Guest of Honor

Gael García Bernal Goes From Messiah to Maestro

The Golden Globe-nominated actor talks about his genius "Mozart in the Jungle" character and the rise of Mexican cinema... and then gets a bit of a reality check from Brendan.

(Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Gael García Bernal was a TV star in his native Mexico from a very young age. He then broke into the international art house circuit with roles in the acclaimed films “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También.” He went on to star in movies like “Babel,” “Rosewater,” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

His latest project is a series for Amazon called “Mozart in the Jungle.” In it, Gael plays Rodrigo, a wunderkind classical music conductor who’s brought to New York to breathe life into the city’s stodgy orchestra. The role just earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and season two premieres December 30. When Brendan spoke with Gael, he asked him who’s had a better life — him, or the world-conquering prodigy Rodrigo?


Gael García Bernal: [Laughs.] Wow. That catches me off-guard, you know, because Rodrigo has a very attractive life, in a way, but incredibly chaotic. But there is something that he has that I envy a lot and it’s an easygoing-ness. So, maybe that’s what happens when one reaches that point of genius.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Not only does he not sweat the small stuff, but he’s a free spirit who seems to be really guided just by whatever strikes his fancy.

Gael García Bernal: Exactly. He goes into music. He goes into this world which is completely abstract and there’s a tangent and I envy that. I wish I could do that, you know? And I could abstract myself into that. On the contrary, I go into a very mundane day-to-day soap opera problematics.

For his character Rodrigo, Gael Garcia Bernal drew partly on Gustavo Dudamel – the force-of-nature director of the LA Philharmonic. (Courtesy Amazon Studios.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you have your own art as well that you’ve practiced for quite a while. But, as you say, Rodrigo does go into music. How much did you know about classical music before taking on this role?

Gael García Bernal: To be honest, I knew nothing. But before doing the show, I felt I did. I mean, I always enjoyed it and, kind of, appreciated it. But it wasn’t something that it is now. Now I’m completely submerged into the fascination of symphonic music.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There is a parallel between you and Rodrigo which is: you both started your craft at a very young age. You’ve been acting since you were 1, is that correct?

Gael García Bernal: I mean, that’s what my parents told me but, you know, I don’t remember.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You can tell me the truth.

Gael García Bernal: I think they actually have photos that yeah, show that I was like the baby Jesus. [Laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, man!

Gael García Bernal: Yeah. Quite a responsibility, right? [Laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s all downhill from there, no wonder.

Gael García Bernal: Oh, yeah. Everything has just been problematic since then [laughs]. And yeah, I’ve been sort of in this [acting] world for a long, long time and trying to escape from it, actually for many years as well.

When I was an adolescent, I didn’t want to be an actor. I didn’t want to be a professional actor. So, it sounds weird, but yes, Rodrigo definitely has stuff from me as well. You know, the fact that he started to travel at a very young age and, kind of, started to see different parts of the world, and started to not want to be tethered or put in a niche, you know?

That is something that definitely also happens and happened to me when “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También” came out.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sure. What’s interesting about that time is it sounds like you were on your own journey to discover yourself, and at the same time, with “Amores Perros” and other movies… all of a sudden, Mexico was cranking out some of the greatest — and still continues to crank out some of the greatest — films in the world. The real tipping point, I think, was around that era.

Gael García Bernal: Yeah. It was a starting point, definitely. Many things came together. Many things…combined with private institutions helping out.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Funding.

Gael García Bernal: Yeah, exactly, private funding helping as well, and the government. You know, one of those harmonic situations. Also, it had to do with a very strong awakening to the possibility of media as well — how it kind of started to democratize.

I still grew up in a world where I’d go to the cinema without knowing what the hell I was going to see. When I was in secondary school, I would go to National Cinematheque in Mexico and I would just see whatever was there.

Just like, “Guys! I saw an amazing filmmaker, German, called Wim Wenders! Guys, I mean, you have to see this film called ‘Paris, Texas.’ It’s incredible!” And everyone would be, “What’s the name of the German director?” “Whim Whenders!” Because, obviously, they didn’t know how to [pronounce his name].

And we would write it down because it was like, “When am I going to get to see it? Who knows?” You know, because, it’s impossible to get. Anyways, the Mexican cinema started to also jump into that democratizing [global] experience of film-making. I mean, just many filmmakers that are doing incredible stuff with very limited resources still. And sometimes with bigger resources.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And both in Mexican film and in America, I mean, you’re winning awards. You know, you have some of the best filmmakers in the world right now are Iñárritu and Cuarón. The world is flat in filmmaking, it seems, at this point.

Gael García Bernal: At this point it does seem like that, yeah.

Gael Garcia Bernal, as Rodrigo, accepts the world's adulation. (Courtesy Amazon Studios.)
Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) blissfully accepts the world’s adulation. (Courtesy Amazon Studios.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, this has been a wonderful chat, but I want to make sure I ask our two standard questions.

Gael García Bernal: Sure.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And the first one is simply: What question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Gael García Bernal: Ah-ha! OK. There is a question that kind of always comes and I always want to answer in a very honest way. And I always find myself in the Bermuda Triangle trying to answer that and then acknowledging the fact that it’s impossible to answer that type of question in very short words or in an interview. Which is: “How is Mexico?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: [Laughs] Just like, “Yeah, tell me quickly. How is it?”

Gael García Bernal: Exactly. “Why all this violence that goes on and all this stuff. Is it really like that?” I always trying to answer it as honestly as I can. And I try to include the totality of the answer, as well, but…

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s too vast a topic.

Gael García Bernal: Exactly. Because we’re talking about the world basically.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I will not ask you that question because our show is, unfortunately, not long enough to get at the answer. So I’ll ask you another question which is: Tell us something we don’t know. And now this could be something you haven’t shared about yourself in interviews. Or it could just be an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Gael García Bernal: OK. I realized that, before, I could see myself becoming a football player, or a pilot, or an archaeologist or whatever…

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK.

Gael García Bernal: But one thing I know I can’t be and I can’t do, is be an astronaut.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why can’t you be an astronaut?

Gael García Bernal: Because I have kids now. Once you have kids, you can’t be an astronaut.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You mean you don’t want to leave the planet? You don’t want leave them. You’re too frightened about what might happen?

Gael García Bernal: Not to them, but to me!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Certainly. You’re afraid that you might disappear and they’ll be left without a parent.

Gael García Bernal: Exactly, or that I would not be able to enjoy them. And so I think I cannot be an astronaut. And it’s something that kind of… like a loss of innocence, in a sense.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think what’s happening here is you’d seen your compatriot, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity…”

Gael García Bernal: And I was freaked out [laughs]!

Brendan Francis Newnam: But that’s actually… that’s fiction.

Gael García Bernal: Really?!?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That wasn’t a real movie. Sandra Bullock did not go to space.

Gael García Bernal: Now wait a minute!

Brendan Francis Newnam: George Clooney is still alive.

Gael García Bernal: How did they work it out with all the catering and stuff there?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s not real! You could still be an astronaut.

Gael García Bernal: OK! OK.