‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke Talk Season 4’s New Beginnings

The world of classical music is one filled with brutally competitive auditions, bittersweet romantic trysts, and visions of famous dead composers. At least, that’s the world of classical music according to “Mozart in the Jungle.” The popular Amazon Prime series returns for its fourth season this week, continuing the increasingly entangled lives of conductor extraordinaire Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal), passionate oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), and cranky, eccentric composer Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell).

Entertainment Voice had the chance to catch up with stars Bernal, Kirke and McDowell along with writer/directors Paul Weitz and Will Graham. According to Graham, season 4 jump-starts the series in a completely new direction. “[We] kind of reinvent the entire show every season,” Graham noted. “In season 3 we kind of played with operatic storytelling, and obviously we were doing opera, we were in Venice. I think [season 4] is really about relationships, what it’s like to be a creative person and be in a relationship with someone who’s doing the same thing you are. I think we’re gonna learn a lot about the characters that we haven’t learned before and really see them go new places.”

As Graham hints, Hailey and Rodrigo took their relationship to the next level at the end of season 3. Throughout the show’s first three seasons, Rodrigo has been much further along in his career than Hailey. According to Weitz, that’s going to be one of the hurdles they face in the new season. “[Hailey] loves him and he’s incredibly supportive of her career,” said Weitz. “But she’s always wondering, ‘can I really become a conductor when I’m dating this superstar conductor?’ Early on [Thomas] says to her, ‘you’re imitating [Rodrigo]… So she has to find her own way of approaching the music and her own way of expressing herself in front of the orchestra.”

Weitz notes that Hailey’s journey will take her to Japan this season, in another major shake-up for the series. “The natural next step for the character was to get over her phobia about [conducting],” said Weitz. “In the season she joins a gigantic conducting competition in Tokyo and meets all these different conductors from all around the world who are competing with her.”

“Mozart” has largely been Hailey’s journey. She’s gone from oboist trying to get a spot in an orchestra, to a female conductor looking to lead her own. Kirke notes the rare honor of getting to play a female conductor on television, “I was really excited to represent female conductors. Women in conducting. My coach was moved to tears often. Not by how good I am at conducting… But because she was a conductor and she had never seen that before [on television]. So I’m very excited for the few women who are in that field to maybe give voice to them.”

Hailey isn’t the only character who’s making new strides in the world of conducting this season. In the show’s pilot, Thomas officially retired from conducting, yet his flippant jealousy of Rodrigo and determination to stave off irrelevancy have kept him brimming with energy. Last season Thomas began a new relationship with longtime colleague Gloria Windsor (Bernadette Peters) and attempted a new musical composition. Now, according to Malcolm McDowell, Thomas is taking up conducting once more. “He conducts a competing orchestra, the Queen’s Philharmonic,” said McDowell. “It’s a tiny, nothing orchestra, but he manages to make it interesting.” McDowell went on to describe his affinity for Thomas. “This part is a deliciously idiotic man, but I love it. He’s really sort of like a child, but a brilliant one. And I think people just respond to [him]. I certainly do.”

Though playing a classically trained composer and conductor, McDowell made his own experience with classical music quite clear. “Nothing. I was bred in Liverpool. So what do you think the music I listened to was? I’m Beatle through and through,” said McDowell, though he went on to describe a circle of friends studying music. McDowell notes that some of his inspiration for Thomas came from that circle. “I had a brother-in-law who was a pianist and a really fine one. And his great friend was Sir George Solti, who was the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, one of the greatest orchestras on the planet,” McDowell reflected. “He was quite a guy. And he didn’t suffer fools. Like Thomas, really. I used a little bit of [Solti].”

In “Mozart in the Jungle,” the music world is inhabited by a wide spectrum of idiosyncratic personalities, and Rodrigo perhaps best represents this element. Rodrigo has had an interesting trajectory over the series, beginning as the wildly offbeat young conductor of the fictional New York Symphony and eventually taking over a youth orchestra while being forced to do a series of embarrassing taco commercials. Now, according to Weitz, Rodrigo’s wild career is being put on the backburner for his new relationship with Hailey. “I was really interested in doing something that on some level was about burnout,” said Weitz. “The main thing is [Rodrigo] is into his girlfriend’s career. He wants to be a good boyfriend and he wants to support her career. But he has to run a youth orchestra, he has to run a major orchestra in New York and he has to do this massive fundraising and travel around the world as [a] conductor. And he’s really losing his shit.”

Rodrigo seems to have a boundless energy, constantly whizzing between jobs like a pinball. According to Bernal, Rodrigo’s unique personality stems from a very abstract place. Rodrigo is music, personified. “There is a direct connection [between Rodrigo] … and people that live on the tangent of reality, which is music,” said Bernal philosophically. “And the tangent is part of the circle [of life.] It’s not that [the music] is completely out there, it’s part of life, it’s very established, it sustains itself. But it is not the design of society. So I don’t know, I’ve met people that live in that kind of [musical] spectrum. I envy them, but I have a chance as an actor to be able to tap into that [as Rodrigo] and also to play the character that I wish I was.”

Part of the tangential spectrum that Bernal describes includes Rodrigo’s conversations with the apparitions of dead musicians. Figures like Mozart and Bach are major inspirations to Rodrigo, and they often materialize to give him advice during critical moments. Now that Hailey and Rodrigo are in a relationship, they’re sharing a lot more than just profession. In one of the season 3 finale’s most memorable scenes, Hailey experienced a vision for the first time, appearing to ‘inherit’ them from Rodrigo. Hailey spoke to Mozart’s sister in a critical, path-defining moment. According to Kirke, this is probably not the last we’ve seen of Hailey’s visions.

“I think that the visions throughout the show represent somebody’s deep connection, or obviously Rodrigo’s deep connection, to the work that he’s doing, and kind of show that that connection is not even something that you can help. I was very excited when Hailey got to start having those connections as well, because, A, it’s really cool to work with actors who are dressed like they’re in a completely [different] era,” Kirke said with a laugh. “But also because I think that it confirms something about Hailey, which is that this is beyond passion for her. Classical music is her entire life. And I think that anybody who plays classical music can kind of attest to that. It’s not optional for them. It’s a must and you have to really want to do it because of the amount of practice required to be good.”

With Kirke, Bernal and McDowell, it’s clear that they’ve spent a lot of time honing their characters. According to Graham, the actors’ investment is part of what makes the series so special. “They’re just so involved, from Gael, to Malcolm, to Bernadette [Peters], in shaping their roles, and that means a different thing with each one of them,” said Graham. “But they’re our inspiration and when we’re writing we’re always trying to throw them a wild card that’s gonna challenge them, and that’s part of the fun of it too.”

“It’s very well scripted – and I have to say that because we’ve got three or four writers here tonight,” said McDowell humorously, “I usually come in with something [ready to go], simply because I’m so comfortable in the part. And if you wanna blame anyone, blame those same writers for making it so easy for me to kind of expound on the process.”

With this next season taking place partially in Japan, embarking upon new romances, and marking big career moves, a lot is going to change in season 4. According to Graham though, there’s one constant element that helps keep the show grounded through all its changes: Positivity. “One thing that’s different about this show is how positive it is,” Graham affirmed. “You know, especially with everything going on in the world right now, it’s such an extraordinarily fun and positive show without being candy. [That’s] because it’s about art and creativity. That’s something that I love about it.”

All 10 Episodes of “Mozart in the Jungle” Season 4 Premiere Feb. 16 on Amazon.