The revolution may not be televised—but that doesn’t mean a great TV ad campaign can’t sell its message to the masses. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated No revisits the country’s 1988 referendum, which gave citizens the chance to vote Augusto Pinochet out of office after a 15-year reign of terror. With each side given 15 minutes of nightly broadcast airtime for a month, the anti-Pinochet “No” campaign hires a hotshot ad-agency pitchman, played by Gael García Bernal, to use the aesthetics of soda commercials to sell democracy. The role doesn’t just give the 34-year-old Mexican actor the opportunity to do some of his finest work to date; it also allows him to participate in the type of socially conscious, politically informed work he’s long favored. Time Out talked to Bernal about this media-tweaking drama at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Time Out: How much did you know about the ’88 referendum and the “No” campaign before signing on to this film?
Gael García Bernal: I’m embarrassed to admit this, but not much; I was actually really surprised to hear how publicity was such a big of a part of the campaign. I had to rely on Pablo and Antonio [Skármeta, whose play El Plebiscito provided the source material] to fill me in on a lot. Before there was a finished script, they showed me the actual ads for both campaigns. Some of the “No” commercials were on YouTube; tracking down the “Yes” stuff was obviously much more difficult. But the more I listened to their anecdotes about growing up during that era, the more I started to see the context that led up to that moment.
Time Out: This is one of the rare movies that actually makes a case for the manipulative power of commercials being used for good.
Gael García Bernal: Most ads try to sell you products—those ads were selling political empowerment and an alternative to a dictatorship. Pablo would talk about how it was this happy accident that several of the tools that Pinochet used to establish a power base were the same things that undid him. Materialism played a big part in how he ran the country, especially in the way he pushed capitalist gain and being aspirational as being these goals to achieve. In the ’80s, he used commercials to pitch those notions to the masses. So, in a way, Pinochet ended up being poisoned by his own venom.
Time Out: His dictatorship is ultimately undone by the same type of images that were used to sell soda.
Gael García Bernal: Exactly! This colorful, fun “No” campaign comes along and becomes this thing that quickly gets picked up by the people. It’s such a singular situation. So many films I’ve seen about the Pinochet era have focused on how brutal it was to live through his reign. This may be one of the only films that examines how people managed to get out from his under his thumb. It was a major populist victory, all without shedding a single drop of blood.
Time Out: Your character, René, is a composite of two real admen, right?
Gael García Bernal: Yeah, their names were Eugenio Garcia and Jose Manuel Salcedo—they were in charge of a lot of the creative decisions behind the campaign, as well as many of the basic operational aspects. They’re both in the film too, playing people working on the “Yes” side of things, which is a good indication of how Pablo’s mind works. [Laughs] They told me a lot about what happened behind the scenes, obviously, but what I really found fascinating were their reactions to how the referendum turned out. One of them, I can’t remember which, went back to work and met with clients a few days after the vote was over. In the middle of a pitch to a popcorn company or something, he just said, “Fuck it.” He walked out of the meeting, got in his car and drove for seven hours. When he came back, he sold everything he had.
Time Out: Which is not what happens to No’s protagonist.
Gael García Bernal: No, we wanted to leave it more open-ended. But we really don’t know what happens to René after the credits roll, do we? [Smiles]
Time Out: You’ve continued to do a lot of smaller, more personal projects in Mexico and South America, in between larger projects in America and Europe. Is it important to you, personally and artistically, to support Latin American cinema as much as possible?
Gael García Bernal: There’s an established narrative that everyone should migrate to Hollywood and work solely in English. But as much as I love working in America and Europe, it was Latin American cinema that allowed me the chance to work wherever I wanted to in the first place. It’s not like sports, where you play in second-division teams and then you get to a so-called first-division team, and you never want to go back. There are some amazing filmmakers working in all of these countries, and amazing stories to be told. Latin America is where I come from, and it’s important for me to remember where I come from. Plus, acting in Spanish-language cinema allows me a place to be a little freer than I might be if I was working in another language, to be honest. It allows for a variety of experiences as well: I can play someone who’s Spanish, Mexican, Argentine, Cuban, Chilean. There are a lot of opportunities to explore other worlds.
But having just said all that: I honestly think that me being Mexican was a big part of why Pablo maliciously cast me! [Laughs] I jokingly say maliciously because, by casting someone who was not Chilean, he was trying to lend a bit of an outsider’s perspective to what was happening. We talked a lot about the notion of exiles in Latin America—the influx of exiles affected virtually every country after World War II, but especially in Mexico, Central America and South America, as military coups disrupted so many lives. And though there were almost no exiles working in that campaign, I think Pablo wanted to emphasize, in his own way, how much the exile community contributed to life in all of those places. Although No is very much a Chilean story, you’re dealing with a number of things that cut across the context of what was going on in Chile. Freedom, political empowerment, human rights, the power of the media—these don’t just pertain to one country. These are universal concepts.
Time Out: When I saw the film at Cannes, it was odd to see the audience emphatically cheering “Nooooo!” with these big smiles on their faces.
Gael García Bernal: [Laughs] I know, that was funny, right? After we heard about the Oscar nomination, a friend of mine asked me, “If they announce No as the winner…did it really win the Oscar?”
Time Out: Whoa, that’s heavy, man.
Gael García Bernal: [Laughs] Totally, cabron! Totally.
No opens Friday, Feb 15.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear