Since seducing audiences with ‘Y tu mamá también,’ Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna have helped their homeland’s cinema become world renowned. They tell Melissa Whitworth how it happened
Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna are like two naughty school boys. Throughout our interview, in a hotel bar in New York, the two Mexican filmstars make fun of each other ceaselessly, teasing and joking, pausing only to stare across the room at a good-looking girl – a friend of theirs who, they are intrigued to note, is sitting with a man who is not her husband.
Their camaraderie is infectious – and deeply rooted. Two of the hottest heart-throbs in international cinema, they have been friends since childhood; their parents, both sides from respected Mexican theatrical families, were close even before their sons were born.
It was in 2001 that they grabbed the world’s attention when Bernal, now 31, and Luna, 30, starred together in Alfonso Cuarón’s arresting breakthrough feature Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too!) as two oversexed, under- experienced teenage boys on a journey of sexual exploration.
The film, with its universal themes of youthful innocence and the abrupt randomness of life, hip soundtrack and captivatingly raw performances by its two stars, seized the imagination of an international audience – and attracted an Oscar nomination.
In no time at all Bernal – who had also appeared in the previous year’s Mexican hit, Amores Perros – and Luna became the poster boys for an emerging new generation of Mexican filmmakers, leading the country’s films to unprecedented critical acclaim and a regular berth in the world’s most celebrated film festivals.
The experience was, says Luna, “a dream come true”. Bernal adds: “When we were doing Y tu mamá también, we still didn’t know we were going to act in movies. It was just a one-off thing we thought.”
Almost a decade on, the friends have turned that success into a veritable empire – producing, directing and acting in a huge variety of films, in both Spanish and English. Bernal has gone on to work with such high-profile directors as Michel Gondry, Pedro Almodóvar and Jim Jarmusch – as well as appearing in the likes of blockbusting Hollywood tear-jerker, Letters to Juliet.
Luna followed Y tu mamá también with an appearance in the Oscar- winning Frida (2002) alongside Salma Hayek. He has also had parts in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal with Tom Hanks, and in 2008 played Harvey Milk’s unstable lover opposite Sean Penn in Milk.
Over the next few weeks, they have three films coming out between them. Abel, which is showing at the London Film Festival, is a touching portrait of a little boy in rural Mexico who struggles with the absence of his father, directed by Luna, and co-produced by Bernal. Both Luna and Bernal have directed shorts for Revolución, a portmanteau movie about Mexico a century after it achieved independence. And, early next month, Bernal will appear opposite Michelle Williams in Lukas Moodysson’s new film, Mammoth.
Today, both actors are dressed like preppy film students. Luna wears his hair long, and floppy, with a beard reminiscent of a young, darker Errol Flynn. Bernal wears a corduroy jacket and at one point puts on a pair of square-rimmed glasses, so as to better scrutinise a girl across the room. His eyes are arresting; a pale green so piercing that they cut through you even from the other side of a camera.
Luna dominates the conversation like an older brother; Bernal delivers the deprecating punch-lines, and again and again the two erupt into raucous laughter.
They are, I suggest to them, the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of Mexican film. “Oh, but that’s so 90s,” says Bernal. It has to be said, it’s hard to imagine Damon and Affleck engaging in a homo-erotic sex scene of the type Bernal and Luna pulled off in Y tu mamá también.
‘The only relationship I can compare to having a brother is the one I have with Gael,’ says Luna
When I ask how responsible they feel for securing their country’s cinema a place on the global map, Luna jokes: “I would say it’s 70 per cent my fault and 30 per cent Gael’s. I don’t like to take all the credit.”
But, more seriously, he adds, “We were part of something that was already happening. Perhaps to the outside world we came across as the poster figures, but really [the rise of Mexican film] was a process that had already been put in motion by many people who wanted to do the same thing not only from Mexico but from all of Latin America.
“Little by little we started thinking – to put it in industrial terms – ‘We must capitalise on this [momentum].’ We wanted to build something to create opportunities not only for us, but for other people, too. Ultimately we built an infrastructure to make films.”
In 2005, Luna and Bernal formed their own company. Canana (named after the gun cartridge belt slung across the shoulders of Mexican revolutionaries) both produces domestic films and distributes the best of foreign cinema in Mexico.
“Today, we think we belong to something that at that time didn’t exist,” Luna says. “Our generation has to be really pleased that there were directors like Alfonso Cuarón, or Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro González Iñárritu [see box, right], because we used them to be part of what we are today. They decided there were no rules [except] ‘Go make your film and think big’.”
Both actors were raised in theatrical families. Bernal was born in Guadalajara, Central Mexico, the second most populous urban centre after Mexico City. His mother was an actress and model and his father an actor and director. Luna’s mother was a British costume designer – she died in a car crash when he was two years old – and father, an acclaimed Mexican set designer. Both Bernal and Luna spent their childhoods appearing in stage productions in Mexico and acting in telenovelas (hugely popular daytime soap operas in Latin America, where the acting is largely hammy and the unbelievable plotlines revolve entirely around love affairs gone wrong) before making the leap into cinema.
Today, Luna is largely nomadic, he says: “It’s tough to say where I live. There are some bills that get to the house in LA, some to the house in Mexico and some to the house of my father – so I never lose track of those.” He and his wife, actress Camila Sodi, have two small children, Jeronimo, two and a half, and Fiona (named after Luna’s mother) who was born in July.
Bernal has a 21-month-old son, Lazaro, with his girlfriend, Dolores Fonzi, an Argentine actress, who is pregnant with their second child. They live in Buenos Aires.
They have come a long way from the days of telenovelas back in Mexico. “Gael has been there every day of my life since I was born,” Luna says. “I started to work when I was really young. For me friendship is work, and work is friendship. Those who are next to me and that have been there for a long time are those who can work with me, play football with me and go watch a film with me.”
How do they each feel about the success of the other?
“I am really proud of mine and I really hate his,” Luna jokes. Bernal says: “I feel very proud of Diego’s success. We help each other a lot.”
And, fleetingly getting serious again, Luna adds: “The only relationship I can compare to having a brother is the relationship I have with Gael. We have been with each other forever, and will be there for the rest. Now we are choosing to work together.
“Imagine your brother shares the same passions and loves as you do, cares about the same things you do, goes through life changes with you... It all corresponds. There is no success you can celebrate more than the success of a brother.”