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Gael Garcia Bernal

     Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal, 26, has gone major globe-hopping since starring at home in Amores Perres (2000) and Y tu mama tambien (200l). He tooled through Argentina as clean-cut-kid "Che" Guevera in The Motorcycle Diaries, then flitted about Spain in tight dress and wobbly heels as Zahara, a pouty, drug-addled, hooker transsexual in Pedro Almodovar’s current Bad Education.

     "I looked in the mirror, I saw my mother," Bernal explained about Zahara, speaking last May at the Cannes Film Festival. "I’m happy I looked like my mother, but also other ghosts came in, people I know, my cousins." Had he ever dressed before in drag? "I did it as a 6-year-old," he laughed. His preparation? "I watched Pedro’s filmography, also Barbara Stanwyck movies, Marlene Dietrich, and a lot of camp Spanish films. The story is not my particular experience, it’s a peculiar Spanish situation I had to make research about: the accent, the way of speaking, this urge in Spain to explode after many years of things not being allowed, this stretching boundaries of freedom post-Franco, even though freedom doesn’t have any boundaries."

     In Bad Education, Bernal also plays the straight-looking Ignacio (actually Zahara?), and he wanted to make it clear that neither characterization allowed him to coast and relax. "It was very liberating playing these parts, but both characters gave me the same degree of difficulty." Making the film in Europe, Bernal observed how Spanish body language, both gay and straight, was so different from back home. "In Mexico, the movement is very Carribean. In the Carribean, you wouldn’t use your hand like the Spanish." (He held out a hand and demonstrated a subtle cultural difference, barely discernible to a New Englander!)

     Working with Almodovar? "He knows what he’s talking about. He’s the best reference, the best encyclopedia to his films. Sometimes I’d think, ‘This is the biggest shit ever, it’s not going to work.’ He’d say, ‘Trust me.’ Then you felt you didn’t have to look out for yourself. He’d cut out the bad parts.

     "Was this Pedro’s own story? I still wonder. I don’t think anything like that really happened to him. If it was his experiences, he played with them."

     Was Zahara’s character so formed—deformed?—because she/he was abused when at school by a priest? "Pedro felt the character would be the same. But the law shouldn’t allow the priest to be an abuser, nor, because she’s a prostitute, should she be allowed to be raped. Whenever abuse occurs, it’s a crime. It should be punished. Pedro underlines this: even if the priest had feelings for the kid and good intentions, that doesn’t justify anything. It destroys the kid, and it destroys the kid spiritually. It destroys his faith.

     "I didn’t go to a Catholic school but a normal government school. In Mexico, education is secular since the mid-19th century. Politics also. If a politician says anything about God, the people say ‘No.’ There was a priest where I lived, he had kids, nobody even cared. It wasn’t even a sin."

     Will Bernal make more films in Mexico? "Of course! I live there! It’s not just Mexico, but Latin America. I want to do something every year. I feel very much in touch [with my roots], that’s important. At the same time, if something comes from the US... or India!"

(The Boston Phoenix, December, 2004)


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