In an exclusive interview for LAB, Mexico-based journalist Matt Kennard interviews Gael Garcíá Bernal (Ché in Motorcycle Diaries) about his most recent role, in the Chilean film ‘No’, and his views on acting and political commitment.
Gael García Bernal is not your average Hollywood movie star. He intersplices his long sentences with references to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and throws in a bit of French radical thinker Alan Badiou for good measure. “Right now I’m reading In Praise of Love by Badiou,” he tells me while unwrapping his sandwich. “I’ve never read him, I have to catch up!”
We are sitting in a sparse office at Canana, the production company he set up, in his native Mexico City. Despite his global celluloid fame – he’s starred in Hollywood blockbusters alongside Brad Pitt and Julianne Moore – he is down-to-earth, arriving suitably late but with few of the usual airs and graces. His life now is divided between the Mexican megalopolis and Buenos Aires, where he lives with his Argentinian wife.
His latest release is the film “No”, set in Chile in 1988 towards the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s military rule. García Bernal plays advertising executive Rene Saavedra who is leading a TV campaign to convince the Chilean population to vote “no” in a national referendum on whether General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years (his boss at the advertising agency is working on the rival “yes” campaign). The “no” campaign eventually triumphs, opening the door to the restoration of democracy in Chile after nearly 17 years of dictatorship.
The Los Angeles Times has called it “a most unusual underdog story, the kind of heady, relevant filmmaking we don’t see often enough”, and the film looks set to be nominated for the next Foreign Film Oscar. “I was interested in doing it because working with [Chilean director] Pablo Larrain was something I wanted,” says Garcíá Bernal. “It was very captivating to be doing a film about the big part that publicity played in the 1988 election. It was an angle that nobody knows about, I definitely didn’t know about it. Not many people know how Pinochet was overthrown.”
So far the film has been well-received amongst critics, and, adds García Bernal, in Chile itself. “It has caused a great debate among people who participated in the events. It is still a very resonant issue, it was the birth of the new democracy.” “But,” he adds, “at the time there was this feeling that everything could fall apart in a second.
People who were participating in the referendum with a lot of vigour and passion still thought that everything was rigged, that it was going to be a fake election, because in 1980 there had been an election that was a complete fraud. It was really jumping into the abyss.”
García Bernal has never shied away from giving political opinions, and speaks with real knowledge about the politics of Latin America, and further afield too. The man who famously played Che Guevara in the “Motorcycle Diaries” film is unabashedly “of the Left”, and was active as an activist as far back as the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, on the first day of the NAFTA. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re an actor, you cannot talk about politics, you know nothing about politics’”, he says. “There still exists that mythology that no one who is not an “expert” in politics can have an opinion on politics, it’s ridiculous because we’re such political animals.” But he says he doesn’t like the sledgehammer approach to political aesthetics, where the audience is hit over the head with the political message. He likes to work in what he calls “the grey areas”. “As an actor it’s about exploring these uncertain areas rather than having a preconceived idea or answer. It’s more about provocation and asking the terrible questions. My position therefore is sometimes a bit greyish because I don’t buy into the pamphlet.” He continues, “What is motivating is when the audiences ask new questions, get new perceptions, not when you give them opinions digested, the completeanswer, that has another shape.”
The former child “telenovela” (Mexican soap opera) star, who was born in Guadalajara but grew up in Mexico City, voted and campaigned for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, the left-wing candidate in the recent Mexican elections. These were eventually won by right-wing rival Enrique Peña Nieto, amongst customary accusations of electoral fraud. But García Bernal was never enamoured with the candidate he voted for. “I say this from the position of someone who voted for AMLO, I would always vote for the left, but I want much more sophisticated, more cordial, bigger scope, politicians. We don’t have statesmen.” He adds, “Elections have become a very perverse and Manichean game where the person who sells the best image wins, not the person that has the best vision for the country.”
But García Bernal is optimistic about the future of Latin America, especially the “pink tide” of democratic left-wing governments that has swept the region over the past ecade, which shows no sign of being turned back. “Like Žižek says, Bush deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for having eradicated the hegemony of the United States, he singlehandedly completely destroyed it,” García Bernal says. “Now it’s a whole different world. Argentina, for example, most of its business is with China, and Brazil as well. There is a lot of hope in that sense, it’s not the world we grew up in, it’s a whole different thing. I think that the Left in Latin America still have lots of debts from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, things they have to complete, to deliver. Argentina is the only country that has looked back on the people that were part of the military coup and junta and put them in prison, it’s the only country that has done that, that is reason enough to support Cristina Kirchner.”
García Bernal is rare in the world of entertainment, not merely because he has an opinion, but because he can back it up at length and with real knowledge. It’s a rare quality in a world where some sort of bland, non-specific “social activism” is now a must for most celebrities, but questioning the PR lines fed to them by their handlers is almost non-existent. “I would love athletes, sports figures, to be more political,” says García Bernal. “Remember Socrates the Brazilian player who was very critical of the junta there. Or the guys in ’68 here in Mexico City with black power. It adds so much depth to them, it’s incredible when they do it, but right now you don’t see them involved in anything.”
As he finishes his sandwich, which he hasn’t had time to touch during his long dilations on politics and art, he tells me his next film will be with up-and-coming Argentinian director Pablo Fendrick. He gives it the tantalising description of “a metaphysical ecologist Western”. Garcíá Bernal says he would also like to move into writing soon. “Always talking about what you haven’t done is daunting, I have to write something about acting soon, I don’t know what. A little general perspective, like a bio-statement.” But just listening to what Garcíá Bernal has already done by the tender age of 34 is daunting enough by itself.