“I’m a tropical bird,” Gael García Bernal explains, giving a little shiver as he zips up his gilet and looks longingly at the door. He has been trapped in this dark basement room in a central London studio all morning and is craving daylight. Signed movie posters plaster the walls. Three stale uneaten croissants sit on a side table. A potted plant attempts to survive.
The Mexican actor is on the promotional circuit for Neruda, a film depicting the dissident Chilean communist poet Pablo Neruda’s time on the run. Set in the late 1940s, the film is no conventional biopic – part political thriller, part slapstick police chase, part melodrama, it plays with genres and the poetry of its protagonist.
And although Bernal has been sitting in the dark discussing his role in Neruda all day, he remains impeccably polite and boyishly eager to tell me about it all over again. He plays the fictional police inspector, Óscar Peluchonneau, tasked with tracking down the revolutionary escapee.
Played by Bernal as hapless, sincere and lacking any power, Peluchonneau suggests he knows he’s an invention of his quarry (and of the director Pablo Larraín, a long-time collaborator of Bernal’s): “I don’t care that Neruda created me, or that he made me a supporting character. I created me too!”
Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau in Neruda. Photos: Neruda stills
Bernal found his fame in 2001’s cult coming-of-age hit Y Tu Mamá También as a pretty young teen on a sexual adventure. Now nearly 40, with two children, he looks remarkably unchanged from that youthful character – eyes just as green and piercing, lips just as bee-stung – aside from a few flecks of grey in his hair, and a brush of stubble.
He has played a number of anti-establishment political roles: Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Fidel, and an advertising whizz turned anti-government propagandist in No. So how does it feel to be playing an authority figure for a change?
“He’s an authority figure who doesn’t have much authority!” Bernal grins. His facial expressions do all the talking, as he tucks his compact frame into a chair, legs crossed and hands plunged into the pockets of his skinny navy cords.
“I’m always amazed by the amount of resources and passion and nightmares the establishment has when trying to shut one person down,” he boggles, eyes widening. “Oh my god! How do we stop this person from thinking? By killing them! But still, as the old adage says, ‘you can kill the person, but you can’t kill the ideas.’”
Bernal has thought deeply about why the character he plays in Neruda – working-class, the son of a prostitute, “the type of marginalised person of society that would’ve been the natural recipient of Neruda’s poetry” – isn’t beguiled by the anti-establishment hero or communism in general.
“Why is that? Why is the poetry that Neruda does to incorporate people into society, to empower the workforce, why is it that all of a sudden some people decide to go for the opposite – the fascist pathway?” he asks. “A short-lived, implosive, superficial and non-creative pathway that hasn’t any answers, doesn’t exercise the freedom of a person?”
Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau in Neruda.
He leans forward in his chair, eyes ever wider, his cotton scarf unravelling in all the excitement. “Maybe that’s something we have to reflect on in what’s happening nowadays. To make a really broad, stupid and feeble example – but Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for example, were talking to the same people. People who feel outside, a precarious condition in their work. They could’ve chosen one side or the other – obviously the Trump side is the worst side!” he laughs.
I’ve been told not to ask about Trump, who was elected nine days before our interview in November. But it’s Bernal who brings him up, and is so infuriated by Trump that he can talk of little else.
“It’s fucked up,” he says. “I feel emotionally blackmailed, betrayed. Now we can say, there is a lot of racism, classism, xenophobia, fear of the other, in the United States. It is not the country that they have always manifested themselves to be, which are the ‘good guys’ of the movie. It’s not like that anymore. If you compare it even to Berlusconi or to Hugo Chavez in terms of populist movements, Donald Trump is ten times the caricature of them.”
“It kind of puts things into order, in a way,” he adds, bitterly. “The United States is not that ‘Leader of the Free World’ anymore – how they wanted to see themselves.”
Bernal has long been involved in politics, particularly in highlighting the plight of Latino migrants at the hands of the US authorities. In his 2013 documentary, Who Is Dayani Cristal?, he pieces together the journey and story of a central American migrant worker who died trying to cross the border into the United States.
Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau in Neruda.
He has spoken out against Trump’s comments about Mexicans “bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists”, and the infamous promise of a border wall.
“I think about the little Mexican girl who’s growing up there [in the US], who is eight years old, listening to this presidential candidate saying that her parents, or grandparents, are rapists and criminals,” he says, looking down at his hands.
“Talk about the worst statesmanship. It doesn’t bring people together – on the contrary, it establishes and empowers racism and fear of the other. And fucking hell, we don’t have time for that. We have to fight against that. And it’s a fight. The war is on. It needs to be battled on all fronts. It’s enough.”
Bernal is effusive about migration, calling it “a natural phenomenon, something that will always be there” and lamenting what he sees as the US government “criminalising” it.
“Migration is something that has to be so valued and so promoted. If that guy Donald Trump would’ve travelled not in his jet, but in a proper way – in a way that normal people travel – he would’ve realised and been less of an asshole,” he sighs.
“They [migrants] cannot organise and form a union, form something that challenges the status quo . . . We definitely have to be radical on those points of view, we can’t be centre. We cannot be Clintonian in that horrendous sense.”
After a passionate speech in favour of radical politics, Bernal eventually pauses, shoots me an apologetic look, and shyly remarks that, “it sounds like first-grade, secondary school politics”. It doesn’t, but it’s clear Bernal’s boyhood influences his politics today. He was a migrant himself. At 19, he moved from Mexico to London to study drama, working illegally in bars and a restaurant for £2.40 an hour.
“Being a poor student here in London is quite dire,” he laughs. “It was either a beer or going to the cinema. It’s a difficult place – it’s run by money, and the transport is so fucking expensive! My sister was telling me how much the Tube is now and I just cannot believe it!”
Perhaps lucky then that he’s not allowed to leave the studio, even if he is given the freedom to veer dramatically off-script. When I get up to leave, I thank him for the interview. “No, thank you,” he says, politely standing up and glancing imploringly at his publicist. “I need the sunshine,” he begs. “I want to see the light.”
Neruda is in UK cinemas 7 April.