Gael Garcia Bernal: Journeys of the soul

He's played a randy teenager, a transvestite, Che Guevara - and now he's a psychopath bent on vengeance. Gael Garcia Bernal won't appear in just any old film, he tells Chris Sullivan
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The Independent Culture

"I am so lucky to have become well known for doing something I like so much," says Gael Garcia Bernal. "I didn't ask for the fame or the notoriety, but it does allow me the luxury to be able to tell different stories and continue to do the work I love. So I cannot complain. We actors are so fortunate."

Bernal shot to stardom in Alejandro Inarritu's Amores perros (2000) as the canine-loving youth Octavio. He's since distinguished himself in diverse, complex roles in films that have pleased critics and arthouse devotees alike.

He has been a sexually potent adolescent in Y tu mama tambien; a lascivious priest in league with Mexican druglords in El crimen del Padre Amaro; a double-dealing cross-dresser in Almodovar's Bad Education; and a young Che Guevara in Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries.

For his latest film, The King, he pulls out another dazzling turn, as Elvis, the nasty son of a Mexican prostitute who tracks down his Bible-bashing father (William Hurt) to Corpus Christi, Texas, infiltrates the family nest and causes havoc.

"I have been very lucky in what I've been offered," Bernal says. "And I got a great start with Amores perros. Inarritu saw me in a play, took a chance with me, gave me a great part and the film was a huge success all over the world, which surprised us all.

"But since, I have tried to be selective," he continues, "in that I choose things in a very organic and instinctive way. I might read the script and talk about it and try to build an idea around the character - then, sometimes, my decision is based on my immediate reactions. I might think this is a story that needs to be told, like El crimen del Padre Amaro; that is about a priest, played by me, who rapes and abuses a young girl. Or it might be shot in a place where I've always wanted to go. But in Latin America, you cannot choose work based on the money. I get offers from Hollywood all the time, but it is no contest with the stuff I've done. Quality and artistic integrity are priceless to me. I only want to play a character if he is interesting. So all my decisions have been easy even though some of the parts have not.

"But maybe the two most challenging roles I have done so far," he adds, "were in The Motorcycle Diaries and Bad Education. Playing Che was a great responsibility, and the shoot was very tough. But it was a beautiful emotional journey for me as I was just 25."

Bernal, who once taught literacy to the Huicholes Indians, took part in the peaceful uprising of the state of Chiapas in Mexico in 1994, and has spoken out against the Iraq war. For The Motorcycle Diaries, he lived and breathed Guevara for months. He attended seminars on the political and cultural climate of Latin America at that time, quizzed Che's actual travelling companion, 94-year-old Alberto Granados, and rode an unforgiving 1939 Norton motorcycle. "I tried to absorb everything about Ernesto [Che] and ask permission from the filmic gods. Because you have to get consent to play this character."

The difficulties with Bad Education were very different. "It was such a tangled, elaborate story and to convince most Spanish people that I was Spanish was difficult." What amazed many was Bernal's facility for transvestism. Some even likened him to Julia Roberts. "People say I looked like Julia, which I can only take as a compliment," he chuckles. "But dressing as a woman was very interesting and kind of liberating. Some of my male friends said they actually found me quite attractive... I didn't quite know how to take that.

"But the character I have most affinity with is Julio from Y tu mama...," he continues. "I came from a similar middle-class Mexican background as Julio, and it's an emotional journey we have all lived. A lot of my other roles have been extraordinary journeys but this was an ordinary journey that we all recognise."

Bernal's journey began in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1978. He was born to the intellectual left-wing actors José Angel Garcia and Patricia Bernal. He began his acting career at 11 in the Mexican soap Teresa and TV shows such as El abuelo y yo. "That wasn't really acting, I was just in it. I wasn't doing what I do now."

In 1996, he enrolled in Central School of Speech and Drama in London, supporting himself by working on building sites and as a barman in an Islington cocktail bar curiously named Cuba Libre - none of which prepared him to play the evil Elvis in The King.

"Elvis was an altogether different challenge, but I approached The King like any other role, even though he was a psychopath. I started with his accent and built it from there with his clothes, the music he listens to. I practised and rehearsed, and tried to play out all the different rhythms of the story. I tried to make it more mythical as it's a story that rarely happens, so I decided to do everything really slow, the way he moves and talks, which goes against his manic brain and gives an atmosphere to the film, almost like a nightmare in slow motion but you can't stop it."

The King, directed by the Cornish documentary film-maker James Marsh and co-produced and co-written by Milo Addica (who also co-wrote Monster's Ball) confronts religious conviction by asking whether the most pious and God-fearing can really forgive pure evil. The film is certain to annoy fundamentalists.

"Some evangelists will be upset," Bernal says. "But it is a good introspection on faith and also shows us that faith can save one person but blind another. Religion does interest me - I am Mexican, after all - and a lot of my films examine the nature of the institution of religion. My character in Bad Education stops believing in God because of what happened to him, then I was a priest in Padre and now this, but faith will always occupy a place in any story that is honest, although it might be subliminal."

The future looks bright for the affable Bernal. He's teamed up again with Inarritu for Babel, with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, which is one of 19 films "in competition" in Cannes this year. He's awaiting the release of The Science of Sleep, directed by Michel Gondry. In pre-production are Pasado by the veteran Brazilian director Hector Babenco, and Bernal's directorial debut Deficit.

"At the end of the day," Bernal says, as he puts on his leather jacket and heads for the door, "it's not about making movies just for the sake of it. The point in life is about enjoying what you do and what keeps me having fun is that there are films I've been intrigued by and stories I want to tell."

'The King' is on general release from 26 May