Gael Garcia Bernal isn’t sure if he’s saying anything about “Rosewater,” Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, that he hasn’t said to other journalists. “It’s like entering this void of time and space,” he says. “You talk about the movie constantly, and sometimes you repeat what you say so many times everything loses all meaning.” Not that he’s only been asked the same few questions. (Apart from, “Does everyone ask you the same few questions?”) But there is a lot to talk about with the docudrama, in which he plays Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist detained for 118 days in a Tehran prison in 2009.
This isn’t a comedy, but humor plays such a key role in this film.
Maziar found the humor in this story in an incredible way. He’s an incredible guy who went through something really terrible. Humor was one of the anchors that saved him. I think that’s a quality that maybe all survivors have. Humor is always there, in a way. In the darkest moments there is something that makes you realize that everything is really ridiculous. [Laughs]
Even as things get grim, there’s always this feeling that the reason he’s being jailed is a joke.
It is like a joke. And it’s always a joke. The systematic apprehension and torture of people is done by powers in crisis. For example, look at the Inquisition. The excuses they used to kill people were ridiculous — and funny, in hindsight. But how many people did they kill? Or look at the conquest of America. It’s one of the biggest genocides ever, and for stupid reasons.
It’s strange that anyone who spent so long in isolation and being tortured could find anything to laugh about.
Humor is an evolutionary trait. We as rational beings find incongruencies, and they make us laugh. It’s about deconstructing stupidity. We use humor to reflect on our own human narrative. There’s always a moment, even in the darkest moments, when you go, “F—, this is really f—ed up. This is funny, in a way.” [Laughs] Humor saves, it deconstructs, it asks the complicated questions, and it’s dangerous for people who don’t believe in humor and the complexity of things. People who see things as one-sided are generally not funny people. And their timing is terrible. If they tell a joke it’s really bad. Jon is the complete opposite of that. He’s a person who’s incredibly funny, incredibly intelligent, and his humor is reflective. He shows the incongruencies, and that’s what makes us laugh.
Given that you’re making a very serious film about torture, was humor key to keeping you guys sane on set?
There was a lot of humor, because Jon doesn’t stop making jokes about everything. We had to laugh about everything.
This isn’t the first political film you’ve made about another country. “No” took you to Chile to deal with the defeat of Augusto Pinochet. How do you familiarize yourself with other nation’s politics and history?
By getting drunk, actually. [Laughs] By jumping in. It’s like jumping into cold water. You think about it then say, “Let’s just do it.” Once you’re there, you’re like, “OK, this feels pretty good,” or “F—, this is the worst mistake I’ve made. Fortunately I’ll be out of here soon.” That’s what happens with films, in a way. You get to bond with people. It’s a crazy job, but it gives back to you so much.