'The Motorcycle Diaries'

THESP FILE
What actor/actress would you most like to work with?
“There are so many, but off the top of my head, Juliette Binoche.”
What’s your favorite film from the past five years?
“An Iranian film called ‘The Apple,’ by Samira Makhmalbaf. It’s a beautiful film.”
Which character in a film have you watched and wished you could’ve played?
“Dumbo. It would be great to do that story and dress up like an elephant.”
What are you doing next?“Starring in the drama ‘The King’ with William Hurt and dealing with strange dreams in Michel Gondry’s surreal ‘The Science of Sleep.'”

While most actors never get the chance to portray a political icon, Gael Garcia Bernal has played Latin America revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara twice.

The first opportunity came in 2002 for the Showtime pic “Fidel,” and he most recently got at the heart of the young revolutionary again with “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

“The first was an exercise for me to want to do it better — and to pay the rent,” he says. “There are a million ways to play it. You can play Che with capital letters or you can play Ernesto the kid. I was drawn to this because it was a spiritual journey about a person whose conscience is just awakening.”

Based on Guevara’s journals, the Walter Salles-helmed coming-of-age film tracks young medical students and best friends Guevara and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) as they take a road trip through Latin America in the early 1950s. To prepare, the Mexican actor read Guevara’s writings, met with surviving family and friends and even brushed up on his Argentinean accent.

“This story may be about a trip Ernesto embarked on 50 years ago, but what happens still resonates with Latin America today. So this movie not only pays tribute to Ernesto, but pays tribute to every Latin American who has struggled,” says Bernal. “Latin Americas are who they are because of Che Guevara.”

But in the end, the person had to overcome the legend.

“You have to trust that the smallest, most isolated story in this world can always be universal,” says the star of “Y tu mama tambien,” the film that helped make him a more familiar name in the States. “You have to remember that the more specific the context and the more specific the point of view, the more universal it becomes.”

In addition to “Motorcycle Diaries,” Bernal’s visibility is rising outside his native Mexico thanks to his performance in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”

While not exactly competing against himself, Bernal knows the two perfs may dilute his Oscar chances. But that’s OK, as it gives him a chance to work with people such as Almodovar and Salles.

“There’s a beautiful quote that says the only person that can beat you is yourself,” he says. “You compete with yourself every day. The only thing I can vote for is president in Mexico, so it’s out of my hands.”

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