Gael Garcia Bernal Speaks Out: “What Is Happening in Mexico Is Far More Important Than Any Movie”

For the past two weeks, Gael García Bernal has been making the rounds on TV — late night shows, morning shows, news programs, and even fake news programs — to promote his newest film, the Jon Stewart-directed drama Rosewater. After talking with Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon earlier in the week, he appeared — just last night — on a special edition of The Daily Show entirely dedicated to Rosewater.

In the starring role, Gael plays Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was tortured, imprisoned, and held for more than 100 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian jail. Based on Bahari’s memoir, where he recounts the terrors he was subjected to amidst accusations of acting as a foreign spy, the movie was adapted for the screen by Jon Stewart. It turns out, the host of The Daily Show was inadvertently linked to the story.

A few days before Bahari’s arrest, he appeared on a segment of the satirical news show in an interview with Jason Jones, a correspondent for The Daily Show, who jokingly referred to himself, on-camera, as an American spy. Later, during questioning by the Revolutionary Guard, Bahari was shown a clip of the show as proof that he was colluding with evil outsiders trying to overthrow the Iranian government. Bahari incredulously asks his torturer, “Why would a real spy have a TV show?”

On the eve of the movie’s release and towards the end of a long press day, I talked to a fatigued-sounding Gael about the added pressure of playing a role based on a real person. He’d probably been asked that very same question a hundred times that day, but he answered it anyway. After a few more questions about the movie, the conversation turned to current events in Mexico and suddenly it became clear that I had struck a nerve.

Gael spoke passionately about the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala and how it is part of his job, as a member of society, to fight to change things. It’s the type of conversation that celebrities tend to shy away from during a press junket, but from the urgency in his voice I understood that he just couldn’t hold back. Here’s what he had to say.

Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, and Maziar Bahari
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Since you’re playing a real person, I’m sure that adds a different kind of pressure than a typical role, especially since Maziar was actually on set while you were shooting. Were you trying to impersonate the person that you knew in real life or just play the character that was written in the script?

“Maziar’s experience talks about bigger issues than just Iran.”

Well, no, definitely we’re not trying to imitate the character because, first of all, the film is in English. It’s shot in Jordan, not in Iran. It is directed by a director from New Jersey and it is acted by people from all over the world. The film and Maziar’s experience talk about bigger issues than just Iran. It transcends the specific experience of Iran and his imprisonment.

It talks about the crisis of power in the world. It talks about the prosecutions of journalists all over the world. It talks about how there is a systematic way of torturing people by using solitary confinement and that practice being something that’s widely accepted everywhere, and in fact it’s practiced everywhere in the world.

So the film is about bigger scopes than just the specificity of what Maziar went through. I mean, to make it clear because it’s obvious in the film but to make it double clear, it’s not about doing an imitation of Maziar. And if it was an added pressure to have him there — on the contrary we had Maziar there, he would tell us or would give us more details to color the re-interpretation of events that we were doing.

What sort of comments or suggestions would he give while you were shooting?

Yeah. He would comment in many ways. But it was always little details, nothing major. He was involved in the process of writing the script as well, together with Jon. He was aware of what was going on and he was part of the whole preparation. So, on the set he was just there to witness this crazy, fun exercise that we were all doing, of interpreting what he went through.

From the interviews that I’ve seen Maziar seems to be a very funny person. His sense of humor also came across in the film. Was he cracking a lot of jokes on set?

He would make a lot of jokes on set, yes. He’s very funny. He just, I don’t know, he just goes for it. He’s such an interesting guy, a very interesting, easy-going, lovely, encouraging, powerful leader. He’s a collaborative person and he wouldn’t shy away and hide and not ask for people’s advice. He would come out there and be participative with everybody. He made us feel like we were in a collaborative experience.

There’s a pivotal scene in the movie when Maziar starts dancing in his jail cell. Despite being imprisoned he reaches a point where he just feels free, mentally. How many times did you have to shoot that scene to get it right? What you were thinking about to put yourself in the right frame of mind?

We shot it only once. It was interesting to just go for it, you know? I think it comes to a point where you have a lot of ownership of the character and you can just kind of improvise anything — like walking into a hotel and making a reservation, you just know how the character would do it.

There is a buildup of a character that all of a sudden you’re able to play around with. So we did the scene where I danced and we just took one take of that. It was lovely. It was really delightful.

“I’m a member of society. I’m part of this outburst of sadness… We cannot keep on going like this.”

This film and other films you’ve done, like Who is Dayani Cristal?, deal with larger social issues. I also read that you attended a protest in New York for the missing students in Mexico. Is this something that is important to you, to use your fame and your celebrity to bring awareness to these larger issues?

Well, let’s separate things — because whatever is happening in Mexico now is far much more important than any movie or interview. It is more important than anything we are doing. So what’s important is the voices of those who are demonstrating, and of society that’s demonstrating, and that are doing stuff about it. And I’m a member of society.

So it’s not… I don’t think about having the microphone open and being able to say things and make whatever I say be more powerful than what people are saying. No, I’m a member of society. I’m part of this outburst of sadness. I’m uncomfortable. We cannot keep on going like this.

The limit was passed many years ago and now it’s just reached a level of complete destruction of what our country can be, of what it aims to be. It’s our job to change things and we need people. We need everybody. We need the whole world helping us, and to pay attention to this. But, we will be the only ones that can stop this injustice and this impunity and this systematic corruption that exists, and this lack of social justice that exists in Mexico, but in other parts of the world as well.

There hasn’t been much news coverage of it here in the States, but there are lots of Mexican celebrities speaking publicly about it. There was a big gala at MoMA where Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro spoke out, and others across all industries, musicians and artists, not just the film industry.

“It’s our job to change things and… We need everybody. We need the whole world helping us, and to pay attention to this.”

It’s happening everywhere and everybody is demonstrating in every way they can, in every moment, in every instant. We are all members of society, like I said. If there is an interesting commentary or something that throws light onto these issues then good. But, it is the family members of the disappeared, they’re the ones that really have something to say.

We say the things that we all agree on, that we all as a society are putting forward. And we are all looking for the common good and we have to start doing that. Well, we’ve begun doing that. It’s just the beginning.

One last question, I know that you were working on this show for Amazon called Mozart in the Jungle. Are still shooting it? When will it come out?

I don’t know when it will come out, but we finished it a couple of weeks ago. It’s going really well!

Thank you so much for talking to me and I really appreciate your words about what’s happening in Mexico. We’re trying to elevate the voice of anybody who speaks out about it on our website for sure.

Please, please! Whatever you do is useful. Whatever we all do is useful. Keep on doing it and keep on doing it. Let’s not banalize what happened. Let’s be very careful with what we do, because it is perhaps the most important thing that has happened in Mexico since the beginning of the century.

Rosewater opens in theaters on November 14, 2014.