A leading man of the world

Times Staff Writer

THERE ought to be a name for them, “Gael’s Groupies” or “Bernal’s Babes” -- something like that. Pleasant, seemingly respectable women who turn into starry-eyed teeny-boppers in the presence of Gael Garcia Bernal.

Women, for instance, like Win Beaumont and her daughter, Christine. “He’s so young, and he’s done so much,” the elder Beaumont gushes about the man who, according to Google, is the most famous Mexican this side of Frida Kahlo or Pancho Villa. “If he can get me going -- and I’m 80! And his acting can only improve as he gets older.”

Christine, 57, nodding, scans the lobby of Britain’s National Film Theatre. “Do you think there’s a stage door?” she asks her mum hopefully.


It’s a brisk fall night on the banks of the Thames, but the NFT crowd is acting all hot and bothered. The object of their anticipation, Garcia Bernal, has come to town to lend his celebrity aura to “Mexican Cinema Now,” a six-week tribute to the country’s celluloid renaissance.

Specifically, Garcia Bernal is on hand for a screening of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), the steamy revisionist road movie that transformed him and his best-friend costar, Diego Luna, into international leading men. When the actor mounts the stage for a Q&A; following the film, you might think you’d traveled back to 1964 and landed at a Beatles concert.

Squeals! Cheers! Mad applause! “Viva Mexico!” someone shouts from a back row. “You look good as a girl!” blurts a young Brazilian woman, alluding to the actor’s tarted-up turn as an homme fatal in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” (2004). Bernal smiles.

Well, to be honest, he looks good as just about anything, doesn’t he? A conscience-stricken priest in “The Crime of Father Amaro.” A street punk who lives off the earnings of his killer canine in “Amores Perros.” A horny Chilango on the bumpy highway to self-awareness in “Y Tu Mama.” Or the youthful Ernesto “Che” Guevara of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” another bildungsroman with a social conscience, in which Garcia Bernal’s furrowed brow serves as a virtual Thomas Guide to the tortured South American soul.

Last year he was as visible as ever, appearing in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s much-feted “Babel” and taking the lead in Michel Gondry’s post-Freudian romantic fable “The Science of Sleep.” Garcia Bernal aficionados can look forward to more of the same in 2007 and beyond. He’ll be starring in Hector Babenco’s “El Pasado” (The Past), which chronicles a married couple’s difficult breakup, and is set to reteam with Luna as a pair of pro soccer players in Carlos Cuaron’s “Rudo y Cursi.”

Oh, and he also directed his first feature film, “Deficit,” which he describes as a “generational allegory” focusing on a group of young, upper-class Mexicans coping with the country’s ongoing socioeconomic upheavals.

More than a mere heartthrob, Garcia Bernal, 28, is something of a throwback, or possibly an endangered species: a non-Hollywood global glamour boy with the talent to back up the pin-up persona. Half a century ago, it seemed, there were lots of these guys and their female equivalents on the art-house circuit: Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau. Cosmopolitan actors with international appeal who managed to preserve a palpable connection to their own countries and cultures. But in the ensuing decades, as “foreign cinema” lost much of its old-school cachet, such performers have grown scarce. Garcia Bernal, the most recognizable Mexican actor since the Golden Age of Pedro Infante and Dolores Del Rio, possesses an allure that translates across many different subtitles, plus the big-screen charisma of a Hollywood star.

Yet the next day, as he slides into a restaurant near Spitalfields Market for a late lunch, he is the picture of casual anonymity. Wearing thick-frame glasses, a rumpled leather jacket and a faded David Bowie T-shirt, he could pass for a punk-rock drummer or a young acting student trying to find his way in the world, which is what he used to be not so long ago.

Garcia Bernal says he lived in this then-ungentrified neighborhood after turning away from the lucrative world of Mexican telenovelas, where he’d become a sensation while still in his teens. He left Mexico to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama, one of many odysseys that have led him to unexpected revelations.

“London is a great place that throws you, like if there was a bunch of lances pointing at your inner self, so that you deal with your introspection, your inner demons, thoughts and experiences,” he says. “I think that’s the reason why they [the British] are such great actors and actresses.” Though he has since moved back to Mexico City, for years he kept London as a base. “Maybe the road to discovery,” he reflects, “is to go to other places, not to those places that everyone goes to.”

Sticking to roads less traveled by, Garcia Bernal has arrived at an Andean summit that most performers his age only glimpse on the far horizon. He has done so despite having shot only one film to date in the United States, James Marsh’s 2005 indie release “The King.”


Beautiful chameleon

AT an age when many screen actors either are still struggling to find their identities, or already have been locked into type, Garcia Bernal has achieved one of the most impressively promiscuous list of credits since Marlon Brando, in a comparable six-year span, churned out “The Men,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata!” “The Wild One,” “On the Waterfront” and “Guys and Dolls.” (Brando then was slightly older than Garcia Bernal is now.)

In the process, just as Brando did, Garcia Bernal has crafted a compelling record of his personal passage from flaming youth to tangled manhood. “That’s what’s so extreme about filmmaking. It is the epidermis of yourself, you know?” Bernal says. “Films are a fingerprint of what you are at that moment.”

Emotionally open and intensely thoughtful, Bernal seems very comfortable in his own epidermis. Though physically slight at 5 feet 7, he possesses an outsize magnetism, with a face whose handsomeness is more than the sum of its parts: the alert eyes, the Mick Jagger lips, the artfully tousled Greyhound-bus hair.

Garcia Bernal’s comeliness has a chameleon quality; as one fan observed on an all-things-Gael website, in “Bad Education” he looks prettier than Julia Roberts. But his beauty sports a masculine stubble, a dark asymmetry that side-steps androgyny, unlike certain of his chiseled-cheekbone peers.

He projects a combination of earnestness and recklessness, adolescent mischievousness and mature introspection, that’s much more intriguing than standard-issue Latin macho. It’s a sensibility that communicates across cultural and language barriers, inclusive of octogenarian English matrons.

Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of “Motorcycle Diaries,” said in an e-mail interview that Garcia Bernal’s “richness” as an actor “lies in the fact that his intelligence and curiosity have granted him a much more complex understanding of life than a guy of his age normally has -- and that becomes palpable in the roles that he plays.”

Even as Garcia Bernal’s popularity has propelled him into acting jobs across the world, he holds fast to his Mexican identity. That sense of attachment to his native culture, he believes, has had a liberating effect on his career. “I feel completely free to be whatever,” Bernal says. “But also in Mexico, as well, I can do whatever I want, behaving a certain way. Actually, if I was an actor from the United States it would be incredibly hard, because I would be pigeon-holed immediately.”

Garcia Bernal is regarded as royalty by the Mexican media and public, which take a proprietary attitude toward him, Luna, Salma Hayek and the rest of the country’s talented young offspring. But Mexico’s chattering classes are equally quick to raise a hue and cry about any perceived celebrity slight or faux pas.

If, for example, Garcia Bernal politely declines to sign an autograph while he’s in the middle of dinner, he says, “that’s something that in Mexico they pick up a lot on -- ‘Oh, he didn’t give me an autograph, he’s lost it.’ And it’s funny because it’s so ephemeral and so trivial.”

Daniela Michel, director of the Morelia International Film Festival in the Mexican state of Michoacan, notes that Garcia Bernal has continued to be a staunch advocate for Mexican and Latin American film, using his star power to help other artists and draw attention to social causes he cares about. She points, for example, to his helping to launch the Ambulante traveling documentary film festival last year.

“He puts his money where his mouth his,” Michel says. “Gael wouldn’t be Gael if he’d made [other] choices, going to Hollywood immediately after ‘Amores Perros.’ ”

For Garcia Bernal, both in his craft and in his life, the journey appears to matter as much as the destination, and each picaresque ramble leads him into a deeper encounter with the world and himself. His latest films extend that spirit of productive wanderlust. In “Babel,” he’s a well-meaning but reckless man whose anger-management issues boil over disastrously at a border crossing. In “The King,” he plays the vaguely creepy, long-lost son of a Texas minister (William Hurt) and a prostitute.

And in “The Science of Sleep,” he’s a Mexican misfit in Paris, afloat in an absurdist dreamscape of job frustration, erotic longing and unresolved family issues. Garcia Bernal’s beguiling performance has some of the comic grace and bemused innocence of the old silent film stars, with a Buster Keaton-ish body language that suits the movie’s visually lyrical style.

One of the film’s many whimsical interludes finds him performing in a rock combo dressed in a bear or wolf costume, looking like Max in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Just try picturing [insert name of your favorite Hollywood actor under 30 here] pulling that off and still cracking the top 20 of People’s Sexiest Man Alive list.


The traveler

ALFONSO CUARON, who directed Garcia Bernal in “Y Tu Mama” and also is one of his closest friends, says the actor’s selectiveness in choosing film roles and directors comes from his desire to keep learning and challenging himself.

“He never fell into the easy seduction of trying to have a career, the easy thing of taking the roles that will expose him to mainstream audiences,” Cuaron says. “He knows, whatever he does, it’s like a marathon.”

Like Mastroianni, who cut a debonair-comic swath as a kind of anti-Latin lover, Garcia Bernal has gravitated toward roles that simultaneously enhance and slyly subvert his Lothario image. His knight-errant outings usually have a self-mocking twist. In the final frames of “Science of Sleep,” Garcia Bernal’s character sweeps up his beloved not on a trusty white steed, but a giant stuffed-toy pony. In “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Garcia Bernal’s dashing Guevara and his faithful Sancho Panza sidekick (Rodrigo de la Serna) trek across South America on a woozy Norton 500 motorbike. Garcia Bernal says that he and De la Serna, as well as Salles, felt that it was important in making “Motorcycle Diaries” to create an experience that would parallel the famous road trip. So they did.

“I was single as well, and going around in circles [in relationships], traveling a lot, and I was up for sleeping wherever the rain dictated that we had to stay,” he recalls.

“It was a very interesting anthropological experiment, and cinematic experiment as well,” he continues. “If that symbiosis wouldn’t have happened, that hybrid between our experience and [the characters’] experience wouldn’t have happened, the film wouldn’t have anything to say, really, because then it would become a revisionist type of movie that we’re so used to seeing, and also very shallow on a very important and deep theme, just as a journey of discovery of Ernesto or any young kid in Latin America, in those days and nowadays. That’s the conclusion that we reached as well, that it could’ve been anyone.”

Salles notes that Garcia Bernal’s interests were in many ways similar to Guevara’s. “He was reading the same books, Camus, Celine. That kind of predisposition really created a situation which made me consider him one of the co-authors of the film.”

The character Garcia Bernal says he most identifies with is Julio Zapata in “Y Tu Mama,” a spoiled hedonist who discovers life’s tragic side and his own hidden psychological depths during the course of a trip to a mystical beach with his gleefully crude friend (Luna) and an alluring older Spanish woman (Maribel Verdu). “I grew up in a very similar situation as Julio,” Garcia Bernal says. “I support [Mexico City soccer team] Pumas, I made a journey with friends to the beach many times. It is the role that I have much more in common with.”

According to Garcia Bernal, the process of making of “Y Tu Mama,” like that of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” mirrored the movie’s plot and themes. He credits this to his fellow actors and Cuaron’s skill in creating a supportive but free-thinking atmosphere.

That combination of discipline and go-with-the-flow attitude paid dividends in the movie’s memorable sex scenes, including the climactic menage a trois that seals the emotional pretzel logic among the three leads. According to Garcia Bernal, it was Verdu who took charge of her younger male costars when the going got hot. “Thanks to Maribel, really she was the one that grabbed our hands and put them on top of the boiling pots and in the oven, you know? She was the one that dared.”

Even when playing oversexed, self-centered boy-men, Garcia Bernal still comes off as “a good sport who couldn’t be unappealing if he tried,” as Anthony Lane of the New Yorker wrote in his review of “Science of Sleep.” Lane’s assertion may be put to the test if Garcia Bernal gets cast as the villain opposite Matt Damon in Universal’s upcoming third installment of the Bourne story, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” as the Hollywood buzz machine has it.


A curious youth

THE narrative of Garcia Bernal’s outward-bound career trek begins in Guadalajara, where as a child he began performing in plays with his actor-parents when he a toddler. By the time he was a teenager, in the early 1990s, he was starring in the hit soap opera “El Abuelo y Yo” (“The Grandfather and I”).

In 1996, at 15, he captured the lead role in the Oscar-nominated short film “De Tripas, Corazon” (“Guts and Heart”), a divertissement about a carnally curious milk-delivery boy in a provincial Mexican town who’s smitten with an older female prostitute.

“That’s basically the best film you can do about a young kid, no?” Garcia Bernal says. “I mean, the discovery of sexuality coming amongst the whole discovery of oneself. ‘The 400 Blows’ really gave a lot to cinema, when it came out, because it started the trend of these films about young kids searching for something.”

He then name-checks several other cinematic examples, such as “My Life as a Dog,” plus landmark literary works that chart the long, hard slog toward maturity: J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”; “Un Hilito de Sangre” (“A Trickle of Blood”) by the Mexican writer Eusebio Ruvalcaba; and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which Garcia Bernal found “very close-minded” and “macho,” despite its outlaw-hipster pose.

Two other literary works had heavy influences on his bookworm-ish youth: Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and “A Hero of Our Time,” Mikhail Lermontov’s 1839 short novel about a classic Byronic protagonist, an upper-class Russian army officer sent to bring “civilization” to the Chechens and the Cossacks. Instead, he winds up becoming a tyrannical tribal leader, rather like the British soldiers in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.”

“I read it when I was 16, and it completely shifted me,” Bernal says. “First of all, it was the opening of Russian literature, which ever since, nonstop, I’ve been rejoicing in and reading that. I read it before reading ‘Brothers Karamazov.’ It was a beautiful awakening to something that was so silent to me.”

Lermontov’s story also possesses what “On the Road” lacks, he says: ironic wit. It deals with “fighting against one’s own demons,” he says, “with irony and with intelligence and with delicacy.”

Since his breakout performance in “Amores Perros,” few demons, or roadblocks, have impeded Garcia Bernal’s ascent. The chief, predictable aggravation has been the tabloid-style media prying into his private life, which he guards closely, though not obsessively. His name has been linked romantically with Natalie Portman and Argentine actress Dolores Fonzi, and inevitably, some in the Mexican media and the blogosphere have fanned speculation about Garcia Bernal’s erotic tastes after his and Luna’s smoldering kiss in “Y Tu Mama.” Garcia Bernal takes the blather in stride.

“You would expect that after ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ people would shout at us something or whatever,” he says. “I haven’t had a single person dare say something like that. Because that film puts it out there as well, that it’s not about who’s gay or who isn’t, it’s about who’s close-minded or who isn’t, I think.”

There’s that term again -- “close-minded.” It pops up often in his speech, along with a handful of Britishisms (“whilst,” “bonkers”) that he picked up during his London sojourn. Clearly, Garcia Bernal has determined to keep his own options wide open.

To that end, he’s maintaining his commitments to projects such as AIDS prevention awareness in the developing world, for which he recently was commended by the organization Aid for AIDS. He has spoken out against U.S. immigration policy toward Mexico and joined other celebrities with Oxfam in lobbying the World Trade Organization to change a global trading system that he believes skews damagingly in favor of rich developed nations.

In a way, Garcia Bernal’s biggest political and artistic commitment is his decision to remain, for now, in his homeland. Mexico has suffered through a chaotic year marred by a disputed presidential election, violent clashes between striking teachers and the governor of impoverished Oaxaca state, and an epidemic of brutal drug-related crime. Yet Garcia Bernal chooses to stay.

“Any explanation of why I like living there changes from day to day, and I still don’t have it very well dissected,” he says. “My family is there, my friends are there ... I feel in touch with the territory.

“And I feel I still have kind of an effervescent ideal of thinking that there is an initiative that you’re born with, about trying to make the place where you are born better.... I want to go into this journey and into this pathway that I’m meant to live, not because somebody told me, but because I’m trying to be congruent with myself.”

“The best way I can put it,” he concludes, “I don’t want to become an exile of myself.”

And with that thought, and a polite goodbye, he heads out into the London rush-hour in search of the next empty road.