'Mozart in the Jungle's' Gael Garcia Bernal mines comedy and drama in the classical world

Gael García Bernal didn't hesitate for a moment when asked to choose which profession he considers to be harder — acting or conducting a symphony orchestra.

"To be a conductor you have to study like a doctor. You need to have studied since you were little," he said. "If you measure it like that, conducting is way more difficult."

But of course acting has its challenges too. "They're both performing and interpretation," he said.

Bernal is in an unusual position to speak about both crafts. In Amazon's comedy series "Mozart in the Jungle," now in its second season, he plays Rodrigo de Souza, the gifted but emotionally unpredictable conductor of a major New York orchestra.

In the first season, Rodrigo was a brash, young upstart looking to shake up the staid orchestra and its aging subscriber base. Now settling into early middle age, he must deal with a new set of hurdles: an impending musicians strike, difficult board members and a younger challenger to the throne.

For the 37-year-old Mexican actor, the series has served as a crash course in classical music, a field of which he knew little prior to the first season.

"I've been sinking my teeth as much as I can into Beethoven and Mozart," he said in an interview during a recent stop in L.A. "I haven't even touched Bach."

He added: "It's a whole world of its own — the passions. There's a lot of drama for something that is so abstract."

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For the second season, the crash course took on real dimensions when Bernal shot a scene in July with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, conducting the overture to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

He also received a lesson in conducting from Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra's music director and ostensible inspiration for the Rodrigo character. (Dudamel puts in a cameo appearance in the first episode of the new season.)

The actor said Dudamel taught him the basics of the podium as well as some of the interpersonal aspects that inevitably come with leading a company.

"He helped me to get an insight into the world of politics in classical music," recalled Bernal. "And the emotions that come together too. It's an emotionally packed group of people."

As for conducting live in front of an actual Bowl audience: "It's one of the most intense experiences I've ever had. The most nerve-racking."

"Mozart in the Jungle" provides Bernal with a rare opportunity to show off his comedic acting skills. The actor rose to international prominence in such weighty dramas as "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mamá También," "Babel" and "The Motorcycle Diaries."

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His comedic timing is reminiscent of that from Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s, said Paul Weitz, a director, writer and producer for the series.

He has "eccentricity, charm and sexual magnetism. I don't want to go too far, but it's akin to what Cary Grant used to get away with."

Weitz credits the actor with coming up with some of the series' recurring jokes, including Rodrigo's endearing mispronunciation of his assistant's name, Hailey "Hyly" Rutledge, played by Lola Kirke. (The flip side of the joke is that no one dares correct him.)

In reality, Bernal can pronounce Hailey just fine. "I always joke that nobody can pronounce my name," the actor said. "I can say Peter, but no one can say Gael [guy-EL]."

The second season continues to explore the awkward attraction between Rodrigo and Hailey. The first season concluded with a spontaneous backstage kiss between the two characters.

"I think one day they will end up together. They are kind of made for each other," said Bernal.

But Hailey, who plays the oboe and aspires to a seat in the orchestra, is still entangled with her dancer boyfriend and remains wary of mixing business and pleasure.

The new season also develops the professional relationship between Rodrigo and the orchestra's chairwoman, Gloria (Bernadette Peters), who serves as a surrogate mother figure to the conductor.

After an all-night bacchanal gets him thrown out of his luxury apartment, Rodrigo goes to live with Gloria in her Upper West Side townhouse. Later in the season, he must deal with the return of his wildly unstable ex-wife as well as the orchestra's upcoming tour of Latin America.

The series shot the Latin American scenes in and around Mexico City. In one sequence, the orchestra plays with a youth group reminiscent of Venezuela's El Sistema music education program.

For Bernal, one of the more challenging aspects of playing Rodrigo is having to play, or at least imitate playing, the violin. Like Dudamel, Rodrigo studied the violin before making the transition to the conductor's podium.

"The violin is the only instrument that you can't pick up when you get older," the actor said. "I got the hang of it a little. But it doesn't feel natural. I still don't have the violin hickey," he said, referring to the small bruise that many professional violinists develop at the spot where the violin makes contact with the neck.

When he's not acting, Bernal said he divides his time between New York, Buenos Aires and Mexico. "Those three places — that's enough," he said.

The actor and the series are nominated for Golden Globe Awards, to be held Jan. 10. He also stars in the upcoming immigration-themed thriller "Desierto," directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón.

Bernal is already thinking about future episodes of "Mozart in the Jungle," even though there has been no official word from Amazon about a third season.

"One area we haven't explored is opera," he said. "There are a lot of characters in the opera world."

Bernal said he would like to see Plácido Domingo make a guest appearance on the series: "I'm going to start the approach."


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Mozart' star hits right note - CELEBRITIES" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe