At the start of the century, the director Alfonso Cuarón was casting Y Tu Mamá También, the bawdy but plangent road movie he had written with his brother Carlos about two oversexed Mexican teenagers, the wealthy Tenoch and his poorer, grungier friend Julio. “Alfonso called me very excitedly,” recalls Carlos Cuarón. “He said: ‘I know who’s going to play Julio! I’ve seen him in Alejandro’s movie.’” Alejandro González Iñárritu, that is, whose ferocious dog-fighting drama Amores Perros was about to be released. “I said: ‘No, no, I’ve found Julio; I saw the perfect actor in this short film, De Tripas, Corazón. He’s incredible: his eyes, the way he manages silence ...’”
Eventually, the brothers realised they were talking about the same person: Gael García Bernal, who was then just 21. The son of theatre actors, he had become a star in his early teens on the Mexican soap opera El Abuelo y Yo (Grandpa and I) before decamping to London to study at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Iñárritu plucked him out mid-term for Amores Perros and he stole that movie as the twitchy-hipped tearaway who was every bit as feral as his champion rottweiler. His mutable features could switch from cherubic to lupine to gravely smouldering; his nerve endings felt exposed like frayed electrical wires.
“You can feel all his emotions, all his vulnerability,” says Cuarón. “He fills the screen completely. After my wife met him, she said: ‘Wow, he’s so handsome, but I thought he would be tall.’ He’s like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, the kind of actor whose aura and energy makes you think they’re huge.”
In that wham-bam first half-decade of Bernal’s film career, he gave four killer performances, any one of which would have been enough to build a reputation on: Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, part of which he spent looking ravishing in drag, and The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he played a young Che Guevara. Now 41, Bernal has alternated between mainstream projects in the US – such as his five-year stint as an eccentric conductor in the delightful Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, or his touching voice work as a balladeer trapped in the afterlife in the Disney/ Pixar gem Coco – and politically charged work in Latin America.
When he calls me today, it is from Mexico City, one of two locations that is home to him (the other is Buenos Aires) and where he happened to be when the lockdown began. “What’s beautiful right now in Mexico,” he says brightly, “is that straight after the daily 7pm press conference, there are films on TV from the golden age of Mexican cinema, from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s been wonderful to watch them in this light. I see the hopes of the actors and film-makers from 70 or 80 years ago. I see their fears, their experiments, what they were trying to build and express. I find it all incredibly moving as a document of humanity.”
He thinks the current crisis is altering for ever the way we look at art. “There’s something more straightforward now in how we see things – it’s stronger, more elemental and pulsating. We’re so emotionally charged. Artistic expression can affect us for the better, making us feel we’re all in this questioning together.”
It is, he suggests, an ideal state in which to approach Ema, his third film with the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, following No, about the 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet, and the fantasy-biopic Neruda, in which he played a police inspector who doubts his own existence. Ema is the pair’s most challenging collaboration, populated largely by destructive and dislikable characters; only gradually do their prickly exteriors peel away to reveal the wounded souls within. Bernal has the small but pivotal role of Gastón, a choreographer married to the dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). He is plainly callous – he taunts her over their recent failed adoption of a seven-year-old boy – but Bernal shows that Gastón is suffering, too.As a young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Photograph: Paula Prandini/Imagenet
“There is something about the nature of his job that makes him feel very lonely. That was interesting to explore: he’s the centre of gravity at this dance company, he puts everything together, and that leads to a lot of loneliness. It’s like directing a film, which is a solitary pursuit even though it’s collective.” Bernal himself has directed two features – the 2007 drama Déficit and the as-yet-unreleased Chicuarotes, about young Mexican hoodlums – as well as founding, with his childhood friend and Y Tu Mamá También co-star Diego Luna, two production companies and a documentary film festival, Ambulante.
So could Gastón be a portrait of himself or Larraín? “No, not at all!” he laughs. “But Pablo and I both understand him in his isolation and his stupefaction.” Perhaps, then, he is comparable to Rodrigo, the conductor from Mozart in the Jungle, who is also a restless, demanding creative type? “Yes! Except that Rodrigo represents happiness and adventure, whereas Gastón is the opposite. Rodrigo is Maradona. Gastón is more like Mike Tyson.”
His role in Ema is notable for keeping his usual electrifying charm in check; if Gastón is sexual, it is only in the most remote, reptilian way. Such unpalatable parts are rare on Bernal’s CV. In Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness, he played an unscrupulous bartender taking advantage of an epidemic that renders its sufferers sightless; in one scene, he performed a head-waggling, bad-taste version of I Just Called to Say I Love You. And in The King, his English-language debut from 2005, he was a psychopath calmly wreaking revenge on his long-lost father.
“Gael had balls, to be blunt,” says James Marsh, that picture’s British director. “We went to quite a few up-and-coming young American actors, some of whom have big careers now, and none of them would go near that script. But Gael liked the idea of playing someone with this cold surface. I love way he moves in the film: he’s always slinking around, more animal than human. The character has pure evil in him, but he played it in this blank way so that you didn’t hate him.”
There’s this incredible ease about Gael. I think he works far harder than one would imagine Saffron Burrows