Gael Garcia Bernal
By Cole Smithey
James Marsh’s slow-burn deliberation on the long term potentially violent effects of child abandonment, military discipline, religious obsession and attempted familial reconciliation is like a social abscess that the director barely pokes at before allowing the narrative to simmer to its inevitable climax of destruction. Gael Garcia Bernal gives a knockout performance as Elvis Sandow a 21-year-old man recently discharged from the Navy who returns to his childhood home in Corpus Christi, Texas to reconnect with his father David (William Hurt) who abandoned him and his mother more than 20 years ago.
Speaking with a perfect American accent Bernal embodies his troubled and opportunistic character with a seductive quality that lures the viewer into siding with his volatility before trapping you in his perilous clutches. Elvis approaches David, now the Baptist pastor of a local church, and identifies himself as the man’s bastard son. Caught off-guard, David tells Elvis to call him later so he can have time explain the situation to his picture-perfect suburban family. However, Elvis is more interested in seducing his 16-year-old alleged stepsister Malerie (Pell James) whom he neglects to tell of his ostensible relationship to her father. Elvis’ baneful intentions quickly escalate as he ingratiates his way into the home of the family he detests with a pitch-black passion. This unsettling and daring movie regards American narcissism with a cold eye.
Cole Smithey: How did you decide to take on this strange role?
Gael Garcia Bernal: They just called me when I was in the middle of doing The Motorcycle Diaries. And then they sent me the script, and I thought ‘oh, it's beautiful.’ Some people would say that this is a horrible view, but it's actually really nice. It looks like a painting. I just wanted to do it.
CS: Did the filmmakers want you because they wanted the character to have a Latino background?
GGB: No, I think…well, it wasn't written with me in mind, really. So it redefined the story for me because it automatically throws in a much stronger complexity, and, perhaps some people might say—I dare to say this as well—it's like when you deal with people as they are and you don't want to whitewash their identity. You get more sophisticated things. It made it more interesting to have that kind of backdrop or context as important as the characters.
CS: What about playing an American? Did you work with a dialect coach?
GGB: Yeah, I worked with a voice coach who helped me very much. The best thing was that it didn't become…sometimes it can become a burden, you know? You can become very self-conscious of it. And it wasn't. I was pretty free, in a way. It felt good that it was like that. And surprising. Sometimes even if you do an accent very good, it's always there at your back. You're always carrying it. In this case, I felt pretty open to jump around and be able to play with it, with the language.
The family speaks in a very specific Texas accent. Elvis is also from Texas. He just has a different accent. Nowadays he can be considered an illegal alien. But in practical terms, he's not an alien. He's another Texan with another accent. There are things you don't say. This guy speaks Spanish.
CS: The name "Elvis" helped accentuate the contradictions in Elvis’ character.
GGB: Yeah. It's one of those things that liberates the character, and you think, "oh, okay. Yeah, that's great, let's do it." In a sense, it would have been great to even see more of the context. It's surprising how in Texas, how I spent so much time there doing this film, and I was amazed by how non-hypocritical the place is. It's a place that's very straightforward. I like that because it's very integrated. You go to the store, and you're speaking Spanish, and nobody's thrown back by it. Everyone speaks Spanish. Everyone speaks English. There is that relaxed sense of identity, which has nothing to do with a fucking flag.
CS: There's a movie that Edward Norton did—"Down in the Valley" that resonates with "The King." Have you seen it?
GGB: No, I haven't.
CS: It's a terrific movie, and there are interesting parallels about these familial interlopers that attempt to insert themselves in a family. It seems like it's part of this American paranoia that's going on these days. I wonder what you think about the level of paranoia in this country as it relates to this movie.
GGB: I think the level of paranoia is immeasurable now, because there are some ardent truths behind it—absolute truths that you cannot talk back to because they are being shielded or embraced by the flag, or the nation, or what's being patriotic. So it is difficult to start a constructive discussion with it. I've heard many people right now with all the immigration marches and stuff, talk about toughening the borders after 9-11 to protect from the terrorists from coming here. But then I go, "What does that have to do with…that has nothing to do with what these guys are talking about." These guys are talking about granting them rights as human beings and as laborers. They don't want to be citizens. They just want the right to temporary worker status, so they can have rights so they can go back to Mexico without risking their lives.
CS: An interesting thing about that which relates to this movie is that the religious right, represented by William Hurt’s character in this movie, is one of the ones that want to treat America like Israel and build this wall against Mexico.
GGB: Not all of them. It's surprising. I think the ones that want to build a wall and want to keep these people on an illegal status are the people that get the most benefit from it. And who are they? —the rich guys who own the farms, not the farmers.
CS: Corporate America?
GGB: Yeah. The corporations, basically. Those are the ones that want to keep the system going on like this. It would benefit the country if these people paid taxes, you know? It would benefit the people, really. But they don't want to pay taxes because it's cheap for them. They make more money when they save the taxes for themselves. This film has a lot of that as well—that questioning about territory. Why isn't this kid allowed to be from where he was born? First of all, because his father didn't recognize him, and his father is the only one in the equation that is from the United States. The mother is a prostitute, and therefore has absolutely no rights. And she's Mexican, so even less rights. Elvis is born here, and the only way he can get an identity and a kind of acceptance is by doing the last thing that one could do to state his official identity, which is to shed blood for your country—to be in the Army. And right now, you see the Army consists of a lot of people that were born in Mexico.
CS: It's interesting because of the acts of violence that Elvis commits throughout the story. You like the character when you meet him in the beginning of the movie. He's a very likable person, and you go on this journey with him to find his family, which is a primal urge we all have to connect with our families. Do you think that his acts of violence are a result of his experience in the army?
GGB: It has to do with that. He doesn't know any better. It is for the lack of love he has received. So, therefore, he says that he is in love with his sister, in this case. But she may not be his sister. There is that enigma, as well. It might not be the father. He says he is in love with her, and he does acts of love according to the way he can do them, in whatever way he thinks is love. But he thinks he is in love because he doesn't know any better. And perhaps this is the first time that he feels close to anybody. It makes him think that he is love when he is not.
CS: Can you talk about that strange, but pure, attraction that your
character has for Malerie that brings Elvis closer to his father. There's something circular about it.
GGB: Yeah. That is something that the character, maybe consciously, does in a very primal way, in a very innocent way, which is maybe the best way to get inside the family and get close to his father. So that is the way he approaches that. He doesn't see. He doesn't know better, so maybe he doesn't know if he's doing the right or wrong thing.