TORONTO—Given his sympathetic, finely nuanced portrayal of the young Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries (in release) and his stunning quadruple-edged performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, Gael García Bernal has proved himself one of the most formidable actors of his young generation. In Almodóvar’s lurid, labyrinthine thriller-melodrama (the centerpiece presentation at the New York Film Festival this weekend, and opening November 19), the 25-year-old is a flesh-and-blood Möbius strip, variously embodying an insecure actor-screenwriter, a bodacious drag performer, and a coolly Machiavellian operator.
“The character acknowledges that he’s an object of desire, and he plays with that power,” says the Mexico City–based Bernal, who sat down with the Voice during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “I felt a dilemma sometimes—I wasn’t sure if this was one character doing all four parts, or if it was four different characters. Like an actor, he changes method and adapts himself to the moment, just to get what he wants.”
Almodóvar and Bernal reportedly clashed during filming, though both parties have remained respectfully taciturn about the nature of the conflict. “Pedro is like any good director—the thing that makes them all similar is what makes them all different, which is that they have a very specific point of view. He doesn’t compromise his vision for anything or anyone, and he plays with his freedom—he does what he wants exactly the way he wants to do it.” He pauses a moment, and adds thoughtfully, “Directing is pretty fucked up and hard.”
The son of experimental-theater actors, Bernal is far more effusive about his experience with Salles filming The Motorcycle Diaries all over South America. “We were re-enacting a journey that was done 50 years ago, and what’s surprising is that the social problems of Latin America are the same,” says Bernal. “Which is heartbreaking in a way, but it also makes you feel how important it is to tell the story.”
The actor has played Che twice now, previously in a Showtime biopic of Fidel Castro (Bernal dismisses the TV pic as “pretentious”), and has obviously given some degree of thought to Che’s uncertain status as a countercultural icon. “We asked Alberto Granado”—Guevara’s traveling companion, now in his eighties—”how would Ernesto feel about having his face all over the world on a T-shirt? He said, ‘Well, knowing him, I think he wouldn’t mind, especially if it was a girl.’ “