THE YOUNG ACTOR IN BAD Education knows it is the role of a lifetime. After all, he says, the scenario he has just presented to a famous director is the story of his own life. Who better to play the leading part? Yes, the main character is a drag queen but, he tells the director, "if I look too manly, I can slim down." Pride mixes with desperation as he adds, "I'm very flexible. I can do anything."
The young actor playing the young actor in Pedro Almod√≥var's new film also has a myriad of faces to wear--a transvestite chanteuse, the wreck of an abused child, a caring brother, a furtive lover capable of murder. But that's no great stretch for Gael Garc√≠a Bernal. The budding Mexican star has convinced audiences he can be a dog-loving street punk (Amores Perros), a priest tortured by love (El Crimen del Padre Amaro), a randy teenager on a spree (Y Tu Mam√° Tambi√©n). In The Motorcycle Diaries, which just opened, he incarnates the young Ernesto Guevara, soon to be Che. Bad Education follows in November, and after that, who knows? The kid from Guadalajara, Mexico, is high on Hollywood's muy caliente list, though he has yet to make a film there. But the future is limitless for an actor who can do anything.
If you don't go to films with subtitles, or didn't read the gossip columns that detailed his romance (now ended) with Star Wars' Natalie Portman, you probably haven't noticed Garc√≠a Bernal. But if you saw him on screen or in person, you'd pay attention. He has the face of a streetwise seraph--luscious lips that break into a mile-wide, million-dollar smile; green eyes sending out searchlights to communicate with the stranger across from him; a gentle intensity that turns a conversation into a blend of confession and first date. All this has caught the eye of some of the world's sharpest directors. "I think that Gael is one of the best actors of his generation," says Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles "and will be for some time. His strength lies in the fact that he knows who he is and what he wants."
Gael (pronounced guile) knows what he wants, all right: the good education of an actor. "What's cool about acting," he says, "is the opportunity it gives you to be always learning, always preparing. It's a very beautiful path of knowledge." But these days Garc√≠a Bernal finds it hard to catch a breath. "I'm 25, and I still cannot say how my life is," he observes with a charming, disarming bafflement. "I feel like I have nowhere to rest. I think about having a dog but know I can't, because it's impossible with this life."
Life has to be busy for the man who helped make Latin movies the hot dish in world cinema. From Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, filmmakers have created works of whirling vigor, social conscience and a visual style just this side of surreal. And in these films audiences see compelling actors. Often in Almod√≥var films--Antonio Banderas, Pen√©lope Cruz and Javier Bardem got early spotlights in them.