When Gael Garcia Bernal was on the Sundance U.S. dramatic competition jury in 2017, the actor was disappointed to find that not a single film in the section was directed by an American-born filmmaker of Latino descent. Almost two years later, he was struggling to name one person who could have been there. “I would love to mention a good Latino director from the U.S.,” he said over coffee at the Bowery Hotel this week. “I would love to give you one name — like, yeah, man, this guy is doing great stuff. But no. I can’t.”
The actor was quick to draw a distinction between American Latinos and filmmakers born in Latin-American countries who found success in the United States — especially the so-called Three Amigos, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Iñarritu, and Guillermo del Toro. Bernal’s breakout performance was in Iñarritu’s “Amores Perros,” and he worked with Cuaron on “Y Tu Mama Tambien” soon after. “They’re from Mexico and they’re doing productions all over the world,” Garcia Bernal said. “This discussion is important for people who are here. There’s a whole spectrum of the population that is not shown.”
Garcia Bernal has plenty of other options for his own career, including projects in his native Mexico. “Museo,” the sophomore effort from “Gueros” filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios, opens this week after finding acclaim at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals. In the movie, the actor plays one half of a duo that famously robbed Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology in 1985.
While Garcia Bernal has acted in plenty of English-language projects, from “The Science of Sleep” to the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” he said he remains most comfortable in his native tongue. “There is a huge difference,” he said. “When it’s in Spanish, I can see more or less the structure of it. I can see further into it and engage in transforming it that much more. With an English-speaking project, it’s always a bit like being invited to play in a band.”
He has been wary of tackling larger studio projects, though he provided the lead voice work on last year’s “Coco” and is attached to play Zorro in a project that has been gestating for over a year. (Cuaron’s son Jonas is attached to direct). After “Y Tu Mama Tambien” became an international hit, Garcia Bernal passed on a lot of offers, choosing instead to star in “The Motorcycle Diaries” as Che Guevara.
“It was a time when I was being offered big films in the U.S., and I was like, ‘What film is going to be bigger than ‘Motorcycle Diaries’? I don’t see how anything could be. This is a story that belongs to me, a story I can tell.”
He expressed frustration over the tendency to cast Latin American actors in English-language projects with Spanish-language settings. “If there is a project and it comes to me — like, we’re going to do the conquest of Mexico in English — I’d be like, ‘Why? Call English-language actors,” he said. “If someone does a story that should be spoken in Spanish, and they call me, and they call other Spanish-speaking actors, they should decide to do it in Spanish.”
He was thrilled to see that at least some Spanish-language projects continued to gain traction. At the Toronto International Film Festival, he caught up with old pal Cuaron’s “Roma,” a touching black-and-white drama that draws on the filmmaker’s memories of Mexico City in his youth. The movie, which is based around the housemaid who raised Cuaron and his siblings, has been generating serious awards buzz and critical acclaim ahead of its Netflix release.
“It’s amazing,” Garcia Bernal said. “I was floating. What a film.” He was especially satisfied to see a powerful movie wrestling with real issues in Mexican society. “Thematically, it’s so strong,” he said. “Among many other things, it’s coming to terms with the sense of inequality in a country like Mexico, which is very unusual. There is very little social justice. Just by engaging that conversation on a profound level — rather than just a political or sociological level — the story helps you see that.”
He connected the movie with “Museo” — as well as the new Mexican “The Eternal Feminine,” about poet Rosario Castellanos — as part of a trend in Mexican cinema dealing with substantial issues related to the country’s identity. “There are a few films coming out in Mexico that are looking for a certain relevance,” he said. “It feels sometimes like we’re doing opera or modern dance. They stopped being relevant from a cultural context. Movies need to engage in the conversation of things.”
He wasn’t sure what would happen with the Zorro project, tentatively titled “Z” and set in the near future. “It would be fun to do an action-adventure movie,” he said. “I would love to. But at the same time, if it doesn’t come along, it doesn’t matter.”
In the meantime, he was still reeling from the cancellation of “Mozart in the Jungle,” in which he played eccentric New York symphony conductor Rodrigo De Souza. The show, which lasted four seasons, scored the actor a Golden Globe.
“I was heartbroken when we got cancelled,” he said. “The explanation is maybe one I wouldn’t like to hear. They just said, ‘It was a difficult decision, but we had to do it.’ At the end of the day, I guess you can’t explain that something means a lot to you.”
The role had a major impact on his relationship to music. “I started to study symphonic music to understand it a bit more,” he said. “It also gave me a family. All the people that worked on it, we bonded, we’re very tight.” While Amazon never shared numbers about the performance of the show, Garcia Bernal noticed that it had gained traction around the world. “I could tell where ‘Mozart’ was hitting,” he said. “In Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, people would say, ‘Maestro!’”
His relationship to the changing landscape for distribution continues to evolve. While “Roma” is getting a big boost from Netflix, “Museo” was acquired by YouTube, one of the first efforts by the company to acquire new films out of the festival circuit.
“I really value the fact that these are companies betting on Spanish films that will be seen all over the world,” Garcia Bernal said. “It’s about time. We’ve been struggling for these films to get bigger audiences and we think they deserve it. Now, with this way of showing it, maybe that’s going to happen.”