Gael García Bernal Details His Lucha Libre Training for Cassandro
Feb 1, 2023
Now that the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is over I can say this with the utmost certainty — Cassandro was my favorite film of the festival.
Gael García Bernal delivers a pitch-perfect performance bringing Saúl Armendáriz’s story to screen in the Prime Video release. Saúl’s had enough of playing El Topo in the Lucha Libre wrestling scene. He doesn’t want to be a runt who always loses his matches. Saúl wants to be a star. It isn’t until he starts training with Sabrina (Robert Colindrez) that he figures out how he’ll do it. Saúl is going to turn the stereotype of the exótico character on its head by making his new character, Cassandro, a winner.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
While in Park City celebrating Cassandro’s big debut, Bernal took the time to visit the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water to discuss what it took to play the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” Bernal details his experience training for the role, the importance of bringing Cassandro’s joyful spirit to screen, what it was like working with El Hijo del Santo, and more.
You can hear about it all straight from Bernal himself in the video at the top of this article or you can read the interview transcript below.
Image via Prime Video
I was reading Roger [Ross Williams]’s director’s statement and he mentioned that you were the one and only person he wanted to lead this film. Did you have that same confidence in yourself, and if you didn’t, at what point in the process did you find it?
GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL: Ever since he told me about the film, about the idea of Cassandro, I saw the photos of Cassandro and, wow, yes. I was like, ‘That would be great to dress up like that and to do wrestling.’ And Lucha Libre wasn’t on my bucket list. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. And then when the opportunity came, it was like, ‘Oh, yes, of course!’ I have to. I’m a Mexican actor, I have to do a Lucha Libre film one day, you know? How come I’m not doing this? So I started to sort of dream with the idea and get excited by it, and little by little it started to take shape and become something. With all good things, you never remember the initial point, you know? It’s always difficult to say, what was the initial idea? It kind of built up into something very complex, and by the time we were about to do the film, it already felt like I’m ready. I want to do this and experience this.
What’s a particular thing about his real experience or a quality of his that you knew you wanted to hold tight to going in, but then also, what’s something about him that you only discovered during the production process as you explored the role more?
BERNAL: This is something that maybe on the outside I already realized was going to be complicated or difficult, which was the wrestling, basically. Lucha Libre is an incredibly hard sport. But once you start doing it, you don’t realize how really hard it is. Almost monumentally hard. It’s one of the most — I cannot even put adjectives to it because it’s Lucha Libre. It’s like mythological wrestling. It’s fighting against superheroes and images because also, it is a performative sport as well, so you have to embody the character and you have to play with the audience. So it was incredibly tiring and the film doesn’t respect the biological timing of cells. [Laughs] It’s just so tiring, the whole shooting period of like 12 hours a day of doing the wrestling. It was really hard. Even for the wrestlers it was really hard. They were like, ‘Oh man, making films is little bit boring, no?’ ‘Yeah, it can be can be tiring and boring sometimes.’ But then it’s great when you watch them. So that’s something that I discovered truly in my body while doing the film. And to incorporate that, it’s like a very stylized way of interpreting or acting. You have to fight against being incredibly tired.
And one of the things that I felt was special, but at the same time, I didn’t want to put a name to it, I just wanted to sort of gravitate or permeate the essential archetype of Cassandro’s character that is so joyful, his joy. And that’s why he became very, very famous and transcendent in the Lucha Libre world because he was a character that was having fun, and there was enjoying and there was interacting, almost like in a drag show with the audience and just making everything lighter and happy. And at the same time, breaking down taboos. Realizing that taboos are not that big of a deal once you break them, you know? They make a beautiful sound when you break them, but afterward it’s like, this is not that big of a deal. Nobody cared, you know? Society was also kind of evolving. And so yeah, that kind of joy was something that I wanted to incorporate.
Image via Photagonist
Great success in that department! The joyful spirit of this movie is infectious and it sends you out the door with a full heart, feeling energized, and also inspired.
BERNAL: Exactly. And also the fact that what I like a lot as an audience, or am fascinated by the thesis of the film in a way is that in order to become yourself, you have to play someone else. You have to play a character, because who we are is who we wish we are also. For example, I’ve always said this when talking about this series called Mozart in the Jungle. I used to play this character called Rodrigo and I miss him so badly because he’s the person I want to be. [Laughs] He would be sort of my therapy for that year. Two months of thinking out loud, no filter, saying what I think. I want to be that way. Of course I can’t, but I would have loved [to]. So that’s the joy of acting and interpretation, to play other people, to play other or someone you wish you were.
I love that thought so much.
You brought up the athleticism of it all. I assume you went through a good deal of training. Was there any particular technique, specific hold or anything about the sport that you found most difficult to be able to pull off?
BERNAL: At the beginning with the whole physical training, I was really happy. Everything hurt, but I was feeling stronger and I was eating everything as well because to have a Lucha Libre body it doesn’t have to be macrobiotic chiseled. No, it can be a little bit full of energy, you know? And so that was very nice at the beginning. And then when we started to do the Lucha training properly, I started to realize, okay, every little centimeter of my body was just hurting and in such pain. Pain that I couldn’t even describe. It was like very internal.
I said last night, amongst the many things that we used to do that incorporates the Lucha training is learning how to fall. So half of the training is just learning how to fall. So you have to fall many, many times, and properly in order not to hurt yourself. And of course the first times you do it, you’re hurting all the time. And then as more time passes, you’re not hurting that much. But you have to make a big sound as well, of falling. It’s like going back to childhood. It’s such a great sport that is exactly what we used to do when we were kids, wrestling and then falling.
I think about the sound all the time! The sounds when they do slaps, too. It reverberates through my body to the point that I feel like I could feel it.
BERNAL: Yeah, you really hurt yourself. So I think that the most difficult thing was — okay, and I’m an amateur wrestler in the sense because there’s a whole thing of the professionalism that I never experienced. But El Hijo del Santo, when we were doing the wrestling match together, he told me, ‘I’m gonna show you old man’s techniques.’ So normally in the chokehold you would do this, whatever, and you would do this, but then with a little knuckle, he would put some kind of pressure here and it would hurt so much. There’s a point where he grabs my leg — it’s just these kind of acupuncture points that just hurt completely, disintegrate you, and that’s something that real wrestlers do. They know these little points. And so sometimes you will see they’re just holding each other, but they are actually hurting themselves. And he’s very strong and he’s very hard. He’s amazing. He helped us out a lot as well.
I have to let you go soon. I could talk about Cassandro all day long, but I have to squeeze in one future question. You probably know where this is going because I told you I’m a big fan of horror. I love Werewolf by Night and I love the idea of Marvel embracing horror more. I was curious about your opinion on maintaining that tone, style and grasp on that genre. If he were to move into another corner of that franchise, do you think there’s a way to continue the character but still maintain what makes Werewolf by Night so unique?
BERNAL: For a moment I thought that you were gonna mention how Cassandro’s going to incorporate into the horror world of Marvel, and I would have been like, ‘Why yeah!’
I mean, I’d be fine with that, too! Bring it on!
BERNAL: [Laughs] Exactly! Yeah, of course. I would be delighted because also, it was just a little tease what we got, you know? And what I experienced by playing this character in Werewolf by Night, I loved it. And the people that were there, with Laura Donnelly, it was fantastic to work with her because she’s a very strong diehard horror movie fan, and it was fantastic to play that. And yes, I hope that we can do that in different ways, shapes and forms. And who knows where it’s gonna go? I have no idea, but I want to be part of that and I really love how it came out. I’m very pleased. I love horror movies as well. I’m not a big fan because I get really scared, but I like them a lot. It is the genre that encompasses the best aspects of filmmaking. It is like opera in a way. I love it.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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