Gael Garcia Bernal looks almost angelic. Sitting in a darkened space, he has a beatific smile, his brown hair newly dyed blonde. Clearly, the enforced disruption of the past year has not particularly scarred the Mexican star. He’s taken comfort in “the nice things that the pandemic brought”, he says. “Time to see the plants grow, time to rest and recuperate and take it easy with not so many journeys. That process of reinvention that we’ve been all going through.”
Of course, it helps when your latest film took you to the beaches of the Dominican Republic. Shot last autumn, Old is the new thriller from The Sixth Sense’s M Night Shyamalan, handily set in a tropical paradise. This secluded coastline spot was a perfect place to isolate from the Covid-19 health crisis raging across the world. “It was a nice time to be without masks,” says Bernal, “and without shoes! We were barefoot for three months. It was a really, really nice experience.”
Bernal, 42, isn’t usually found in mainstream thrillers like Old. One of Latin America’s most enduring, thoughtful, and politically engaged actors, he’s more often playing revolutionary leaders (he played Che Guevara twice – in Fidel and The Motorcycle Diaries) and collaborating with directors such as Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control) and Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education).
Yet when Shyamalan came calling, he couldn’t resist – especially with Old’s juicy pitch. Bernal and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) play a couple holidaying with their young daughter and son. The hotel manager arranges for them to visit a beautiful beach spot, along with some other guests. When they get there, strange things start happening – unseen natural forces keep them trapped, as they come to realise that they’re all ageing at an insanely accelerated rate. One day’s sunbathing will cost you your life.
The film boasts a typically devilish conceit from the high-concept-loving Shyamalan. Bernal was “surprised and completely haunted” when he read the script. “I was really curious to see how the hell Night wanted to shoot this, and how he wanted to prepare this, how he wanted to put this together. It’s putting on a play, in a way. How are we going to put it together? I was like, ‘Man, I really want to be part of this.’”
He compares the “very mythical” beach setting to the stage – the enclosed cove with its huge surrounding walls of sheer rock is something like a proscenium arch. And there is something theatrical about the very time-dizzying notion of characters ageing at crazy rates. Bernal calls the set a “laboratory” – a place to experiment and guard against caricature. “This is something that we worked on,” he says. “Everything was possible.”
Still, it’s almost incongruous to see Bernal in a mainstream movie – one by a director whose films have cumulatively grossed over $3bn (£2.17bn). True, he voiced a character in Pixar’s charming 2017 animation Coco and tried his hand at romance in the anodyne Letters to Juliet, but as he notes, “most of the time”, he’s drawn to material in Spanish, whether acting or directing (he’s made two low-key features to date). “Obviously, that’s where I can jump around more. I can play more – I have much more flexibility, more muscle in that way.”
His biggest English-language success is probably the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, which won him a Golden Globe for playing Rodrigo, the conductor of the New York Symphony. The show finished in 2018 after four seasons. “I never expected it to be so transcendental in my life,” he admits. “I miss Rodrigo. Rodrigo is the kind of guy I would like to be – without the filter! I love the way that he goes around in life. But I would love to have his talent also. I hope that I can go back to it in a way. Hopefully.”
Born in the western Mexican city of Guadalajara, the son of two stage actors, Bernal compares his backstage childhood to “living the best version of The Phantom of the Opera”. After acting in soap operas as a youngster, he moved to London in his late teens in the Nineties, becoming the first Mexican to be accepted at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Then, in 2000, he made his international breakthrough in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sprawling urban saga Amores Perros, a film that opened the doors to an impressive career in world cinema.
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Bernal has made a habit of working with directors at the outset of their careers. Iñárritu went on to make Oscar-winners Birdman and The Revenant. “I raised and nurtured [them],” he laughs. “I saw their first steps.” Alfonso Cuaron, with whom he made sexy 2001 road movie Y Tu Mamá También, went on to make Gravity and Roma. Meanwhile, Chilean director Pablo Larraín – with whom Bernal has worked as an actor and producer on several projects – is now shooting the Princess Diana movie Spencer with Kristen Stewart.
“It’s great to have friends [and to] share these unexpected experiences that challenged them…and we’re still working together, we’re still connecting, we’re still thinking about what to do next. And we’re all having different journeys. Working with them is like going back to the beehive in a way.” He’s not collaborated with Iñárritu since co-starring with Brad Pitt in 2006’s Babel. “Now the time would be for Alejandro González Iñárritu to call me to work with him again. I dare him to do that!”
Diego Luna – another good friend with whom he starred in Y Tu Mamá También – is now in the Star Wars universe, as Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, soon to be seen in his own solo Disney+ show. Any chance of Bernal following suit? “If Cassian Andor ever needs to find his lost brother or something, then maybe they can call me,” he grins. “Or his antagonist. That would be cool actually! In a galaxy far away! I mean, I am curious. If something comes along that is interesting like that… I would consider it, I guess.”
Certainly, Bernal has never failed to use the big stage to speak out when he’s had the chance. At the 2003 Oscars, he introduced the nominated song for Frida, Salma Hayek’s bio about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. That very month, the war in Iraq had begun. “If Kahlo was alive,” he said, “she would certainly be on our side against the war.” At the Academy Awards in 2017, presenting Best Animated Feature, he made a pointed reference to Donald Trump’s plans to build a US-Mexico border wall. “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being,” he said, “I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us.”
This conscience comes as a result of his left-wing intellectual upbringing; as a teenager he took part in the peaceful uprising in the state of Chiapas in support of Marcos Zapatista’s rebels. But what’s given him this courage to speak out? He talks about the “freedom” that being an actor gives him to do this. “I have to be also responsible with it and make use of it. Because freedom is something you nurture, in a way. You plant seeds, and then you watch them grow. Deciding to be an actor, it’s also an opportunity to engage directly and to be confronted with freedom. What are you doing with it? What are you going to do with that? It challenges me right up front.”
Is he more optimistic now Joe Biden is in the White House? “Oh, I guess,” he sighs. He’s more concerned with the global issue of the climate crisis. “It’s been something that I’ve been thinking of for many, many years now. And it has been my main cause of insomnia. It is something that I really want to keep on engaging with.” He has two children – Lazaro, 12, and Libertad, 10 – with his former partner, the actor Dolores Fonzi, and it’s no surprise he’s kept awake at night with worry.
He’s recently worked on a documentary series about the climate crisis in Mexico. “It’s an issue that touches upon everyone’s lives…everything that we decide politically and socially,” he says. “Sometimes I’m very optimistic about it. And sometimes I’m incredibly pessimistic.” He’ll also be soon seen in Station Eleven – a television series drama about a flu pandemic. Making it was a “very weird” experience, he admits, and he can’t decide how it’s going to play. “Let’s see what it brings. Let’s see where it will take us.”
Old opens in cinemas on 23 July
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