Gael García Bernal Rose to the Challenge of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old,’ but Says One Role Still Eludes Him

For over two decades now, Gael García Bernal has trotted the globe, making films of international scope or leaving his mark on the era of Peak TV. Now Bernal finally enters that realm other actors tend to rush towards, the popcorn blockbuster. Bernal plays one of the key characters in “Old,” the new, emotive thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. It is the Mexican actor’s first project with the director, who is best known for his mind-bending entertainments that always hurtle towards a twist ending. Its setting is a lush tropical getaway where a particular group of vacationers seek relaxation. Guy (Bernal), is at this resort with wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their two children, Trent (Luca Faustino Rodriguez) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton). During an exploratory hike to a beach, the family finds itself joined by another married couple, a surgeon named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher) and Charles’s mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). A nurse, Jarin (Ken Leung) is also there with wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Then a body washes ashore and everyone begins to rapidly age, alerting the adults to some strange force on this beach. Worst of all, there seems to be no escape. It is as if the cycles of life will now play out in a mere day. Also starring Alex Wolff, “Old” is a return to the kind of storytelling that made Shyamalan’s name back in the days of “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.”

Bernal’s own career began at around the same time as Shyamalan’s. Soon after “The Sixth Sense” premiered Bernal came to international attention with the Oscar-nominated Mexican film “Amores Perros,” a visceral work that also introduced the world to director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Since then he has played everything from a young Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries” to a pastor’s long lost son in “The King,” and an affluent conductor in Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle.” With “Old,” Bernal now dabbles in psychological popcorn thrills. He spoke with Entertainment Voice about the experience.

Until now you’ve been known for your eclectic work, that ranges from international cinema to American indies and TV. What were your expectations when agreeing to work on “Old” with M. Night Shyamalan, a director associated with big films usually ending with shocking twists?

Well, first, I am thinking about this term, “international cinema.” Like, what does it mean? Do you mean that sometimes I make films in Mexico?

Well, in the sense that you do work that isn’t just confined to one territory or country. One day you’re in a Chilean film like “Neruda” and the next in a U.S. thriller like “Old.” You define a global artist.

Oh! I see, thank you very much. And, well, it was very exciting, the idea of working with Night. He invited me to read for the part. When he offered the part I was completely ecstatic. But I was mostly curious about what was going to happen. The script presents a big challenge but with a very interesting premise. It’s nice when the premise of the story is something that gives us the challenge of not knowing where we’re going. And working with the actors in this film was also exciting. So I guess it was a combination of everything and waiting to see how Night would interpret this material. 

It’s a tense situation on that island, where all the main characters get entrapped. A few start going completely insane. Did the tone of the story ever have an effect on the energy on set?

Actually we had a lot of fun, a lot of fun. For everybody it represented a huge opportunity to get away from the lockdown in our homes. We could finally focus on making a film and concentrating on that. We could talk about life, to wonder and to even cook with each other. During the shoot we were a group that bonded pretty well and wanted to get along. I bonded very strongly with Vicky Krieps, we sort of became best friends forever, which was really nice. We were laughing a lot. You have to step aside from what we’re doing, this very intense drama. When you step away you can even see the ridiculousness of many things. When we’re filming we’re doing this ritual of interpreting these things so seriously. But then you can step away and have a laugh about it, get in fresh air or have a little bit of a reset in a way. Night appreciates a sense of humor a lot. He’s a very different director from the others I have worked with, they’re all different. They have different ways of engaging and doing the work. I will say that something that makes him unique is that he found a very personal voice within mainstream cinema. He has a very strong use of cinematic language, he owns it, and this allows him to make choices and open pathways that deliver with great risk as well. I appreciate that a lot from his work. He’s a unique voice in cinema.

There is an undercurrent in the plot about all of the fears and challenges that come with growing older, attaining uncomfortable knowledge, and dealing with loss. Did you as an artist tap into any of your own potential fears about the passage of time?

I’m sure I did (laughs). I’m sure I did but in ways I cannot express in such a definite way. Whatever we do in films, there is a piece of you now out there, something that comes out. To reach that moment there has to be a combination of things that need to occur. This story led us to lots of long, endless talks about “what hell?” (laughs). What I mean is we talked a lot about what it all means, and yes, the passage of time. If I had to reduce it to a very simple answer, I wouldn’t say it’s about the fear of growing older but about the curiosity of growing wiser in a way. That’s what interested me in playing this part.

Up next you’re slated to play Zorro in “Z” and surrealist painter Salvador Dali in “The Playboy Interview.” What can we expect for you to bring to these two well-known characters?

Everyone is asking about “Z” but don’t believe the rumors. I don’t know why it’s all over the internet (laughs). 

Indeed, it’s being reported and it’s officially listed on IMDB.

Yeah but no, no. It’s not happening. I keep getting asked about it (laughs). Dali I did do, it was an interpretation of an interview he did and it was a lot of fun. 

And finally, you take many risks with your roles because they can be so different. From a young Che Guevara to the charismatic conductor of “Mozart in the Jungle,” and now a Shyamalan thriller. Is there possibly a role out there that you would still hesitate to take on? 

I’ve never had an objective in terms of the archetypical role I’d like to play one day, but I think that throughout the years I’ve developed a clear desire and that is to one day, play King Lear. I would love that so much, that’s a pathway I am forming for sure. But that will probably be when I get more aged (laughs). 

Old” releases July 23 in theaters nationwide.