Tuesday, Jun 13, 2006
Movies  XML
email this
print this

Gael Garcia Bernal breaks barriers and tackles tough issues

BY REBECCA LOUIE
New York Daily News
In "The King," Gael Garcia Bernal plays Elvis Valderez, a 21-year-old dreamer who, following a stint in the Navy, returns to his hometown searching for his father.
ThinkFilm
In "The King," Gael Garcia Bernal plays Elvis Valderez, a 21-year-old dreamer who, following a stint in the Navy, returns to his hometown searching for his father.

Crossing boundaries and breaking taboos has become a benchmark of Gael Garcia Bernal's career, beginning with his first major role, the owner of a fight dog whose recklessness affects several lives in the gritty, Academy Award-nominated 2000 film "Amores Perros."

The young Mexican actor followed with a succession of roles that had an emotional heft that seemed to run counter to his youthfulness: A road tripping teen in 2001's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (the most successful Spanish-language film in history), a lascivious priest in 2002's "The Crimes of Father Amaro," and, in 2004, a pair of polar opposites that showed his range - a vengeful transvestite in Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" and the young Che Guevara in director Walter Salles' portrait of the revolutionary as a young man, "The Motorcycle Diaries."

So it's no mystery what drew Bernal, 27, to his latest film, the indie drama "The King." The actor - who in person projects the same intensity as his characters - guides viewers through an American Western gothic tale that includes murder, incest, prostitution and arson, though Bernal says one of his new movie's more controversial, and current, themes is never addressed directly.

"This movie (actually) starts with the whole immigration issue," says Bernal, who plays a drifter named Elvis, the son of a Mexican mother and a Caucasian American father. After being honorably discharged from the Navy, Elvis seeks out the father he never knew, who's now a Baptist preacher in a Texas church. But even after his dad, David (William Hurt), rejects him on sight, Elvis tries to infiltrate the family, and soon falls in love with 16-year-old Malerie (Pell James). Though Elvis is born in the U.S. and even spends years defending it, Bernal sees a character still spurned from American society because of his ethnic background.

"In the film, Elvis returns to the United States after having served (in the military), and feels that he has nothing left to prove," says Bernal, who was born in Guadalajara and now lives in Mexico City. "He has done everything he can to be accepted, yet he is soon rejected again."

Moved by the recent protests about immigrant legislation in the U.S., Bernal adds, "I find it completely ignorant to say that (all) immigrants are criminals. It is so hateful to hear, but these are the times we live in."

Coming of age during Mexico's Zapatista movement, Bernal, the son of underground theater actors, was raised in revolution. Back then, he took to the streets, peacefully demonstrating and writing about the plight of the Chiapas people, and helping affect change is still part of him: This month, he participated in May Day labor demonstrations in Mexico; in December, he attended the World Trade Organization summit in Hong Kong to discuss the plight of Mexican corn farmers, and last year, joined mass protests in Edinburgh during the G8 summit.

Bernal says he is motivated by more than the gratification of celebrity stumping.

"I see it as my social duty," he says, eyes sharpening behind his thick, black-framed glasses. "I am a person of the world - that is something I should do regardless if I am an actor or not. You have to be able to lead the life you are asking for; you have to show with example."

The life Bernal asks for is a modest one, especially compared with the fabulous life of some of Hollywood's marquee names. "I make Mexican films, I make independent films - I don't have a star's life at all."

Later this year, he'll star as a man held captive by his dreams in "The Science of Sleep," from hip director Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). Then he'll reteam with "Amores Perros" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel," co-starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

Though Hollywood has courted him with scripts and considerable paychecks, Bernal has yet to bite. "It has nothing to do with a kind of outsider's point-of-view, like, `Oh, I don't like Hollywood,' " says Bernal, who dated actress Natalie Portman for a short time but won't discuss his personal life now.

"It's just that the (scripts) haven't been good enough to (turn down) the ones that I want to do. ... I am quite comfortable doing things as it is."

Bernal is comfortable doing things other than acting: He just finished shooting the family-gathering drama "Deficit" in Mexico, and this spring launched a 16-city documentary festival called Ambulante with his "Y Tu Mama" co-star Diego Luna.

But like with any revolution, he knows it will take time to see results.

"It's hard, wanting to do something good that will come out in a way that's faithful to yourself," Bernal says. "There are moments when you want to make things better. And if they're not better, then you find out that maybe you are learning from mistakes."