Though Gael Garcia Bernal was well known in his native Mexico as a child actor (he even appeared in a popular soap), the fact is, he really made it big when he exploded on to the international radar with two hotly regarded, Oscar-nominated movies, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Amores Perros, followed the next year by Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s been all uphill since as his passion for life has spilled over into the provocative, sometimes political, but always riveting projects he has done. Now playing real-life journalist Maziar Bahari in Jon Stewart’s writing/directing debut Rosewater, Bernal takes on an even bigger responsibility, and one of his most challenging roles to date.
What was it like to play a real person who was on set as much as Maziar Bahari was, standing behind the camera?
You surrender to the fact that you cannot be him and that is not the exercise that this is about. The game that we are playing, we are interpreting his experience and putting ourselves in there. With this collective interpretation something new happens, and perhaps the lessons are something similar to what Maziar went through. On the other hand, it could also lend itself to a much more sophisticated version of what he went through. This was an experience that was reinterpreted by him to begin with. Then you end up in editing, and that changes things, the lens changes things, everything manipulates.
Was the book that Bahari wrote helpful, as opposed to just working from the script?
Yes, in many elements and small details. Every time I had a doubt I would just consult the book like a religious person.
You’re also a filmmaker, so what was it like working with first-time director Jon Stewart?
Jon is one of the nicest, most joyful, intelligent people out there. He knows his limitations in a way that I think comes from his professionalism. He’s mature and he’s responsible for his actions, so whenever he wasn’t sure about something he would ask us, “I think this is where it should be, but you tell me what you guys feel, do it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, then tell me if I’m going crazy.” Most of the time we would say, “Man, it’s spot on, let’s do this.” He’s already a director with his TV show. Obviously, he’s learning the language of cinema and the rhythm of cinema, which is a very different one. Jon is a team worker, to the point where I could convince him to go play football every now and then when we were in Jordan.
What was it like shooting in Jordan?
It was Ramadan (while we were filming) and we wanted to be respectful, so many people in our team fasted and did the prayers. I wanted to fast and so I did. The break off the fast is incredible. The amount of food there is once the night comes is beautiful. It was something I enjoyed a lot as I was learning about Islam, a religion that has a lot to do with introspection. It helped us get into a mode. I think it’s part of the film, in a way.
What was the most important thing you pulled out of the experience of working on this film?
It shows a specific situation—Maziar’s incarceration, unjustly, in Iran, accused of being a spy; the shutdown of freedom of speech—but it immediately points out that this is happening all over the world in a standardized, even institutionalized, way. Solitary confinement is a way of torture. There’s a certain point you get to in physical torture, to make a person lose hope and form them into someone who in principal was not responsible for what they did, but now they end up being responsible for something that’s put on them. Mexico (where Bernal is from) is a country where I think, after Iraq, is dangerous for journalists. Because impunity goes a long way, and if we don’t have journalists, we don’t have democracy and it’s something that needs to be discussed. I also think that the film is very timely.
It’s incredibly timely, and almost one of those accidents of timing. In the news there have been stories of journalists being captured and freed, their heads are getting cut off….
And everywhere, the amount of institutionalized prosecution of journalists, be it from organized crime forces, or organized states, religions—there is a crackdown on people discussing these things. It’s terrible when that is accepted; it is a failure of the human condition, I guess. It’s important to point the finger. Who better than Jon? I consider him a person who is working every day for the common good, and that makes him a hero in my book.
It seems that from a lot of the movies you’ve chosen to be in it’s important for you to use your career and your clout to do something good for the world, to get the message out that might have otherwise not gotten out. That’s not easy to do in movies today.
It’s not easy, exactly, because it can also be trivialized. There also are many films that are made to serve a purpose, and eventually those films are not good, and did not serve a cause, and it actually becomes, “Please, don’t help us.” It’s got to be an incredible film experience to begin with, and at that point, whatever story, or what’s being talked about it, will have a political, religious, sexual, spiritual or social complexity to it. I love the idea of getting the weight out of these types of films. I don’t want to make films that only serve that purpose.
Photograph of Gael Garcia Bernal by Mark Mann