in the movie is not about the elections or the Manichean decision of voting for A, B or C, it is about the ambiguities, complexities and contradictions.