Q&A with Gael Garcia Bernal

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Luca Cavallari / Capital Pictures / Retna

Gael Garcia Bernal

As proof that Hollywood isn't the only path to cinematic superstardom, Mexico's multilingual Gael Garcia Bernal, 28, has enthralled U.S. audiences in several internationally acclaimed films, from The Motorcycle Diaries (directed by a Brazilian) to Bad Education (Spain) to his latest work, the Oscar-nominated Babel. The globetrotting actor spoke with TIME's Carolina A. Miranda about why the world needs yet another film festival and what he dislikes about crossing the border.

TIME: You've appeared in few U.S. productions. Why doesn't Hollywood appeal to you?

Garcia Bernal: It's not that it's not appealing or that I'm holding back. But if a [Latin American] film like Motorcycle Diaries comes up, I'm going to do it. It's about doing what I like. And it's about doing what I can. It's not like you can do six movies in a year. You do three at the most —and that's a lot.

Three Mexican directors were nominated for Oscars this year: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Babel, Alfonso Cuaron for Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro for Pan's Labyrinth. Why the sudden recognition of these filmmakers?

The reasons are pretty clear: the films are good. They are great directors who are bold and never compromise their point of view. But also, people are going to see their movies. That's important. These are awards that the industry gives to the industry.

The first time you went to Cannes, in 2000, was to promote Amores Perros with Gonzalez Inarritu, when you were both virtual unknowns. What was it like going back last year for Babel?

The whole universe changed in a way. Before, Latin America was left behind in competitions like Cannes. Thanks to [festival director] Thierry Fremaux and to the cinema that's been coming out of Latin America, little by little, it's a bit more accepted.

In Babel, which just came out on DVD, U.S. border agents are suspicious of your Mexican character's motives for crossing the border into the U.S. Has this been your experience?

That scene is an extraordinary case, but yes, I've crossed in many places: Juarez, Tijuana, Tecate. It's sort of a ritual of humiliation. You get asked questions you don't know how to answer because they're ridiculous, like, "Where do you come from?" I'm like, "Are you serious? From Mexico. Where else?"

What do you think of the proposed border wall?

It's a silly waste of money. First, the excuses to build it have a lot to do with terrorism. But the [9/11] terrorists didn't come from Mexico. Second, there is the world economy. Everyone is talking about free trade, but the wall doesn't allow for free trade of labor — although it's needed.

In addition to your role in Babel, you've played many characters who have a dark side. Why do they appeal to you?

I do characters that I like and that are human. They have many different sides. It depends on how you see them — whether you look for the dark or the light.

As a native Spanish speaker who is fluent in English, do you find it any harder to express yourself in one language versus the other?

It's different musical keys. You have to think differently. Everything, really, is practice. I also speak Portuguese. There are others I intend to speak properly — French and Italian. I'm almost there.

You just directed your first film, Deficit. Can we get a plot preview?

We're still editing, so I can only say blurry things. It's a story about loss of privileges and the end of impunity. It revolves around a family.

You and your former Y Tu Mama Tambien co-star Diego Luna recently started a traveling documentary-film festival in Mexico. Why documentaries?

There isn't a festival of documentaries in Mexico. This gives everyone in different cities the opportunity to see, for half price, films from all over the world. There's an official selection, a section about censorship and an experimental-documentary section. We also have a section dedicated to Witness, an organization that provides equipment for documentaries that denounce human-rights abuses.

On a lighter note, I understand you're a fan of The Big Lebowski, a cult classic in the States. Do you have a favorite scene?

I like it when [Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges] mentions that his rug really held the room together. I like that a lot.