Gael Garcia Bernal: the Mexican actor, who is so very right now and here in town for, you know, just a day -- the whole thing with the big hotel suite and the half-eaten plate of fruit and dos publicistas tappa-tapping en los BlackBerrys over there. (Mujeres! Silencio!) He's promoting his new Che Guevara movie, "The Motorcycle Diaries," and everyone who has seen it is going on and on about how saintly his portrayal of young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is and how sumptuously the movie's 8,000-mile trek across South America unfurls onscreen and oh, btw, critics agree: Bernal's got Che's iconic, serious stare down pretty good.
Green eyes, we write in the notebook. (Big duh.)
Also can testify that Bernal is about 5 feet 7, though it long ago ceased to be news that the hotties of film are pocket-size. More notes: He turns 26 in November. He has a proud, long nose that sometimes blushes red when he laughs. He's wearing one of those Salvation Army-seeming plaid western-cut shirts that often turn out to be designer-label, a pair of deep blue vintagesque jeans and some scuffed lace-up boots the color of old asphalt. His hair is cut bubblegum-mishap short.
Awright, already, he's de-lish. Did we need to bring that dogeared copy of "501 Spanish Verbs" with us? Of course not: Dude went to drama school for a while in London when he was a teenager; not long after he starred for six months in a Mexican soap opera called "El Abuelo y Yo" ("Grandfather and Me"), and this particular fact has dogged him in every interview. ("People think I did all these soap operas," he shrugs. "I did only that one. And it taught me a lot -- it taught me I never wanted to do another soap opera.") When it comes to Spanish, he can bend it to his will, the way Nicole Kidman can do in English, with whatever accent directors like Walter Salles and Pedro Almodovar need him to speak in -- Mexican, Argentine, Castilian.
During our interview, he spends an hour dissecting, in English, the current state of Pan-American politics, extolling his sensible, leftist-tinged childhood, and at one point he quotes from foreign-policy magazines.
We hold up our end of the conversation with such questions as:
"So, um, like, what do you do when you're not working?"
"When I'm not doing this?" Bernal asks, motioning around at the movie-star-with-movie-to-sell air particles of feature story nonsense. "I like to do all the things I cannot do as much. My common days are very different now. I would, if I could, I would be home" -- Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City -- "and I would sleep until whatever time. Swim, play futbol. Read and go to lunches and the lunches become dinners. Visit family, organize a party for that night."
Halfway through the image of Bernal swaddled in high-thread-count sheets until whatever time, a half-theory privately knocks around in our pea brain:
Gael Garcia Bernal, or someone very much like him, is exactly why so many of us faithful, independent-minded filmgoers still cram ourselves into the creaky seats of dumpy art house cinemas, even as the years tick by and things like Netflix, the Sundance Channel and the nicer stadium-seating art houses came along to replace them. No, you want to see Bernal's movie surrounded by drabness, because you get a better transport to the happy, imaginative place that way. The stale popcorn, the Fandango.com ads, the bathroom with only two toilets. (Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5, we mean you.)
We do it because we're always waiting for that next small-time heartthrob -- male, female, or sometimes just the foreign scenery itself. It's the subtitles and the eyes. It's whatever we can't get from those American goofballs who do those blech movies that tend to be about guys who go on canoe trips where a horny bear in the woods tries to hump them. Or whatever.
Bernal would never do that to us.
Hollywood beckons and he rolls his eyes because it offers him roles like, uh, okay, here's the pitch: He's an undocumented leaf-blower yardman caught up in a caper that only Jackie Chan can make right, if only they could understand each other's Engrish, ha ha.
"I'm open," he says. "I am, I am. But so far in the U.S. what they have offered doesn't even get close to the kind of things that excite me. Nothing is quite right, so I think I'll just stick with what I'm doing. I have to stay . . . hmmm . . . congruent to myself."
And so that's why certain filmgoers are inclined to sneak off to his "small little movies" (as he calls them) in the middle of the afternoon, get the large Diet Coke and consider the combustion in contemporary Spanish-language cinema that the rare actor like Bernal can harness. You feel like you've just gone somewhere, talked fast, smoked cigarettes. They call him the Marcello Mastroianni of Latino film when they're not busy calling him the Marlon Brando of it.
All that smoldering, the aching of youth! One, please, for the 2:50 showing of "Y Tu Mama, Tambien." (That hormonal breakout hit, a coming-of-age road trip from 2001 starring Bernal and his childhood friend Diego Luna -- people mix them up, still.) Or the 4:45 showing of "Amores Perros" (from 2000, translating as wordplay for "Love Is a Bitch," a chronologically scattered tale of how one car wreck in Mexico City changes three lives). Or the 3:10 showing of "El Crimen del Padre Amaro," from 2002, about the sinful lapse of a young priest (Bernal, natch) caught up in a small-town mess of church corruption. Its release in Mexico naturally put hard-line Catholics there in a state of non compos mentis, which both baffled and delighted Bernal.
Some of his key appearances have been as himself. Fresh from "Y Tu Mama," he and Luna graced the Oscar ceremony last year, cleaned up in their tuxes, to present a small award, and Hollywood swooned. He was seen dancing all night at parties at Cannes. For a while he dated Natalie Portman (well, that's what the tabs reported) and you almost can't stand the fleeting idea of how gorgeous their children would have been. (Cancel that. They broke up.)
His movies are always in exotic, crumbly locations, and we are there, because Bernal is there: the back roads of the Mexican interior, or ascending to Machu Picchu as a soul-searching Guevara or click-clacking around the cobblestone streets of Spanish villas in transvestite stilettos seeking revenge against priestly pedophilia at a boarding school, as he does expertly in Pedro Almodovar's next surrealistic offering, "Bad Education," which will open this year in New York. (It's scheduled to open in Washington in January. Sorry, kids. Delayed for possible Oscar-sensitive reasons of timeliness, and to not get in the way of "Diaries." He's one of those stars: Two big projects colliding in the art houses of the world.)
If Salles' "Motorcycle Diaries," which opens Friday, doesn't make you feel like an earnest college sophomore with a crush on the Marxist professor who teaches your Latin American history class, then we don't know what will. Predating the muss and fuss of the Cuban revolution, the film is an epic, richly hued journey into the formative years of Che, back in 1952 when he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, an Argentinean med student in his early twenties.
Ernesto takes a year off school to travel on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle with his best pal, Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo de la Serna), across and up the South American continent.
Guevara, a devoted diarist as a young man, took notes about the people and places he saw, and the gulf between rich and poor (it helps to open his eyes when his rich girlfriend dumps him). The further Guevara and Granado go, the more Che becomes Che, seeing native people and their lives transcending the bourgeois notions of government and ownership and greed. By the time Che's working with lepers in the Amazon, Salles' movie (and Bernal) have reached a subtly beatific realm. In case you're not quite feeling it, Salles ups the noble-people quotient with black-and-white still portraits of the working-class people the young men encounter along the way.
"We prepared for four months," Bernal says of the research phase, and the crew shot the film more or less chronologically, following Guevara and Granado's original itinerary. "I read 1,001 books about the land and biographies [of Guevara]. We traveled. We practiced on the motorcycle three times a week. We asked permission from the gods, and also the local political and cultural centers. . . . When finally we started shooting, I wondered if we were prepared enough for this daunting task. We got on the bike and the road started to appear and things started to happen the right way, without you even noticing."
Bernal was born in Guadalajara and raised in Mexico City. Both his parents are stage actors. He has been thinking about Che Guevara for half his life -- and even played the revolutionary in a two-part miniseries on Showtime about Fidel Castro, which he would appreciate it if everyone forgot. It goes back, for him, like most kids, to middle-school social studies class.
"It happens when you are about 12 or 13," he says. "When you grow up in Mexico you have a very strong connection to Cuba. As a kid you listen to this story, it's incredibly, incredibly exciting to hear. [The revolutionaries] changed Latin America forever and they changed the world. So you start early, identifying with where [Guevara] comes from, and identifying with his ideas in a way, and identifying with the struggle, and therefore you're able to agree with it or criticize it. Leftist ideas redefine themselves constantly. I think my generation is much more critical of what works in Latin American socialist movements and what didn't. There used to be a stigma that any leftist revolution had to come with violence. I don't think we believe that anymore," he says, mentioning Zapatistas in jungles who carry wood carvings of rifles instead of actual guns, just for the symbolism.
You think this sounds a little pinko coming from the mouth of a movie star? Well, you try embodying Che Guevara and see what you feel like talking about when it's over. When Bernal speaks of politics and the world, it's not with fire. He leans back. He almost whispers. It's seductive, in a way.
Early in the shooting, Alberto Granado, now 82, was visiting the set, Bernal says. And he offered this advice to the actor: "He told me, don't try to copy Ernesto's voice, or his mannerisms. He said, 'Use your own voice. All Ernesto was was a 23-year-old Latin American like you. Traveling around. Seeing things.' And I realized that what the movie needs is that universal experience. Granado was right. I have a right as does any person to tell the story of Che."
When it was over, months later, having lost weight to play the asthmatic Guevara as the trip takes its toll, Bernal found himself still wanting to travel.
When the film was finished, "I felt serenely confused, like in a serene state of almost understanding something bigger, and then not quite understanding it. All the time I felt like that," he says. "It redefined my priorities. I have moments where I understand what has happened to me, and then moments where I don't. I wanted to just get back on the road and travel to anywhere." (He sort of does that now, subletting apartments in New York and London, spending four months in Spain working with Almodovar on "Bad Education," spending a little time back home in Mexico. He recently spent a month in Austin, shooting an independent film called "The King" in which he plays a character named Elvis -- "the bastard child of an evangelist preacher," he says.)
He says he can't believe how hamstrung American actors arewhen it comes to saying anything political. He wonders if the United States has forgotten how to hold a real election, with real debates. He shows up in gossip columns lamenting the lumbering, impervious quality of American imperialism.
"The U.S. is a great nation that's becoming a war machine. But it is a great people, which can save it," he says. "Some of us fall into traps where we can't say what we think. But it shouldn't be this way. Actors are free. That's the nature of being an actor, to do anything you want to do, to say anything. It's why we're here. And if I were an American, I could be pigeonholed for what I just said."
He'd go on, but our lecture has to end here, for it is time to throw us out and escort in another reporter. It happens to be a student journalist from American University, and she seems excited to meet the Mexican Marcello Mastroianni, but trying to keep it all in check, remain cool.
She shakes his hand, ready and willing for her revolutionary inculcation in the hotel suite of Gael Garcia Bernal. She's exactly the age where a young woman's thoughts turn to putting that Che poster on the wall, and we envy her.