Gael García Bernal is trying to appear comfortable sitting atop a white leather ottoman. It’s 10:30 in the morning, and we’re in a pop-up version of Miami nightclub Nikki Beach, which has temporarily opened on the roof of a luxury hotel in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival. “This is such a funny place,” says the actor, 34, who’s twice portrayed Che Guevara onscreen and is in town today to promote a pair of low-budget movies about Latin American politics. “If we were in Mexico talking about this,” he shouts over the house music, discussing the strife in his native country, “it would be different. But we’re in a fucking Nikki Beach, and you want to talk about how difficult it is to live in Mexico City? There is real violence, there are real killings. From here, it sounds like [Mexicans are] living in the catacombs of some crazy Dracula.” He politely asks a waitress to check on the soy cappuccino he’s ordered; the club didn’t have any soy milk, so they’re sending someone to the store.
I suggest we take a walk. He shakes his head. “Too many zombies,” he says, referring to the fans and paparazzi who’ve been following him around since he arrived. They recognize his strong jaw and green eyes from 2001’s steamy sex dramedy Y Tu Mamá También. Or know him as the guy who once dated Natalie Portman (he’s now married to Argentine actress Dolores Fonzi, with whom he lives in Buenos Aires with their two kids). Or as the Vanity Fair Most Handsome Man in the World nominee who starred in a Gillette commercial with Adrien Brody and André 3000.
That commercial, García Bernal says, “is what it is. It’s an ad. It was a way of being able to do these little movies that I do.” One of his Sundance offerings, the documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal?, follows the journey of migrant workers who come to the U.S. to “do the jobs Americans don’t want so that we can be here at Nikki Beach having a coffee,” he says. The other is the surprisingly funny No, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, about the 1988 advertising campaign — concocted by García Bernal’s character — that resulted in the bloodless overthrow of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In Dayani Cristal, onscreen narrator García Bernal retraces the steps of an immigrant whose body was found in the Arizona desert after making his way from Honduras by foot, bus, inner tube, raft, and on the top of a train. García Bernal calls the experience “Homerian.” “The fraternity that you live on that train is not like any other place in the world. It’s one of the best times I’ve ever had,” he says. Didn’t people recognize him? “Almost everyone,” he says. “But they let me play the part sometimes. They were making the journey for real, and I was like, ‘Let’s just do it as if I was Gael from Honduras.’” When the camera would cut, though, says director Marc Silver, “people joked with him, ‘You’re saying you’re Honduran, but we know you’re Mexican.’”
He was better at passing for Chilean in No. “I was very worried,” says director Pablo Larraín, after García Bernal refused his offer of a dialect coach. “The difference between Mexican and Chilean is like the North of Scotland and the South of the United States. But the very first scene, he was talking just like us. It freaked me out!” García Bernal’s Chilean accent was so perfect that Larraín had to ask him to incorporate some Mexican slang, because his character is supposed to have spent ten years exiled in Mexico. Larraín says he still hasn’t figured out how García Bernal did it. “Of course I asked,” he says, “but he’d look at you and smile.”
García Bernal is equally enigmatic in his career choices. His English-language work has veered between small, arty films like Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and sappy romantic comedies like Letters to Juliet (as Amanda Seyfried’s jilted fiancé) and A Little Bit of Heaven (as the hot doctor who teaches a cancer-stricken Kate Hudson to love again). But he bristles when I suggest he could be as big in the U.S. as he is at home. “ ‘Crossover’ — that word reminds me of Shakira. I don’t need to cross over. English-language films are a great opportunity to work in different places, but I’ve done enough,” he says. “I’ve had the fortune of participating in good movies, but I’ve also participated in really bad ones. And those bad ones taught me to just do what you want to do. Don’t abide by this industrial narrative of ‘Now it’s time to do a crossover.’ It’s like, ‘Do this one, and then you do one from the heart.’ Bullshit. It all has to be from the heart.”
How much of his heart is in Zorro Reborn, Fox’s planned big-budget reboot that takes the masked swordsman out of 1800s Spanish California and deposits him in a postapocalyptic future? “I’ve never done a big studio movie like that,” says García Bernal, reportedly attached to play the lead role. “So I’m kind of curious to see what it is like. It looks kind of fun. Why not? Just to see how it is, you know?”
If Hollywood calls on him more, though, García Bernal plans to keep one foot in Mexico City, where he still has a house. “I’m never going to be able to leave Mexico, really. It would be foolish of me to do it.” He explains: “I would be wasting such a great opportunity that the accident of life, or destiny, gave me, which is to be Mexican. If we would make Lord of the Rings analogies, I think Mexico City is Middle-earth. That’s where the fight of humanity is.”
Two days before our nightclub meeting, he looked far more at home at the premiere party for Dayani Cristal at a country-western bar. Through a sea of lit-up cell phones, one could spot García Bernal onstage, playing the jarana (like a small guitar) and sharing a microphone with Leo Heiblum, a composer on the film, with whom he’d formed an ad hoc Mexican folk-music group. “I’m not a musical leader,” García Bernal says later. “I’m just a good band back-member, like from the back. But I love it. It’s so cathartic, you know, every now and then going out there and singing.” García Bernal took a swig from a bottle of mezcal, and the group launched into a cover of the protest song “The Partisan,” made famous by Leonard Cohen. During the French interlude, García Bernal sang lead for the first and only time. When he got to the line meaning “I have all of France,” he shouted, “J’ai le Mexique et la América Central!” He beamed, then stepped back and spent the rest of the night strumming away.
*This article originally appeared in the February 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.