Gael García Bernal escapes exile in Blindness
TORONTO—Having started acting at the age of 14, Mexico's Gael García Bernal figured out early in life that if he wanted to break out of the film and television industry in his native land, he would need to be able to speak English. His parents sent him to Europe, and he eventually settled into three years of study at London's Central School of Speech and Drama.
He returned to Mexico in 1999 and spent the next few years starring in Mexican films that received international acclaim, including Amores perros, Y tu mamá también, and The Motorcycle Diaries. Two years ago, he costarred with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-nominated film Babel. And now he's a member of the ensemble cast in Blindness, which opens tomorrow.
Even though he does feel somewhat comfortable speaking in English, he says, it will always be an awkward second language. “English is still a handicap for me because in Spanish I can fly 10 times as high and do more back-flips,” he says in a Toronto hotel room.
“I can do more accents in Spanish. I feel pretty deprived in English, so when I receive a script that has a lot of English dialogue, I know that I have to work much harder than the actors who are working in their native tongue. But if it was a great script in a language I don't speak, I would probably not turn it down. I would just learn the lines.”
In Blindness, García Bernal plays a bartender who is struck blind, apparently by a virus. He and other victims are quarantined in an abandoned building. However, he has managed to bring in a gun, and he strikes up a friendship with a man who was blind before the virus.
Both of these things give him an advantage over his fellow inmates. He takes on the title “the king of Ward 3”, and begins planning to take charge of the entire building and its hundreds of occupants.
García Bernal has worked hard at back stories for his characters in the past, but in Blindness, he says, he decided it would be best if his character simply seemed to arise from nowhere.
“I think he is nothing and then he becomes this self-proclaimed king,” he says. “I liked the fact he just appears. When I played Che Guevara [in both the TV movie Fidel and The Motorcycle Diaries], it was obviously important to know a lot about the character. But here all of the characters are dropped from space. It is almost a fable, and if you are reading The Tortoise and the Hare, no one cares where the hare came from.”
Although the cast was large, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) had to introduce the José Saramago novel to every cast member but one. García Bernal had encountered the book before, but didn't initially identify with it as an actor.
“I had loved it ever since I read it several years ago, but I didn't see myself as one of the characters. When Fernando called me, I said, ”˜What character?' and I was surprised when he said he wanted me to play this guy. He was surprised when I said I knew who the character was. I was very excited and I said, ”˜That's excellent.' It was something that was not expected at all. Looking at it from a distance, I think it [the casting choice] works well for the movie, because it is not the typical tough guy. ”
Blindness and the upcoming English-language films Mammoth and The Limits of Control will allow García Bernal even more exposure to international audiences. At the same time, the ability of directors like Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy), Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Children of Men), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, Babel ) to move back and forth between Mexican and American films should also allow García Bernal more opportunities to make movies in his own country and language.
“It's so much different than how it was 20 years go,” he notes. “It was apparently very difficult for Spanish directors and actors to do things in their own language, but now it is so much better. We still have to be very responsible with it, but I have the feeling that I don't need to emigrate. I never wanted to, but I did it because I felt it was necessary. Now I feel that I don't have to be an exile in America.”