Gael García Bernal is well aware of the term short king. The Mexican actor-director-producer is 170 centimeters tall—around five feet seven—but the internet still claims him as one.
He doesn’t mind. His stature was only ever an issue in high school when he began to realize he wasn’t going to be some tall guy. “It’s not been a pain,” says García Bernal. Maybe he’s short for a superhero, which is fine, since he’s not very interested in ever playing one. “The superhero notion that they’re indestructible, [that] they will never die…” He shakes his head. Boring. Not his thing.
Instead, García Bernal has made an enviable career out of choosing thoughtful, understated roles. This is reflected in person, too. It’s late April and García Bernal has been staying in Nashville, where we meet, filming Holland, Michigan, a Hitchcock-style thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen. In person, García Bernal is animated but soft-spoken. He’s dressed in blue chinos, an army jacket, and an old mint-colored T-shirt. His hair is streaked with gray and he wears little octagonal glasses, but he still has the same hypnotic green eyes that made him a heartthrob in his youth. At 44, he’s been famous for more than half of his life, beginning with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2000 film Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 hit Y Tu Mamá También, which anointed him and costar Diego Luna as awards-season habitués.
The early hype proved to be real. García Bernal received a BAFTA award playing Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and a Golden Globe for his role as a manic conductor in the Amazon Prime Video show Mozart in the Jungle.
I meet García Bernal at a restaurant in the Gulch, a neighborhood near downtown populated with squads of women wearing hot pink dresses and white cowboy boots like cowgirl Barbies. As García Bernal orders an omelet, bachelor parties zoom by in buses or on makeshift flatbeds pulled by John Deere tractors. Working here in the South has been a bit strange, he says. His guard is constantly up. “The people are really lovely, but it’s freaky to see so many ads for churches, cryptocurrencies, and guns,” says García Bernal. “That triad, it’s scary as hell.”
His new film, Amazon Studios’ Cassandro, is the story of a Mexican wrestler who is both hugely popular and gay. For Cassandro, he was approached by the director Roger Ross Williams with the idea for the film. “I remembered Cassandro, but I didn’t remember him that well,” says García Bernal. “I started to think, like, Of course, as a Mexican, I have to do a lucha libre film one day.” He took on the role along with Raúl Castillo from Looking, Roberta Colindrez of A League of Their Own, and Bad Bunny as a flirt named Felipe. “The story of Cassandro is a very modern, archetypal one of a person that had to play another character in order to be himself,” García Bernal says. “I play a different character in order to be myself. That’s why I’m an actor. I play different characters to find out who I am.”
The real Cassandro, Saúl Armendáriz, was a Mexican wrestler who got his start in the late 1980s. He occupied a unique role in the world of Mexican wrestling. There are different categories, such as rudos (heels) or técnicos (good guys). And then there were the exóticos, who first appeared in wrestling in the 1940s: campy, jester characters in drag. “It doesn’t matter your sexuality in order to play an exótico. You can be straight and play an exótico. They played an archetype, and so, before the gay movement [of the 1970s in Mexico], this category was something more, a little bit more permissive in a way,” says García Bernal. He explains Cassandro’s influence on masculinity and heterosexuality in Mexico: “All of a sudden, it was like there were so many taboos that were broken, and when they were broken, everyone was like, Yeah, it wasn’t such a big deal.”
García Bernal tends to gravitate toward roles that poke at orthodoxy. He sees opportunity for artistic challenge in playing complex characters like Cassandro. Cuarón, who directed García Bernal in Y Tu Mamá También, says on the phone from London that Cassandro had him “completely in awe.”
“It’s Gael at his best,” says Cuarón of the screening. “Intelligence, strength, sensitivity, and vulnerability. He managed to do it so the emotions don’t come in a syrupy way, they come in a truthful way that makes everything way more poignant. He’s just unafraid of taking risks.“
García Bernal was raised in Guadalajara in a community of actors, including his mother, Patricia Bernal, and his father, José Ángel García, who had a small role in Amores Perros. “I was born in this place where you can be anything in a sense,” says García Bernal of that community. “Like you’re a bit exempt from the rules of society in a way.” He was studying acting at the wildly prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London when Iñárritu wanted to cast him. But the school required permission for students to take a long leave. Iñárritu was undeterred. He wanted to work with García Bernal so badly that he concocted a workaround. “I have an uncle in Mexico who is a well-known doctor,” Iñárritu tells me over the phone. “He invented an illness [for Gael], a kind of Mexican bacteria like a giardia in the stomach. Radical infection. He had to lay down. And that’s how he was able to film it.”
After Amores Perros, Cuarón came knocking and quickly cast García Bernal in Y Tu Mamá También. “I wrote him an email and ‘quiubo’ was his greeting. It’s like saying ‘sup,’ and I liked him immediately,” Cuarón says. The coming-of-age movie about class and love in Mexico was an opportunity for García Bernal to work with Luna, a close friend whom he had known since childhood.
In tandem, the films were huge international hits and mainstays on the awards circuits. García Bernal was anointed a breakout star and was immediately offered huge roles. He said no to a lot of them. Many, for the right reasons, he tells me: They weren’t what he wanted to do, or the characters didn’t resonate with him, his culture, or his language. But he said no to some bigger roles for the wrong reasons, too: “I was worried about what people would think,” he says, “or if they’d say I was a bit of a sellout.”
His career could be a playbook for one-for-me and one-for-them, alternating between art for art’s sake and big studio productions. There were roles in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education; playing a rapidly aging dad in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Old and singing “Everyone Knows Juanita” as Héctor in the Disney-Pixar animated movie Coco. “I’m really glad I get to work in more Hollywood-type of productions,” García Bernal says. “For some reason, they’re part of a carnival that keeps me going.”
Iñárritu remains impressed with how García Bernal has navigated his career: “Failure can make you humble and wise, while success can make you reckless. Despite the incredible success he has and being so young and so handsome and talented, he could have made wrong decisions, and he didn’t.
“He had one foot in Mexico and Latin America and independent art films, and another in more commercial Hollywood films,” adds Iñárritu. “He belongs to both worlds.”
García Bernal seems to have a way to keep people close. He and Cuarón will hang out whenever they find themselves in the same city, for instance. “The last time I saw him I was in Italy,” Cuarón says. “Of course, we will party. We are a very good audience for each other. Lately it’s more long conversations about life and family and making fun of each other and making stupid jokes.” (When asked for examples of their stupid jokes, Cuarón politely declines.)
García Bernal likes to gather with his creative cohort and talk “actor problems.”
Like about agents? I ask. “No. That’s boring,” he says. “That’s agent problems. That’s industry problems. No, no, no. Actors’ problems are when you’re learning this and when you’re doing that, you know? I guess those are actors’ problems. That you can spend a whole night talking about.” García Bernal loves studying other actors and starts talking about a few he admires: Jim Carrey, Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Monica Bellucci. Tom Cruise, too.
“Tom Cruise is very unique,” says García Bernal. “What he does is like, wow. Amazing! Like taking off his shirt in the swimming pool, the way he takes off his shirt, nobody takes off a shirt like that!”
García Bernal is so cerebral he will casually reference a book he read by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai and another about capitalism by the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato. He’ll talk your ear off about the Pumas, the Mexican football club he loves, and the global socio-economic complexities of pro football politics. He calls himself a migrant because he’s so constantly moving around for his work, but his real home base is in Mexico City. “People ask me where I live, and I say Mexico,” he says. “They say, ‘Still?’ So many people are scared of going to Mexico City, [while] I’m scared of going to a Walmart here. Like somebody just, I don’t know, being upset at something and they’ll have a gun.”
He has three kids: two with his ex Dolores Fonzi and a pandemic baby with his current partner, Fernanda Aragonés. “It’s going to be funny how our baby is going to be seen.… They’re going to say, ‘Yeah, we were born during the pandemic.’ Her parents didn’t respect social distancing.” He giggles and grins.
García Bernal is resistant to labeling his own sexuality, however. “Straight is a term that I didn’t invent,” he says. “I like women. But at the same time, being an actor allowed me to explore that transgender quality that we all have in a way. It allowed me the freedom to do that. And if I wasn’t an actor, I would’ve acted [anyway] as a sport, as a hobby, in order to explore that.”
“[Straight] is a definition that I’ve fortunately never allowed society or family or whatever to impose on me,” he adds. “This is what I am. If forced to do that, then I would not sign it. I would not sign the paper.”
He loves Mexico, and his home culture and language. He seeks out roles that speak to the soul of his country, like lucha libre and his upcoming Spanish-language TV series about an aging boxer. But what García Bernal is tired of is having to be spokesperson for his whole country. Talking about US-Mexican politics became more frequent, if not unavoidable, during the Trump administration. “I remember going on a talk show with,” he starts off, “what’s the guy with glasses?” Stephen Colbert, I offer. García Bernal nods his head. He was on the show in October 2016, promoting a movie called Desierto about a vigilante hunting migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona. After setting up the plot, Colbert says that immigration is one of the hottest topics of the day: “Donald Trump has made his campaign about the wall…. How is he perceived in Mexico?” While García Bernal answered the question on the show with the kind of thoughtfulness and gravity he puts into everything, he wasn’t thrilled, he tells me, that he was once again being asked to speak for all Mexicans. “What type of question is that, though?” García Bernal says. “Why do I have to address this?”
He is, however, extremely political—Iñárritu calls it “a fundamental quality that truly distinguishes him from other actors.” Cassandro is a film about border culture without being explicitly about immigration. Instead, the film’s characters are constantly and fluidly moving through English and Spanish, and El Paso and Juárez. It’s a reality that García Bernal wishes was depicted more frequently onscreen. “It’s really weird that they call it ‘foreign-language movie’ for a film in Spanish at the Oscars right?” he says. “Because Spanish is not a foreign language in the United States.”
As our meal wraps up, he politely declines an invitation to help me hunt for $800 cowboy boots at the Lucchese store across the street. Instead, he’s off to a climbing gym, his current preferred method of exercise. I ask him one last question: If he finally wins an Oscar, for Cassandro, would he do the speech, the one everyone secretly rehearses, in English or in Spanish?
He smiles and answers without hesitation. “I’d do it in both.”
Marisa Meltzer is an author based in New York City. Her New York Times best-seller, Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier, is available now.
The interviews and photo shoot for this story were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini
Styled by Moses Moreno at Exposure NY
Tailored by Jason Jarrett
Grooming by Meg Boes at A-Frame
Produced by Mollie Jannasch at Agency MJ