NEW YORK — Gael Garcia Bernal clearly enjoys a bit of controversy. Tell him that his latest film, “The King,” out next week, received an early lashing in Variety for its unflinching violence and unpalatable incest and his hazel eyes light up.
“Really? Oh, that’s great publicity!” the Mexican actor exclaims with a toothy smile.
Bernal has already made plenty of provocative waves in the film world, from his breakout part in 2000’s “Amores Perros” to roles in “Y Tu Mamá También” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.” In “The King,” his first English-language film, he stars as Elvis, a young man discharged from the American Navy who comes to Corpus Christi, Tex., looking for his estranged father (William Hurt). He arrives to find his dad is a pastor, married with two kids and has little interest in the bastard child from his past. Elvis responds by seducing his half-sister, played by Pell James, an act that brings about a dark torrent of violence and retribution of Greek tragedy proportions.
“It’s a film that has a lot of issues I’m very interested in … incest, father and son, lost empire, the oracle, the kid that comes from the sea to regain his lost empire, territory, all of those things,” explains Bernal, 27, his disheveled shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail. “This kid is from the United States, but his father does not recognize him and his mother was a Mexican with no papers in the United States and a prostitute, so that leaves him behind in every single aspect of life, in terms of identity.”
When it comes to Elvis’ reprehensible actions, the actor is unwilling to pass judgment.
“I consider it wrong what he does, definitely,” he says, furrowing his brow in thought. “But at the same time, it is congruent with the type of life he’s had. He became a kind of killing machine … therefore, for him it’s pretty natural to solve his problems this way. That’s what’s scary about war and the Army and the Navy.”
Perhaps the most frightening part, though, is the serenity and cool with which Elvis carries out his revenge. It is a calm that is apparent in Bernal, too, as well as a playful self-assurance. Ask him his take on the less-desirable aspects of fame and he is wittily diplomatic.
“First of all, it’s really nice to be recognized by something you like doing. And then, on the other hand, I’m not paparazzi material; I’m not gossip material,” he insists, despite his well-deserved heartthrob status and recent reports that put him back with ex-girlfriend Natalie Portman. “I’m not aware of them, so it’s one of those things that don’t really exist. You know they’re quite frivolous and they last a bit less than a president of Argentina does during a crisis.”
Political references make frequent appearances in Bernal’s conversation. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to thespian parents, the actor participated in student demonstrations as a teenager. He began acting at 14 and even his move to London at 17 to pursue drama was precipitated by a strike at his university in Mexico, where he was studying philosophy. Now living in Mexico City, he remains committed to helping his country, though not in any high-profile, publicity-generating way.
“I don’t do charities. The thing is, when you’re from the United States, it’s called ‘charity,’ but when you’re from a poor country, it’s called ‘civil duty,'” he remarks wryly.
His latest endeavor in his homeland has been directing and starring in “The Deficit,” a film he is doing as part of the production company he founded with fellow countryman Diego Luna. Even this project elicits a typically mischievous explanation.
“It’s great because you don’t have to have any translation,” says Bernal of the movie’s title. “Some people will ask me, ‘What is deficit?’ But in America, nobody will ask me that.”