Gael Garcia Bernal first came to prominence with the film “Amorres Perros,” but it was the indie Spanish film Y Tu Mamá También that really gave him the notice he truly deserved. He began his career on the small screen, and he’s returned in the truly funny “Mozart in the Jungle.”
With its premiere in 2014, “Mozart in the Jungle” found a brash, charismatic young conductor taking over the New York Symphony Orchestra. Art, ego and hanky-panky followed, both in and out of the orchestra pit.
As Season 3 begins for this Amazon Prime comedy (all 10 episodes are available Friday), the orchestra is on strike, freeing Maestro Rodrigo to conduct the comeback performance of a legendary opera diva in Venice. In that exotic setting, voices will soar, and sparks will fly.
Golden Globe winner Gael Garcia Bernal stars as the passionate-in-many-ways Rodrigo, joining an ensemble that also includes Lola Kirke, Saffron Burrows, Malcolm McDowell and Bernadette Peters.
At 38, the Mexican-born Bernal has shown his acting chops since childhood in a range of roles in both English and Spanish (including the Jon Stewart-directed “Rosewater” and the soon-opening “Neruda,” from Chilean director Pablo Larrain). Last week in New York, he discussed acting, music and the thrill of self-discovery.
The oh-so-obvious question: What was Bernal’s depth of knowledge of classical music when handed the “Mozart” baton?
“Very basic,” he replied, his heartthrob-handsome face erupting with his boyish, toothy grin. “‘Admirer,’ let’s say. But now, thanks to this show, I fly! I listen to music and, ohhhh, man, I stop the world to listen to music.”
All kinds of music. “Classical. Contemporary. Rock albums. It’s given me a new opening into everything. I’ve never dissected salsa so well. The arrangements of mambo – incredible! And classical is a never-ending world, you know? You just go deeper and deeper and deeper.”
His classical faves? “For the last month I’ve been listening a lot to the string quartets of Beethoven and reading a lot about them. For instance, the 16th quartet has an ongoing theme, but then there’s a moment where it crowns with an appreciation for the heavens and for life. The way he suffered! And the hope that he found, always, at the end of the day! It’s fantastic!
“But tomorrow I’ll tell you something different,” he chuckles. “It’s hard to pick a favorite.”
While the acting game – and the business underpinning it – can rein in some actors, Bernal revels in the liberation found in his roles.
“Rodrigo feels like a free person, no? For me to create Rodrigo allows ME to be free, because I can channel through him a lot of who I am and want to be. It’s a way of expressing things that I can get away with. I’m conducting with real musicians who are playing for real. And they’re actually listening to me. I’m living this experience. And tomorrow I’ll be living another. It’s such a joy and such luck.”
Another source of freedom: He can stay busy acting on both sides of the border. With the world his stage, conquering Hollywood has never been his goal.
“In the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, the United States was the axis, culturally, but it’s not the center of everything now,” Bernal declared. “I love working in Spanish in Mexico and Latin America because I can play many more characters and play with different accents. Then I have the chance to come here and do this show, and I appreciate that, too. It’s a big world out there.”
Whatever he does and wherever he does it, he wants to be as much surprised by his performances as he hopes his audience will be.
He hailed Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock as masters of manipulation, steering the audience to an engineered end point. But his preferred style of artistry, which he identified as that of Jean Cocteau, has a different aim: “We have to create an accident, and the accident cannot be predetermined. The result can’t be preconceived.
“One approach determines what you should feel, what you should go through, while the other is much more generous and humble. As a member of an audience, I don’t like to be told ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT’ in capital letters. I like to be sucked into what I’m seeing. I see art as a consequence.
“So maybe, as an actor, I approach everything from my perspective as a member of an audience.”
For Bernal, the creative act is one of self-discovery, whatever side he’s on: as artist or spectator.
“I don’t think Beethoven would have had time to think about manipulation,” he said. “I think he would just let loose!”