Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican-born actor who is fast becoming the Tom Cruise of Spanish-language films, had only a faint recollection of Che Guevera as a youngster. “Growing up in Latin America,” he says, “he’s a character that appeared distant, a face on T-shirts.”
The same might be said of Bernal when it comes to American audiences, and, indeed, all filmgoers outside of Mexico, Spain and Central and South America.
Bernal’s performance in “The Motorcycle Diaries” as the leader of the Cuban revolution in his formative days is producing critical raves and Oscar hubbub. Yet for many unfamiliar with the London-trained thesp, he remains a hazy figure toiling in the esoteric niche of foreign cinema.
That should change, and soon.
Bernal is but one in a wave of international actors hoping to join Academy Award nominees from the ranks of foreign-language films such as Marcello Mastroianni, Fernanda Montenegro and Catherine Deneuve. Bernal, who gained acclaim in both “Amores perros” and “Y tu mama tambien,” can also currently be seen in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”
Javier Bardem, who received an Oscar nom four years ago for his portrayal of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls,” is being talked up again for his heart-wrenching turn as right-to-die activist Ramon Sampedro in “The Sea Inside.”
Audrey Tautou, who won many hearts as the plucky title character in “Amelie,” is at it again with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the World War I romance “A Very Long Engagement.”
Others from the foreign-language realm threatening to break out include Catalina Sandino Moreno from “Maria Full of Grace”; Zhang Ziyi, “The House of Flying Daggers”; Rodrigo de la Serna, Bernal’s sidekick in “The Motorcycle Diaries”; and Lola Duenas, who plays a single mother who befriends Bardem’s character in “The Sea Inside.”
Tautou is grateful and overjoyed by her success, but she downplays any intentional effort to broaden her appeal. “It’s good luck, the choices,” she says. “For me the opportunity to discover new cultures and new cleverness by meeting foreign directors is exciting. I’m aware of the luck I have.”
Although she is best known for the two films she has made with countryman Jeunet, Tautou received glowing notices in a recent English-language film, Stephen Frears’ 2002 gritty “Dirty Pretty Things.” It was a project she chose because of the director and the script, not because she sought fame outside France.
“For me to work with Stephen was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had,” she explains. “He’s a man I really adore and I’m so happy life put me on this road. That’s why I’m very open to meeting other directors.”
Bernal has taken a similar approach to his career. Although most of the pictures he has appeared in have been in Spanish, he speaks excellent English and mixes in an occasional English-language entry, like “Dreaming of Julia” or the upcoming “The King.”
“I grew up in Mexico,” he says. “Here, films didn’t have nationalities. I never thought of this film or that film as a foreign film. It’s just a film. They all have their own colors, of course. Italian films have their own colors. Spanish films had things very specific to them.”
In fact, Bernal is not so impressed with his own exposure in the English-speaking world as he is by the acceptance therein of foreign-language fare. “I think it’s great that people pronounce the names in Spanish, like ‘Y tu mama tambien’ instead of the English translation,” he says.
For Bardem, his participation in “The Sea Inside” came about because of the compelling true-life story of Sampedro, a paraplegic who fought the Spanish legal system for many years in order to win the right to die. It was that rare story that strikes a cord in all humans and transcends any notion of a niche film, or a foreign-language film.
“Ramon Sampedro was a basic person for a lot of people,” Bardem explains. “He was a person who linked a lot of relationships in his family. He was a link that brought a lot of outside people to his house. He’s a very important person, and that’s what the movie talks about.
“A range of people loved Ramon. It served as an example of, I can love you and be loved without keeping you here. He said, if you love me so much, then show it and help me to die.
“It’s a very complex issue.”
Although most of these foreign thesps aren’t looking to break down doors, they’re more than willing to walk through them if opportunities present themselves. Bernal is already attached to “The Science of Sleep,” to be directed by French helmer Michel Gondry, who has done two Hollywood films based on Charlie Kaufman scripts: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Human Nature.”
“It’s a great advantage for me in the sense that there’s more things to choose from,” he says.