Gael García Bernal Says the Latinx Community Shouldn't Ask for Permission to Make It in Hollywood (Exclusive)
By Liz Calvario
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Gael García Bernal has had a busy year, promoting the release of his second directorial feature, Chicuarotes.
Premiering in Mexico earlier this year before screening at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Chicuarotes is an unconventional coming-of-age tale about two teenage boys, Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal), who turn to crime and violence as a means to get out of their small town of San Gregorio. Add Cagalera's abusive and alcoholic father, a kidnapping gone wrong and a twisted neighbor with bad intentions, and you have a story that is, at times, hard to swallow.
The film comes just over a decade after his directorial debut, Déficit, which was released in 2007. Following Déficit, the actor, who first garnered attention in the U.S. for his role in Y Tu Mamá También, has since won a Golden Globe for the Amazon original series, Mozart in the Jungle, appeared opposite Amanda Seyfried and Kate Hudson in various rom-coms and has lent his voice to the Oscar-winning animated film, Coco. Busy with back-to-back projects, the actor also spent that time trying to find the right story for his follow-up.
So, when Augusto Mendoza's script came his way, it instantly sparked his curiosity because the tale was so different from anything he's personally experienced. Aside from wanting to know more about the small Mexico City town, Bernal became fascinated with exploring a story about a child who grows up in a home where there is a lack of love, and how it affects them in the long run.
"I've been very fortunate to grow up in a very loving family," Bernal tells ET. "I wanted to know how it felt and see the tragic consequences of being born in a place where you are not loved, and the consequences that can have on someone. I also wanted to find out if there was a way out in this cycle of violence."
For Bernal -- who began his acting career as a teen starring in Mexican soap operas before becoming a breakout star in Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2000 Oscar-nominated drama Amores Perros -- making films is a "transversal sociological analysis," he says. The actor looks for ways to engage in issues that he's unfamiliar with, explore the gray areas to "make people laugh," deconstruct norms and share new narratives -- something he hopes to achieve with Chicuarotes.
"There were many moments when I said, 'We have to do this' and 'Definitely, this is it!'" he says of finally deciding to get back in the director's chair. Then on his way to a friend's wedding, he was on a plane re-reading the script and knew it was time. Once he was back in Mexico City, he went to San Gregorio and outlined a plan of action. "And little by little it started to unfold," he recalls.
"One of the last moments was when we found who was going to play Cagalera," Bernal continues. "[Emmanuel] is a wonderful actor and we knew that if we didn't have that actor, we didn't have a film. So it wasn't until we found him, or rather he found us, that's when we said, 'Yes, we have a film. Let's play with it.'"
Bernal's projects come to him in various forms, whether he's asked by a director to star in their film or touched by a story he must be a part of, as was the case with Chicuarotes. And while talking to the Guadalajara, Jalisco, native, it doesn't take long to realize that he's passionate about everything he works on. Very fortunate to have landed or been able to handpick acting roles over the past two decades, it's the actor's pro-active and "just do it" attitude that has also gotten him to where he is today.
Bernal is all about creating opportunities for oneself and helping others share their ideas.
In 2005, he and Diego Luna, along with Elena Fortes, founded Documental Ambulante A.C, a non-profit committed to supporting and promoting documentary film as a tool for social and cultural change. Bernal and Luna also co-founded the production company Canana Films, which has backed many award-winning movies, before leaving in 2018. Shortly after, the two launched a new film-TV company, La Corriente del Golfo (Gulfstream in English), which co-produced Chicuarotes and has allowed the Golden Globe winner to continue to champion new talent and stories in his native country.
While diversity in Hollywood has become a major topic in recent years, Latinx representation onscreen in the U.S. is dismal. According to a new study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of the 100 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018, only three percent of the films had Latinx actors in lead or co-lead roles and only 4.5 percent of the speaking characters were Latinx. The numbers are puzzling as, per the report, Hispanics make up 20 percent of moviegoers and 18 percent of the U.S. population.
During his time at TIFF, Bernal screened Chicuarotes while two of his upcoming screen roles -- in longtime collaborator Pablo Larraín's Ema and Olivier Assayas' Wasp Network -- also made their North American debuts. When asked about the latter's outstanding Hispanic cast -- which includes Penélope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Ana de Armas, Leonardo Sbaraglia and more -- he isn't at all shocked to see such an inclusive ensemble.
"We do that all the time in Mexico," he says when asked about whether a cast like this would exist if it wasn't for the subject matter. "I don't know about in Hollywood. You're probably inquiring about Hollywood. I don't know. I have no idea."
While Latinxs, specifically Spanish and Mexican-born directors, actors and cinematographers, like Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki, have all recently won Academy Awards, there's been a lack of U.S.-born Latinxs receiving recognition for their contributions to Hollywood.
Bernal, on his end, thinks people just need to take more risks, not hold back, and if the opportunities aren't there, make your own. "It is something that needs to be addressed in the United States. Everyone needs to start making films ASAP, especially the Latino community," he says. "It is important to hear those voices, especially now that the Latino community is put under so much stress in that country."
The Mozart in the Jungle star stresses that Latinxs in the U.S. need to "not behave well" and "be brave" enough to share their stories and perspectives, whether the door to Hollywood is opened for them or not. "It's about getting out there and just creating the films, really, because that is how we all began, not asking permission to do it," he proclaims. "That's the only way that there is going to be a good culture of films, because it's really needed."
Bernal has previously shared that he, personally, hasn't seen a U.S. Latinx filmmaker making waves in cinema "in a long time" but says it would be really interesting to see one. "That's the thing," he notes. "[People need to] not do what's expected and not do the typical film. It's about doing mischievous things."
And that may be the secret ingredient to his success -- that and a sense of freedom. "Life is so much bigger and there are so many things to learn and tell," the actor says. "I would say that one of the things that has been wonderful about making films is [the feeling of] being completely free. Being free is something essential and that is, perhaps, the ultimate success."
"My feeling is to inspire and to keep on being free and looking for that," Bernal concludes. "But to also inspire other people to search for that freedom."
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