Gael Garcia Bernal on Chile, Boxing: Cannes Interview

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal stars in the movie "No," about a 1988 TV advertising campaign that led to the ouster of dictator Augusto Pinochet in a referendum. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Source: DDA PR via Bloomberg

Gael Garcia Bernal holds court on a hotel terrace in Cannes as persistent rain showers beat against the plastic curtains all around.

It’s the worst weather anyone can recall at the Cannes Film Festival, where Bernal is presenting “No” -- the true story of a 15-minute television ad that led to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s ouster in a 1988 referendum. Bernal plays the cool adman who makes the “No” campaigners replace their somber archive images with clips of people smiling and having fun.

Also on hand is the film’s Chilean director, Pablo Larrain, whose work shows history through the eyes of regular people. He says the 1988 ad was “essential” in toppling Pinochet, and praises the movie’s producers Participant Media (owned by EBay Inc.’s first president Jeff Skoll, who also funded “The Help”).

As Mexican-born Bernal settles on damp patio furniture, I pull up a chair and begin a conversation that covers cross-dressing, boxing and cooking. We last met on a sunny day of May 2006 at a Cannes roundtable for “Babel.” Though now married and a father of two, 33-year-old Bernal still looks boyish in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and muddy ankle boots.

Pinochet’s Coup

Bernal, who in 2004 played Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” says Pinochet was “a sore in human history” because he replaced his democratically elected predecessor in a coup. He left just as unusually, says Bernal -- after a referendum the dictator himself put on.

The actor is pleased with the Cannes reception for “No.” He has had other movie offers that await funding. “It’s very difficult to raise money, especially in the United States, for independent movies,” he says.

He’d love to work again with the man who gave him his first break: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- director of “Amores Perros” (2000) and “Babel” -- and with Pedro Almodovar, who cast him as the transvestite in “Bad Education” (2004). “It’s just a question of him picking up the phone and calling me,” Bernal says.

Cross-dressing in “Bad Education” was “really, really fun,” says Bernal, who’d do it again. “We all have a cross-gender character: Every woman has a man that they can play, and every man has a woman that they can play,” he says, describing his female half as impervious and “high-maintenance.”

Playing the Fool

I ask if transvestite roles offer a welcome break from his image as the green-eyed looker, and he laughs nervously. Acting is liberating because it allows him “to get away with everything,” and “sometimes be completely obnoxious,” says Bernal. He likes the fact that actors, in society, “occupy, a little bit, the place of a fool.”

His passion for soccer is undiminished, though an accident last year led to a painful operation, he says, pointing with a groan to his right knee. He has taken up boxing, Bernal says, the only sport Mexico is consistently good at.

Isn’t he a little slight? “Ah, you don’t want to know my recently acquired techniques!” he laughs. What about the scars that might compromise his career? Amateur soccer is riskier, he says, because “you’re always on the verge of being the hero and throwing yourself or banging yourself in front of the post.” In boxing, you’re careful “because you know you might get hit.”

Time off is spent watching his kids grow up, and cooking for friends, though he’s “not amazing” at it.

Any specialty? “Recently I’ve been doing risottos,” he says. “Some of them have been amazing.” Then, lest he sounds smug, he stresses, “Some of them, not all of them.”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include: Guy Collins on wine, Richard Vines on food and James Russell on architecture.

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