The King: An Interview with Gael Garcia Bernal
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King: An Interview with Gael Garcia Bernal
By Brad Balfour
May 22, 2006
With Mexican born Gael Garcia Bernal, it's been a long journey since he played a teenage guy in the erotic coming of age tale, "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Since that film put him on the star-making map, he has traveled the world with a lot world-class Mexican directors, numerous Spanish language directors (such as Oscar-winner Pedro Almadovar) and now several top flight indie film directors such as James Marsh-who has helmed Bernal's latest vehicle, "The King."
Yes, it does tenuously relate to Elvis since the 28 year old actor's plays a sociopathic loner named after The King. But instead of being a mama's boy like his namesake, he's so estranged from his family-especially because his mother was a prostitute-that when he leaves the Navy all he can do is travel to connect with the man who fathered him even if it has disastrous and tragic results.
So how did you first get involved with this project?
Gael Garcia Bernal: They just called me when I was in the middle of doing "The Motorcycle Diaries." And then they sent me the script, and-oh, it's beautiful. Some people would say that this is a horrible view, but it's actually really nice. It looks like a painting. I got involved with it when they sent me the script, then I talked with James [Marsh], the director, and with Milo Addica, the writer and producer of the film. I just wanted to do it.
Did they want you because the character had a Latino background?
GGB: No. It wasn't written with me in mind, really. So it redefined the story for me as well to have that because it automatically throws in a much stronger complexity, and, perhaps some people might say-I dare to say this as well-it's like when you deal with people as they are and you don't want to whitewash their identity. You get more sophisticated things. It made it more interesting to have that kind of backdrop or context as important as the characters.
Between getting this script and the script for Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep," those two characters are interesting in contrast [to each other]. In "The Science of Sleep," you've got this character that has a real problem talking to women, as opposed to your character in this film. Which one are you more like and which character did you identify with more, and which one was a harder to get into?
GGB: It's different ways of working, as well. One of them is a Greek tragedy, so it's all suffering and suffering and suffering. The other one is a bit more real life in a sense that real life has a lot of comedy in it if you look at it with a romantic and a cynical point of view. It's funny, and maybe I see myself more as that character. I think the one in "Science of Sleep," maybe, but then again, that's just a coincidence.
It's impossible to really identify with the characters most of the time, you know? Sometimes you're surprised and you do, but most of the time it's impossible to identify. It's impossible to understand them, really. The only thing you can do is empathize with their emotional journey. Then, you're inside the character. Then you're talking about the specific thing, and you're not looking at it from the outside. Then, you start to understand the character, and you start to identify with the character, but being you, the character-making yourself a kind of thing.
How was it playing an American--you did a great job with the accent.
GGB: Thank you.
Was it a barrier when you considered the role? Did you work with a coach?
GGB: I worked with a voice coach who helped me very much. The best thing was that it didn't become a burden, you know? You can become very self-conscious of it. And it wasn't. I was pretty free, in a way. It felt good that it was like that. And surprising. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes even if you do an accent very good, it's always there at your back. You're always carrying it. In this case, I felt pretty open to jump around and be able to play with it, with the language.
You gave the character a bit of an otherworldly or alien background in contrast to the father and the family.
GGB: Well, definitely compared to the father [played brilliantly by William Hurt]. They speak in a very specific Texas accent. Elvis is also from Texas. He is from there. His is just a different accent. Nowadays he can be considered alien. Nowadays he can be considered illegal.
I didn't say illegal. Just alien.
GGB: In terms of the story-yeah. But in practical terms, he's not an alien. He's another Texan with another accent. There are things that are not soŠthe character I wanted to portray speaks like that as well. There are things you don't say. This guy speaks Spanish.
It made sense that they he was a Latino or Hispanic character in light of their ardent, red-blooded American, rock-ribbed Christian-and it lent itself to that contrast, It helped accentuate that, even the name "Elvis" helped accentuate that, in certain ways. Did you discuss that shape of the character?
GGB: Yeah. It was like getting on the highway. I was doing the character. It's one of those things that liberates the character, and you think, "Oh, okay. Yeah. That's great. Let's do it." In a sense, it would have been great to even see more of the context. It's surprising how in Texas, how I spent so much time there doing this film, and I was amazed by how non-hypocritical it is. It's a place that's very straightforward. I like that. I like that because it's very integrated. You go to the store, and you're speaking Spanish, and nobody's thrown back by it. Everyone speaks Spanish. Everyone speaks English. There is that relaxed search for identity that has nothing to do with a fucking flag. It's just boring.
There were interesting parallels with "Down in the Valley"-the film Edward Norton did- about these familial interlopers that attempt to put themselves in this family. It seems like it's something that's part of this American paranoia that's going on these days. What did you think about the level of paranoia in this country as it relates to this movie?
GGB: So you've seen it in posters? Definitely go and see it now. I think the level of paranoia is immeasurable now, because there are some ardent truths behind it-absolute truths that you cannot talk back to because they are being shielded or embraced by the flag, or the nation, or what's being patriotic. Even God. So it is difficult to start a constructive argument, a discussion with it. I've heard many people right now with all the immigration marches and stuff they say about toughening the borders after 9-11 to protect from these people, from the terrorists from coming here. But then I go, "What does that have to do withŠthat has nothing to do with what these guys are talking about." These guys are talking about granting them rights as human beings and as laborers. They don't want to be citizens. They just want the right to temporary worker status, so they can have rights so they can go back to Mexico without risking their lives.
The religious right, represented by the character of your father, are the ones that want to treat America like Israel and build this wall between the countries.
GGB: Not all of them. It's surprising. I think the ones that want to build a wall and want to keep these people on an illegal status are the people that get the most benefit from it. And who are they? It's the rich and the farmers-the rich guys who own the farms. Not the farmers.
GGB: Yeah. The corporations, basically. Those are the ones that want to keep the system going on like this. It would benefit the country if these people paid taxes, you know? It would benefit the people, really. But they don't want to pay taxes because it's cheap for them. They make more money when they save the taxes for themselves. This film has a lot of that as well-that questioning about territory. Why isn't this kid allowed to be from where he was born? First of all, because his father didn't recognize him and his father is the only one in the equation that has papers and that is from the United States.
The mother is a prostitute, and therefore has absolutely no rights. And she's Mexican, so she has even less rights. He's born here, and the only way he can get an identity and a kind of acceptance is by doing the one thing that one can do to state his official identity, which is to shed blood for your country--to be in the military. You see the Army consists of a lot of people that are from Hispanic backgrounds. Even people that were born in Mexico are in the Army of the United States.
With the character you play when we meet him in the beginning, he's likable, and we go on this journey with him to find his family, which is a primal urge we all have--to connect with our families. So do you think that his acts of violence are a result of his being in the military?
GGB: It has to do with that. Yeah. I think it is because he doesn't know any better, in a sense. It is for the lack of love he has received. So, therefore, he says that he is in love with his sister, in this case. But she may not be his sister. There is that enigma, as well. It might not be the father. He says he is in love with her, and he does acts of love according to the way he can do them, in whatever way he thinks is love. But he thinks he is in love because he doesn't know any better. And perhaps this is the first time that he feels close to anybody. It makes him think that he is love when he is not.
Maybe you can talk about that strange, but pure, draw-that attraction that your character has for Malerie, how that's bringing you closer to your father and to yourself. In a way, it's like a love for another person. There's something circular about it.
GGB: Yeah. There is something that the character, maybe consciously, does in a very primal way, in a very innocent way, which is maybe the best way to get inside the family and get close to his father. So that is the way he approaches that. He doesn't see. He doesn't know better, so maybe he doesn't know he's doing the right or wrong thing.
Given the acts that he commits and the fact that obviously he's doing an incestuous act, he doesn't want to confront the consequences of what he's doing until he realizes he has no way to go but to follow them to their end. What did you think about that in light of the idea of his taking a journey? It seems you're attracted to journeys.
GGB: Journeys, yes. It's been recent, since I got here. It's been a relevant question, I guess. So every film is a road trip. It seems so. It seems like that. It happens maybe because I think films can be catalysts, or can portray very faithfully what is going on in one's person, but also in the world. They really can show the things that are going on.
It's all a journey and a search for identity that is happening for myself and also with these characters because that's what happens when you're young. That's what happens, especially now in the whole American continent. It is a question we all have. I ask myself, "Is it worth being Mexican?" What does that mean? I have more in common with someone from Buenos Aires than someone that lives a hundred kilometers away from where I live. It's so dissimilar. They created this official identity, and I don't know if it's worth fighting for.
In following the character's journey to its end, did you talk about how he allows himself to be swept up in it without even thinking about it? He just goes ahead and does it. Did you look at the peculiar motivations that he had? Your idea was interesting, about it being a way to connect with the family, but he undid that, didn't he?
GGB: Yeah, but that was his way to connect with his family. That was his way to also be accepted. He was looking for acceptance, you know?
But then he went and squandered his acceptance
GGB: Yes. Sometimes you love someone, and, as Oscar Wilde put it very clearly, sometimes you kill the person you love. Not only physically, but you also destroy the love that you had. When those passions come into play, it's a very thin line. It's a very tight rope.
What going on with "Babel" and what it's like working with Alejandro [Inirratu] again?
GGB: I haven't seen that film, so I don't know, really, how it ended. But I had a really good time doing it with Alejandro. He's great. He's a great director. It was nice to see him, to work together afterŠwhat, six years?
So you have "Babel" and "The Science of Sleep" coming up. Is there anything else?
GGB: No. That's the only thing.
THE KING opens on May 19th, 2006
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