Gael García Bernal Is Always Ready for a Surprise

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Gael García Bernal has starred in numerous award-nominated films and TV series, worked with acclaimed directors like Alfonso Cuarón, and sung his heart out in Pixar’s “Coco” (2017). This year, the 45-year-old actor went to the mat for his latest project, Roger Ross Williams’ “Cassandro.” Bernal portrays Saúl Armendáriz, the real-life Mexican American wrestler who rose to fame in the luchador world as the titular exótico. Here, he discusses how he connected to his character and reflects on the early days of his career.

How did you prepare to play Cassandro, both as an actor and physically?

It was through the physicality. I trained [for] six months before [filming began]. I started to gain weight and do a lot of strength and flexibility [exercises]. Two months before shooting, I started to do proper wrestling training. Then, the costume—this flamboyant costume that Cassandro uses—was so helpful. That’s also something I recommend: Through the body is the best way to enter a character. Every day, you will connect with something; you breathe differently, you speak differently. Then you put the costume on, and that’s it—you have a character.

What was more challenging: wrestling in “Cassandro” or singing in “Coco”?

It is more difficult for me to sing. I love it, but I don’t sing [incredibly well], for sure. With wrestling, there was time to prepare. I’ve always been very monkeylike; I’ve always jumped up and down, and done splits and somersaults. When I was a kid, [if] parkour [had] existed, I think I would have been a parkour guy.

At the beginning of your career, what were your criteria for deciding on projects, and has that shifted over the years?

I still follow that [same] criteria. But at the same time, it becomes a bit more complex from the reality-check perspective. I have four kids, [including] my stepdaughter, so I have to take that into account. But on the other hand, I have to accede to the curiosities that excite me; I have to listen to that very carefully. That has always led to really great things. If there’s a film from Sri Lanka that they’re inviting me to do, I go, Let’s see what this is, because I’ve never been there. Sometimes I used to [look at] films like: How far can they get me? But then, also, I have to be good at listening to myself in what I can access. It used to be said that in order to create something, you had to suffer, you had to have a bad time. But for me, if I’m not enjoying it, I think I disconnect.

Gael García Bernal and Perla de la Rosa COURTESY Prime Video

Gael García Bernal and Perla de la Rosa in “Cassandro” Courtesy Prime Video

What’s something you’re proud of from early in your career?

I said no to many things before starting to work. I realized it was as important what I said no to [as] what I said yes to. The first movie I did was [Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s] “Amores Perros,” and then [Cuarón’s] “Y Tu Mamá También.” I could have done other things before, and maybe [those opportunities] wouldn’t have happened.

What’s your dream role?

I never think about [roles] this way, because I’m always ready for the surprise. I’m always excited about who sees something in me. That’s an important [thing] for actors to understand: There’s this notion that you have to convince the director that you’re able to play this part. You’re not going to convince anyone. We have to relax the pressure [on ourselves] as actors; we just have to be there. 

I would love to play period [roles] in Spanish, because I’ve never done that. There are very few films that are set…during the [colonial period] in Mexico or Latin America. There’s 300 years of history that we just don’t talk about.

What performance should every actor see and why?

I recommend everything that Vicky Krieps does, especially “Corsage”—[her] humbleness and openness. [She has] a certain strength that’s incredible. The ensemble of [“Il Sol Dell’Avvenire”] by Nanni Moretti. All of the performances in the [Martin] Scorsese movie “Killers of the Flower Moon”…are so good. There is a Brazilian film called “Pedágio.” The main actress, Maeve Jinkings—she’s amazing. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of Backstage Magazine.