Q&A: Gael García Bernal: The border thriller ‘Desierto’ is what happens when xenophobic hate speech is accepted

Actor and advocate Gael García Bernal stars in the Spanish-language film "Desierto."
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

To actor Gael García Bernal, migration is integral to life. It’s almost like breathing and eating — “It’s something that has saved humanity,” he said.

But if the rhetoric espoused during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle about illegal immigration is any indication, not everyone agrees with him. After all, Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has said unsavory things about Mexicans, African Americans and women, wants to build a wall on the U.S-Mexico border.

García Bernal’s latest film, “Desierto,” which opens in theaters Friday, is hoping to show what can happen when such “hate speech” and its associated sentiments goes unchecked and is socially accepted.

“[This movie] depicts our biggest nightmare that will come from division, hatred and from letting that type of rhetoric exist,” he said. “The platform is already set for something [major] to happen so there’s a lot of work to do to counter that and to bring people together to talk with positive, goodwill rhetoric about how we can continue on with the future.”

Written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, co-writer of his father Alfonso’s Oscar-winning film “Gravity,” “Desierto” is an immigration tale following Moises (García Bernal) who, after living in Oakland without proper immigration documents, was deported to Mexico after being detained for a parking violation. In an effort to rejoin his family, carrying the stuffed bear he promised to return to his son, he crosses the U.S. border on foot with a group of others seeking the American dream. Their lives, however, are threatened by a Confederate flag-toting racist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) taking border patrol into his own hands — with his hunting dog and shotgun in tow.


A trailer for “Desierto,” starring Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

The dramatic thriller, which is primarily in Spanish (with English subtitles), was first conceived by Cuarón almost six years ago and “slowly, naturally started to take shape” after he brought the idea to García Bernal, who is an outspoken advocate about the plight of migrants worldwide.

“We didn’t even spend much time building the character because I felt like I had already done the background on him,” García Bernal said.

He did however have to prepare for the heat of the “lush desert” of Baja California’s La Paz, which made the high-intensity, physically demanding action sequences “difficult and exhausting.” But it was worth it, he said, especially seeing how approaching an immigration tale through the lens of an action thriller allows one to “tell the whole complexity of emotions.”

“You can really narrow the distance between one character and another. That’s why in action movies the villain is sometimes [a sympathetic character],” he said. “Action erases difference in an interesting way. We went with less dialogue, less background story, less construction to make it more elemental and emotional.”

Just before the film’s premiere, which was delayed for nearly seven months by distributor STX Entertainment, The Times spoke with García Bernal via phone about “Desierto,” the U.S. election’s “empty and problematic” rhetoric around immigration and what lessons audiences should take from the picture.

Describe how “hate speech” manifests itself in the movie and what that highlights about real-life concerns around immigration.

Jeffrey’s character validates hate discourse by taking it upon himself to solve the situation. That is not very different from the many examples of that happening, on a wide scale and very personal scale, with [mass shootings in this country]. That’s what happens when hate discourse is constructed and accepted. And the hate speech comes from resentment and ignorance — to gain votes — directing the hate toward a certain group of people that are supposedly guilty of their situation, which they definitely are not.

The problem is that now, on an official, institutional level, we’re talking about governmental policies that should carry an inherent future inside of their ideas, but we’re using a rhetoric that capitalizes on fear of the other and on demonizing a certain group of people. You need to see the consequences of that, which might be someone pulling the trigger.

How do you judge how immigration is being addressed by the presidential candidates?

The last debate [on Oct. 9] was the most horrendous ever. I’ve seen some really horrible ones in Mexico and other places, but this was horrible because there was absolutely nothing mentioned about actual politics. It was a horrendous electoral reality show. We’re dealing with real people. Whenever they demonize migrants... they need to realize [migrants] are humans and they have been from the beginning.

How should the conversation about immigration be unfolding?

Understand the complexity of it. The reason we’re here is because we migrated. And the only way we will survive is by migrating, by coming and going. We have to do something about it because we’re criminalizing this journey. We’re putting the focus, worldwide, on the people that are the most innocent. It’s very easy to blame whatever is happening on immigrants. We’re [giving] many people criminal status, an illegal status, but they are not doing illegal or criminal things. They want to make things better, to work in society and embrace the ways of the place they’re going to, to embrace that freedom. It is an urgent matter, and these people deserve their human rights to be respected.

What lessons should audiences take from “Desierto?”

[This film is] here to present a problem, and everybody has to carry it. I’m very proud that it talks about issues we don’t talk about or don’t talk about in exactly the right way. We hope to show and [for people to] understand the inconsistencies of hypocritical speech. I hope this film sparks people to talk about this in a more succinct and directly beneficial way.

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.