Gael García Bernal made his first Cannes Film Festival appearance in drag. Then he came back as Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The young Mexican star, best known for the homo-sexy road movie Y Tu Mamá También, has two films at Cannes--a rare honor for any actor, and he's only 25. It's hard to imagine two roles that are more different, or meatier. In The Motorcycle Diaries, which screened Wednesday in the festival's main competition, Bernal plays the young Guevara--a thoughtful Argentine medical student experiencing the stirrings of social consciousness that transformed him into "El Che." For Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education, the festival's opening-night film about young men haunted by an abusive priest from their childhood, Bernal took on several characters, including an opportunistic actor and a drag queen bent on blackmail.
Bernal is a huge star in Latin America, and his strong showing in Cannes put him on magazine covers around the world. He'd like to break into Hollywood but says he won't turn his back on Latin American cinema, no matter what offers he gets. "I'll make the time," Bernal said. "Perhaps it's the only responsibility I have. [Latin America] is the only place where I say, 'Yeah, I want to do something every year there.' " Bernal's movies have been remarkably successful abroad and led several Mexican directors into Hollywood. Y Tu Mamá También director Alfonso Cuarón was tapped to make Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bernal starred in the coming-of-age hit as one of two best friends wooing a beautiful older woman. In Amores Perros, Bernal played a kid from a tough neighborhood who earns money through dogfighting. The director, Alejandro González Inárritu, was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film and went on to make 21 Grams, starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro.
Bernal said he's not worried that Hollywood will drain Mexico of its best directors. "They have an urge to go back all the time," said Bernal. "They live in Mexico, and they work outside, then they come home." Bernal, who lives in Mexico City and went to acting school in London, did months of research for both Cannes roles. For The Motorcycle Diaries, he read the same literature that influenced the young Guevara, including many French existentialists. He also learned to ride a 1939 vintage motorcycle and perfected his Argentine accent. The film shows 23-year-old Guevara on an odyssey across South America in the early 1950s, accompanied by his best pal (Rodrigo de la Serna) aboard a broken-down Norton cycle. Guevara grew up in a comfortable Buenos Aires family, but the people he met on the voyage--from lepers to prostitutes to downtrodden miners--fueled his sense of injustice. Bernal's Guevara is shy and soft-spoken; Brazilian director Walter Salles said Bernal never let "Che" the icon overshadow his performance. "It would have would have been easy for him to offer the audience a highly flamboyant Guevara, a man full of certitude," said Salles, who made Central Station. "But this was a rite of passage," Salles said. "He didn't shy away from portraying Ernesto as an introspective young man who still had doubts."
To play Almodóvar's drag queen, Bernal learned to speak with a Spanish accent, took flamenco lessons, and spent three months tottering around in high heels. "To be in high heels and act at the same time is very hard," he joked. With his hazel eyes, full lips, and smooth platinum wig, Bernal is disarmingly beautiful in drag--in fact, there's an air of Julia Roberts about him. But when Bernal looked at his character in the mirror, he saw his mother. "I'm not sure how big a compliment that is for her," he joked. Bernal's parents were in Cannes, taking in movies and touring local villages, while Bernal has spent the last week giving interviews. "After a while, you know, you're tired of yourself," he said. "You want to go back home and have people talk about themselves."