When Daniel Giménez Cacho Met the Three Amigos

Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have each enlisted the actor in key films, including the new drama “Bardo.” They explain why.

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By Carlos Aguilar

At 24, two years into a degree in physics, Daniel Giménez Cacho received a casual invitation to attend a singing class. To the initial dismay of his engineer father, that unexpected offer derailed a planned career in science and ignited a lifelong zeal for performance.

“It was a physical discovery, a rebirth for my body,” Giménez Cacho said in Spanish during a recent interview at a Mexican restaurant on historic Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

Born in Madrid but raised in the heart of Mexico City, the acclaimed actor, now 61, has amassed an eclectic list of credits displaying both his gravitas and comedic chops over nearly four decades.

Beginning Friday on Netflix, he can be seen as the director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s alter ego, Silverio Gama, in “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” a dreamlike fantasia of personal and political ruminations.

After starting in theater, Giménez Cacho found broader exposure via television in 1989 with the popular soap opera “Teresa,” opposite a young Salma Hayek in the title role.

At the time, only a handful of films were being produced in Mexico each year. But slowly, a young cohort of filmmakers started making waves with audacious narratives on screens big and small. The actor found himself running in the same artistic circles and growing his career parallel to those behind the camera.

Testament to his crucial role in laying the foundation for the emergence of the new Mexican cinema, Giménez Cacho is the rare actor to have collaborated with each of the Mexican Oscar-winning directors collectively known as the Three Amigos: first Alfonso Cuarón, then Guillermo del Toro and now Iñárritu. Iñárritu said with a boisterous laugh, “We should erect a statue of him because he is the only survivor of the Three Amigos.”

Outside Mexico, he has been summoned by titans of cinema like Pedro Almodóvar (“Bad Education”), Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoria”).

I asked Cuarón, del Toro and Iñárritu to recall their first meetings with the actor and experiences working with him.

Alfonso Cuarón: ‘Not only a collaborator, but a co-creator.’

The actor and the director first met on the set of Luis Estrada’s “Camino Largo a Tijuana” (1988), where Cuarón was a producer and camera assistant.

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Cuarón said he regretted that even though he was impressed with the actor’s precise, dancerlike body language, he didn’t immediately consider him to star in his first feature, the 1991 screwball comedy “Sólo Con Tu Pareja.”

“I was afraid that I hadn’t seen all the options, when in reality that was really dumb because the best option was in front of me,” Cuarón said by phone.

Giménez Cacho wound up starring in the film, and Cuarón considers himself lucky. Recalling a dinner guest once likening the actor to Marcello Mastroianni in that he could inject levity into rather emotional dramas, the director explained that his debut feature “hinged on the performer; he had to carry the movie with humor and lightness.” Cuarón added, “Daniel became not only a collaborator, but a co-creator of what the movie ended up being.”

Giménez Cacho remembers being hesitant. It was his first lead role in a film.

“I always had a lot of doubts” about the role of a philanderer whose antics catch up with him, Giménez Cacho said. “I still have them, but now I’m 61. I had a lot of insecurity, so it was really nice to discover my comedic vein.”

After “Sólo Con Tu Pareja,” Cuarón encouraged Giménez Cacho to try Hollywood and helped set up meetings with agents.

“I came but I thought, ‘This is not for me.’ They asked, ‘Do you want to be rich and famous?’ and I said, ‘I want to make great movies of which I can be proud,’” the actor recalled. “The people at William Morris Endeavor” — as it was known at the time — “sort of understood and they told me, ‘OK, go back to Mexico and we will send you things.’ That never happened, and I didn’t pursue it after.”

For his poignant road trip movie “Y Tu Mamá También” a decade later, Cuarón wanted a male narrator to evoke those in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculin Féminin” and “Band of Outsiders.”

As he searched for an objective voice to add ironic context, he considered someone with a Spanish accent and asked the director Fernando Trueba to try.

Eventually, Cuarón enlisted Giménez Cacho — even though he thought the actor’s tone might be too warm for the task — and was surprised by the organic match between voice and images. The actor recorded the text before ever seeing any footage.

“Daniel hadn’t come to mind because I was searching for voices, I wasn’t thinking of actors, and, again, that was a silly mistake,” Cuarón admitted. “He knew perfectly that he had to have a certain Brechtian distance but at the same time not make it dry.”

The actor said with a smirk: “I’ve never been his first choice. But once he doesn’t like anyone else, he has no choice but to say, ‘OK, let this cabrón do it.’”

Guillermo del Toro: ‘The best actor of our generation.’

A special effects makeup artist long before becoming a director, Del Toro first met Giménez Cacho in 1990 while applying fake dirt and an artificial beard during the shooting of Nicolás Echevarría’s desert period piece, “Cabeza de Vaca.”

With incisive curiosity, Giménez Cacho asked del Toro detailed questions about the transformation process. The future auteur realized the actor had an obsessive commitment to every aspect of his work, something he could relate to. The two became instant friends.

Del Toro nicknamed him el Niño Sapo (the Toad Kid), recognizing a kindred otherness in Giménez Cacho. “We would say we were a pair of freaks,” the filmmaker recalled via video call. Not long after, del Toro would craft a replica of the actor’s arm for a scene in Cuarón’s “Sólo Con Tu Pareja.”

Early on in the actor’s career, del Toro said, he and filmmaking peers like Estrada, Cuarón and Carlos Marcovich “all agreed that he was the best actor of our generation — and I still think that.”

Based on their relationship, and the actor’s work with the vanguard theater group El Milagro, del Toro offered him the now emblematic role of Tito, a foul-mouthed yet dedicated mortician in his debut feature, “Cronos” (1994).

“I’m so grateful he invited me to do this small role in ‘Cronos,’ because even if it’s a bit part, it was a really shiny, memorable one,” Giménez Cacho said.

Today, after more than 30 years of friendship, del Toro marvels at how the intensity of Giménez Cacho’s youth has evolved into an admirable humbleness considering his talent.

“There’s a gift that some actors have, which cannot be cultivated, which is that the camera follows them, the audience is attentive,” the director said. “That’s a virtue that Daniel has.”

Alejandro G. Iñárritu: ‘I knew he’d make my job easy.’

It was at a party following the Los Angeles premiere of Cuarón’s “Great Expectations” in 1998 that Giménez Cacho and Iñárritu first intersected. But it would take a long time before a film partnership would emerge.

Iñárritu described their first meeting about “Bardo” as a “cosmic connection.” A shared affinity for meditation and a mutual understanding of their similar inner journeys became the unconventional foundation of their work together.

While Iñárritu hadn’t written the role of Silverio Gama with a particular actor in mind, he knew Giménez Cacho would nail it even before he had read a single page of the screenplay.

“I realized he was in the same place as me on a personal level, philosophically, spiritually and intellectually,” Iñárritu said during a video call. “Beyond his artistic gifts, which are plenty, I knew he’d make my job easy because he shared the sensibility of what I was looking for.”

Although Iñárritu poured intimate details from his own recollections into Silverio, a documentary filmmaker navigating both his mortality and his Mexican identity in fanciful vignettes, he saw the character as a fictional entity, not an exact reflection of himself.

The director asked his star not to react to the situations, but only to observe: The goal was a dissonance between Silverio and the bizarre world around him because the story is told from the character’s consciousness within a dream.

That search for identity resonated with Giménez Cacho, who in the early 2000s tried to establish a career in Spain only to discover he couldn’t see himself as anything other than Mexican. Inhabiting Silverio, he didn’t impersonate Iñárritu but channeled his own concerns and questions.

“What I do with every character is bring to it what I am, my experiences and my memories, but even more so here,” Giménez Cacho said. “Since the character wasn’t designed, I had to try to find him within me.”

The actor communicates through his penetrating gaze and the hyper-sensual body movement on display in a scene set to David Bowie’s isolated vocals in “Let’s Dance.”

Iñárritu likens Giménez Cacho to the British actor Peter Sellers for the flexibility of his range, and describes him as a haiku incarnate because with minimal modulation he can achieve maximum emotion.

“In ‘Bardo’ he does what few actors are capable of doing, which is to erase the artifice of acting to reach the essence and the presence of something honest and truthful,” Iñárritu said. “You need a lot of inner confidence for that. That’s the highest peak in acting.”

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