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rosewaterA Mexican in Iran.

An interview with ROSEWATER star, Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal was the first celebrity I ever interviewed. It was a very high stress situation for me. It was running late; my train out of the city was departing that afternoon; and I also had to make sure I refrained from undressing Bernal with my eyes. I pulled it off in the end but I have to say, meeting him again so many years later was a much better experience.

Bernal and I sat down for the second time during the Toronto International Film Festival when he was on hand to talk about his starring role in ROSEWATER, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut about a journalist (Maziar Bahari), who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran after he appeared on Stewart’s The Daily Show. Bernal plays Bahari but was not fully aware of his story going into the role.

“I remember the demonstrations around the Iran elections and what was at stake, but it was through the film that I learned even more, and more or less learned the whole historical progression as to why this happened,” Bernal admits. “I knew a little bit about Maziar’s story. I remember there were a few people put in jail unjustly at the time but I wasn’t aware of all the details.”


He read Bahari’s book on the subject before production began but it was speaking with Bahari himself, who was heavily involved in the film, that informed his performance the most. “Mundane details he told me ended up helping me or inspiring me most. They just colour what you’re doing.”

Bernal has been acting in film for about 25 years now, getting his big break in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s AMORES PERROS, followed by Alfonso Cuarón’s Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. Today, these great directors are winning awards for their work but at the time, they too were just starting out. With ROSEWATER, Bernal finds himself working with Stewart, another first timer behind the camera.

“It’s unlike working with any other first time director. Jon’s already been doing his show for 20 years or something. He discovered the semiotics of cinema, the way of working on a set and building a movie. He surrounded  himself with really good people, people with a lot of experience. I’ve been doing films for a little while now, so I was able to bring a little to the table too.

So what is it like to work with someone as iconic as Jon Stewart, who only this week announced he would be stepping down as host of The Daily Show, where he has actually been for 17 years?


“As a director, he knows how to handle a group of people working on a project. He’s a very fun guy, very loving, very intelligent, very easy going. He created this atmosphere where he would make us feel comfortable even though we were shooting in the middle of Ramadan in Jordan.”

In many ways, Bernal felt that it was Stewart’s humour and approach to that humour that made him the perfect choice to lead this particular project. “What drew me most is that Jon is a person who is always working for the common good, in a way. He mentions that his job is doing ephemeral, topical comedy, which is true. The ephemeral aspect of it really draws a light on issues that really need to be discussed at that level as well. They’re so ridiculous some of them. The joke is just pointing out the incongruencies.”

Not that torture is a laughing matter but rather that Bahari had to find the humour, as well as the humanity, in his situation (he spent 118 days in an Iranian prison, mostly in solitary confinement), in order to hold on to hope and ultimately survive it.

“I think that was what Jon’s appreciation was with this story to begin with. This guy in this situation, he just found the humour immediately. And that was his way of surviving it. Even though he had a fake execution; how horrendous and diminishing is that? He felt that he was out of contact with everyone and that his family didn’t care anymore. But there was something inside of him that showed him there was still a horizon there.”


And Bernal, who is Mexican, felt no undue pressure playing Bahari, who is himself Iranian and Canadian. This is for the most part thanks to Bahari’s involvement in, and approach to, the film. “Maziar is a very modern person. He knew that his life was being transformed into a film and he surrendered to the fact that it was an interpretation of an interpretation that was going to come across and hopefully a happy accident would occur at the end.”

This particular happy accident they were hoping for was to shine a light on the injustice behind Bahari’s story, but also to broaden that light to expose how these injustices are happening all around the world.

“Maziar’s story points out how an institution or government or leviathan organizes this massive infrastructure to suppress freedom of speech and how one person, be it a journalist or a little kid with a camera, can put that infrastructure to its knees and how they’re so scared about this. Why are they so scared? What is being hidden?”

Before we conclude our chat, which I’ve successfully had without undressing Bernal with my eyes again, Bernal once again asserts how Stewart is the perfect choice to tell this story. Perhaps Stewart should consider making more movies now that he will have all this free time.


“I’m a big admirer of Jon’s work and what he’s done. He deconstructs that narrative. He really plays on another tangent that is equally important and shows things that nobody dares show. In this film, I think Jon has an edge to it. It is a very well intentioned movie that really wants to move forward on this issue. But he does so by lifting the veils. What I love about this movie is that it isn’t ARGO. It is not about showing how fucking cool the West is. Actually ARGO could have been a comedy. This film is not about Iran specifically. It is something that is happening everywhere.”

Bernal is currently filming DESIERTO, an immigration film directed by Cuarón’s son, and GRAVITY co-writer, Jonás. ROSEWATER is available to rent or own today.

(While you’re here, don’t miss our interview with Jon Stewart!)

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