The Mexican actor is brilliant in his darkest role yet

Gael Garcia Bernal has made a career of playing unique characters. In James Marsh's The King, he plays Elvis, a dangerous and confused young man trying to reconcile with his long lost father (William Hurt). After being summarily dismissed as his son, Elvis entrances his unaware half-sister (Pell James) into a twisted and perverse relationship. The film is very similar to a Greek tragedy. Religion is its central theme and will surely raise some eyebrows in the conservative Christian sect. Gael is brilliant as Elvis and continues to prove his immense versatility. He has two very different films also being released this year, Michelle Gondry's The Science of Sleep, and Alejandro Inarritu's Babel with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.

This is clearly you're darkest role to date. What attracted you to it?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I think it was the complexity of mixing all the classical tragedy elements into a very simple story. Then you add a backdrop like Corpus Christi, Texas. What do you when you do something like that in modern day situations? How do you play with it? How do you solve it? It's a bit like theatre in a sense, to find out how to play this story. That's what attracted me to it. Also, the challenge of playing a character from the United States and his search for identity in an extreme situation, that's actually more real than anything else I've been in. There are kids that are like this. For some to be accepted, they have to do so many perverse things, like shed blood for their country.

What role does religion play in this film?

Gael Garcia Bernal: Religion, it's never ending. I think the film ultimately gives a glimpse on how pure and unrestricted faith is. If you pervert faith, if you play with faith for your own self satisfaction, then you create a veil which doesn't allow you to see the world or your past. That's what you are. To be absolved, especially if you commit a crime, there is no absolution, you must pay. But for forgiveness, with God or nature, you have to accept what you've done. I think the problem with William [Hurt's] character is he doesn't want to accept his past. Because Elvis might not be his son...he might not be his dad. It tells the classical story of be careful of what you do, because you never know. Bringing a baby into the world is not like grilling enchiladas. It's a difficult thing.

Elvis, even after doing these despicable things, still retains a kind of sweetness to his character. Talk about playing that duality.

Gael Garcia Bernal: Yes, but I'm relating it to characters I've seen, that do things like that, that are likeable. I think it has to do with being complete and understanding that he does things because he doesn't know any better. It makes us feel moved by the character.

What was it like working with director James Marsh?

Gael Garcia Bernal: He comes from a very different background. He comes from directing documentaries. In documentaries, you put the camera everywhere and choose what to tell. You want to capture everything. In this case, you can't do that, but you have other choices. Is the tee shirt going to be red or white? You have to choose things that are more practical. That was really the difference.

So did he choose for you, or were you allowed to make choices?

Gael Garcia Bernal: That's what was so great. He didn't have to make the choices sometimes. He told us, you know the characters, and you know what you're doing when we rehearsed. He knew we understood.

You had a very short and grueling shooting schedule. What's it like to work under such circumstances?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I can't recall many things because we shot three years ago, but we were very, very pressured.

You shot in twenty-four days. Were you able to get enough takes?

Gael Garcia Bernal: We did enough to make it feel comfortable, but at a very fast past. It did feel like a burden sometimes.

James has said you had ten to eleven set-ups a day, which is incredible. How do you keep your acting energy up at such a pace?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I'm pretty used to working in little films where you have to go so quickly. How do I keep my energy up; by drinking green tea, by just concentrating completely. You arrive and you use your time wisely. There's time for rest and it should be used for rest. You need concentration to get into the thing, then you get the energy.

I've seen Michelle Gondry's The Science of Sleep, another one of your upcoming films. You speak Spanish, French, and English. As for as your speech, do you get specifically directed on accents and specific brogues?

Gael Garcia Bernal: You try it out in rehearsals. I love rehearsals and I love creating a character, sticking with it until you have something to tell. It's always different though. Sometimes a director will tell you from day one what they want. Then you throw in your idea.

The dream sequences in the film are really strange and creative. How are those written in the script?

Gael Garcia Bernal: He [Michelle Gondry] drew pictures. That was the only way we could see what he was talking about.

You've played a variety of characters in your career so far. What have been your favorites?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I liked playing Che Guevara. I miss the characters from Y Tu Mama Tambien. They were amazing guys. The other day I was speaking to the director and Diego Luna. We felt so much for those guys and how sad the ending was. What would they be doing now?

Could you ever do a sequel to that movie?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I don't think that would ever happen, but who knows? We said that they don't see each other ever again. But who knows? I would like to keep trying different things. I would like to do a silent movie. I would like to continue working in different languages. I would like to do something in Italian and Portuguese. Those are the closest ones I can speak.

What can you tell us about Babel? What was it like working with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt?

Gael Garcia Bernal: I was pretty excited to meet Cate Blanchett. She's great, she's amazing, I think she's one of the most beautiful women in the universe. And I mean the universe, not the world. But I haven't met them; we're in different parts of the story. That wasn't the reason I wanted to do it, but I was excited to possibly meet them. It's going to be fun to meet them and say, hey, we were in the same film together. It'll be exciting to meet them at Cannes.

The King opened May 19th from THINKFilm and is currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Julian Roman at Movieweb
Julian Roman