'Old' Star Gael García Bernal on Working With M. Night Shyamalan and What to Watch Next [Interview]

M. Night Shyamalan‘s Old is built around a simple idea: characters grow old rapidly on a mysterious beach and can’t escape. It’s both new and familiar for Shyamalan. The horror-thriller is one of his more stylized movies, but at its core, it’s another Shyamalan film about family and storytelling.

Fathers have played a large role in Shyamalan’s filmography and parenthood fears are one of his recurring themes. With Old, Gael García Bernal plays a fearful father, watching his family’s lives go by as he worries about the future. Bernal is known for his authenticity in dramas, like Bad EducationThe Motorcycle Diaries, and Y tu Mamá También. With Shyamalan, though, he got to have fun with an unconventional role.

We sat down with Bernal to discuss the new movie, and he told us about what it’s like to collaborate with the always-interesting Shyamalan, plus the one and only movie he can compare to Old.

This is one of those movies that leaves room for interpretation. When you read the script, how’d you interpret it? What did it mean to you? 

Absolutely. It’s one of the main rules of the fable. It’s very similar to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. It’s strange, I can’t bring in other references of films that have that as a concept of people not being able to escape for a reason. As in The Exterminating Angel, it’s never very clear what happens and why you can’t escape this place. It adds a lot to the questioning of, what happens? Why can’t we get out? Of course, it opens questions.

Normally, I don’t like to impose my point-of-view of something, because I want that interrogation to be a very personal one for everyone who sees the film. For me, I’m sure doing the film, meant something. Now watching the film, I’m sure it meant another thing. In another couple of months, it might change. It’s going to change. I just saw it last night, as well.

Probably the big challenge here is how to convey aging. How’d you want to portray aging at such a rapid pace?

We tried to do a kind of linear development and outcome. Obviously, because of the circumstances and nobody knows what it’d be like to live your whole life in one day, we had to make choices, go this way or that way. Some of them might not be very obvious when watching the film, but some of them might be. The ones that aren’t so obvious are under the surface of getting older, wiser, and thoughts becoming something different without the life experience. So, it was a strange philosophical pondering every day and night. We’d hang out and talk about it. We had time since we had time while shooting on the beach. It was a very enjoyable process in that way.

How is M. Night Shyamalan with explaining questions? Does he break down everything for actors or does he let you answer the questions yourself? 

I think, let’s say, his interpretation of the film is very firm. He throws in a farcical sense of humor, too, which is wonderful. It’s an escape from a need for logic. We’d have a lot of fun just laughing about what we were doing. I’m sure there’s a B-roll of the film that is a comedy. We would play a lot with everything that is happening. We can’t relate to a situation like that, so how would I react? It’s a juxtaposition with the mundane that makes for very fertile land for a comedy. It was fun to engage with that and even when to know when to hold back with the humor. Night is a very funny person, too,

In between takes, how is M. Night Shyamalan as a communicator? Is there a lot of talking?

We had a situation on the beach where we had to be actively engaged with what was happening. At any moment we would move the camera to the other side of the beach because the tide had just opened, the clouds had come, and we could shoot another scene. Nonetheless, even though we were on edge in a way, like I said, Night and I would laugh a lot, just imagining what characters would do.

I think a part of the process is to engage with something so dramatic and, in a way, over-dramatic. I mean, many deaths happen quickly. It’s difficult to even put your head around it. Sometimes you need that fun escape to get away with it. We’d have a lot of conversations about cinema, as well, how to do the mise en scène of certain scenes and interactions. He’s very good at talking about different ways of how to shoot those scenes.

He’s a very stylized writer, too. What’s it like delivering his lines? Does it always feel natural? 

It’s very faithful to the premise, so there’s going to be a lot of artifice in the dialogue. Artifice is what films and theater are made of, but there can be truth in that, no? It can be done with truth. You can find the truth. A part of everything was trusting the dialogue he wrote. There is a composition the characters live upon. Especially for most of us, English is not our first language or not even second language, so we had to engage with what he was developing. I mean, my character is very different from who I am, so it was interesting to go and be faithful to those dialogues in order to, in a way, find the boundaries of the character and embody them. Let those limitations be the basis for creativity.

Old is in theaters now.

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