Frank Actor Enjoys Being A Girl:
This Season's Double Threat Gael Garcia Bernal

by Tony Phillips

The last time I interviewed Mexican-born, London-bred actor Gael Garcia Bernal, he was 22-years-old and promoting his debut in the Academy Award-nominated Amores Perros. The title of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s pit bull opus translates roughly from the Spanish to “love is a bitch.” I’m inclined to agree. Bernal wore a Quicksilver tee and blocky reading glasses. He had all the markings of someone who was going to be ridiculously famous, yet complained at the time: “Yesterday I wanted to ask which way was Madison Avenue. I asked four people and three people out of those four blew me off.”

When Bernal returned the following year to promote Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-queer road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, our schedules didn’t sync. Same story a year later when Bernal returned to promote El Crimen del Padre Amaro. Carlos Carrera’s controversial film went onto become the highest grossing movie ever made in Bernal’s native Mexico. Somewhere along the way, he began dating Natalie Portman and I assumed the sweet kid with the ratty blue knit cap had gone the way of those adorable blocky reading glasses. But when he returned to New York this fall with the one-two punch of the young Che Guevara on a South American tour in Walter Salles’ film The Motorcycles Diaries and a triple role — including the femme fatale — in Almodovar’s latest Bad Education, I decided to find out if the actor who couldn’t find Madison was now stopping traffic.

“Who knows?” Bernal begins, “that’s one of the nicest things about not having a ‘making of’ documentary.” The first question in play is how many times Almodovar shot what we’re calling “the wet underwear scene.” As if they’ve worked their way into his boilerplate, Bernal manages an almost contractual swim in practically every film he makes. His two latest are no exception. Witness Motorcycle Diaries harrowing night crawl against a strong current on a South American river and the more leisurely dip in Bad Education for which he strips down to his skivvies. Hence, “the wet underwear scene.”

The Bad Education dip is actually more of an audition for the director in the film who is a double for the director of the film. You weren’t expecting structural simplicity from Almodovar, were you? But was it a replay of Bernal’s own audition for the Spanish auteur? Hardly. “I spent two days dressing up as a girl to see if I looked good,” Bernal admits sheepishly. “The aesthetic was important, of course. Straight after reading the script, I thought this character shouldn’t have to justify that she’s a girl. That’s where transvestites and women differ. Transvestites really make an effort to show how feminine they are. I just wanted to have that self-knowledge where I didn’t have to prove anything. So during the casting I experimented with that subtlety. We saw what worked and what didn’t and we tried to see me as the character. It was just like trying a new color. You say, ‘Oh yeah, it works.’”

Even Almodovar had to admit the same. “He was very attractive as a boy or as a girl,” the out directors understates, “And that was essential for understanding his character’s relationship with others, the intensity with which everyone became obsessed with him.” He is, of course, referring to Bernal’s character Ignacio and his childhood friend Enrique, who reunite years later when Enrique is a successful Spanish director and Ignacio decides to audition for a role in his latest film. Of course, Ignacio is not really Ignacio and the part he’s auditioning for is what gets him up in drag, but to go further would be a spoiler.

Still, it begs the question, how does Bernal feel about the intent behind Almodovar’s casting? “That’s actually quite an honor,” Bernal explains, “because very few people look good as a woman and a man. So if he says that I’m really grateful.” But does he feel he’s raising the bar, cinematically, but taking on such a difficult role? “Not in such a messianic attitude,” Bernal assures, “but I am doing exactly the films I would like to see. We, as an audience, are much more advanced and developed than people expect and it shows whenever we see a film that surprises us because we recommend it, but if right now the head of Sony came in and said, ‘For this next year you’re only going to see shit films,’ we would go and see them. It’s become such a need now. A good film makes you want to see another good film, they never cancel themselves. I see myself as an audience, first of all, and if I can make those kinds of stories and have a little bit of an influential point of view and power, well then I’m there. I want to be able to participate. Many people would like to be in this position.”

Bernal, on the other hand, found himself in the unique position of being in two films where he spoke Spanish, but had to master an accent for each one. “Bad Education was done straight after The Motorcycle Diaries, but it was harder to do my accent in The Motorcycle Diaries because it’s an Argentine accent and that’s closer to my own. Sometimes I was afraid it would come out as me.” Judging by the ratty Army jacket he’s wearing this afternoon, perhaps a bit of the Che Guevara character he plays rubbed off.

But it’s no mean feat balancing a South American revolutionary and a cosmopolitan pool boy. How did the actor juggle such diverse roles? “The best way I can explain it is just that way. They are so diametrically opposite, one of them is a much more interior, spiritual, and contained journey. That was the intention: to make it human, to deconstruct that icon of Che and bring it back to the humanity that it really has. On the other hand, when we were shooting Motorcycle Diaries, I felt comfortable that there was a film that was going to compliment the absence of the farce and the game of acting.” But is he afraid that next role, with its drag requirements and ‘wet underwear scene’ might lead him to be typecast? “I wanted to be an actor to be free,” Bernal responds, shaking his head rapidly, “I wanted to be myself and therefore myself is going to be unlike any other. We all are very different. Yet there is a strong urge to pigeonhole. Everyone wants to put you in a niche, but if you are yourself, that will open a new path that nobody else had done before and therefore you will opens paths for other people and you will make an effort for us to be honest voices and not compromise our vision and be stereotypical.”

And if that sounds like the idealist Che talking, one only need wait a beat before lessons learned from Almodovar surface. There’s been speculation about when the Academy Award-winning director will make his first English language feature. There was even a title for this film at one point: The Paper. Most fans of Almodovar’s work dread The Paper. They see it as gone Hollywood, a sellout, but Bernal doesn’t understand the fuss. And, he adds, he just wrapped his first English language feature called The King opposite actor William Hurt. So, is it good to be the King? “It’s an act of faith,” Bernal explains, “but in my case, I don’t really feel afraid of doing something in English at all. I would love to work in every single language. Don’t tempt me; I even had some scenes in Latin. Long conversations. We don’t speak Latin, but we learned what we had to say and we just said it. I like to challenge myself and be more free. I don’t have a problem or a concern, but as you can see, I have much more width and openness not in Spanish, but in Mexico,” he giggles. “in Bad Education, working in this period in Spain is incredibly different. I had no idea. I kind of suspected it, but unless you’re there and try to convince some Spanish-speaking people fully, it’s very hard. It’s a very big stretch in a way. It’s a very specific and subtle moment.”

With that, we’ve run out of time. But then Bernal does something I’ve never seen any actor, gay or straight, do. He calls off his flack and says, “Wait a minute, he wanted to ask about my gay role and I want to see how that question is formulated because people really express themselves, and expose themselves, when they ask those things.” He is laughing and is probably quite on to me. But what kind of gay roles was he offered after Y Tu Mama Tambien and the homoerotic screen time he shared with actor Diego Luna? Not to mention that film’s pool scene. “Acting is acting,” Bernal begins good-naturedly, “it’s your job and you’re put into this position to be able to do that. You put yourself in this position to be able to get away with things. Who can say anything, who cares? Even what I say right now could be a lie. Reality doesn’t come into play here, the reality of the person you really are doesn’t apply. You immediately destroy the taboo by doing it. There’s no big kind of issue. In a sense, if I was asked four days ago, how do I feel to be put in the category of top 20 gay icons of the year — I was there at number four or five — I would say it makes me really proud. It’s a recognition of someone that knows what you’re doing and recognizes that you did well.” He takes a beat and a devilish glimmer lights up his eyes. “But I also feel really sad,” he jokes, “because I’ve lost my whole homophobic audience which has supported me since I was little.”