The 25-year-old Mexican actor has plenty of charisma when he's wearing pants, too. After attracting attention with his turns in 2001's Y Tu Mamá También and 2000's Amores Perms—movies that helped lead a renaissance in Latin-American filmmaking—he's taking on a legend, playing the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the new movie Motorcycle Diaries. In Bad Education, due out in November, he appears in and out of drag in a complex double role. Bernal hasn't yet headlined a film in English, but the squealing girls who greet him at premieres show fans know a heartthrob when they see one. That cross-border appeal "is a tribute to this guy's talent and also to the fact that he's very proud of his own roots," says Diaries director Walter Salles. "Gael is the real thing."
Bernal claims to enjoy the spotlight. "It's a bit like living my frustrated dream of being a football [soccer] player," he says in soft-spoken, near-perfect English. But he's clearly more comfortable talking politics—as a presenter at 2003's Oscars, he slipped in an antiwar statement—than his love life. (He recently dated Natalie Portman, though these days he's single.) Bernal says playing Guevara helped his "priorities fall into place." After shooting in Argentina, Brazil and Peru aboard a rickety 1939 Norton motorcycle—portraying a trip Guevara made with a pal in 1951 as a young medical student, long before he led the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro—"I felt much more in touch with the land, with the place I'm from," he says. He hopes audiences will relate to the not-yet-icon in the movie: "We have all been 23 and all have ideals." Not that Bernal lacks a lighter side. "At Sundance I turned around and he was having a snowball fight with my agent," says screenwriter Jose Rivera. "He's a boy; he's goofy."
Guevara maybe a controversial figure, but Bernal has never been one to play it safe. He certainly isn't afraid of sexuality onscreen: The explicit scenes in Y Tu Mamá, in which Bernal and Diego Luna played randy teenagers on a road trip, caused a stir in Mexico and the U.S., where the movie became an art-house hit. In the film Bernal and Luna, real-life best pals since age 12, wind up in a passionate clinch. Did their friendship make the scene easier or harder? "Weirder," Bernal says. "But it was fun. Between takes we had a few sips of tequila. It gave us courage." Bernal is upset about a recent report that he clashed with Bad Education director Pedro Almodóvar over the movie's graphic gay sex scenes. "It's not true," he says. "Everything I've done has been without making that an issue." His transvestite turn, though, wasn't easy. "The thongs and the waxing! But it's really liberating. If you were the opposite sex, what would you be? It's fun to play and explore that."
Bernal picked up his adventurous approach to acting early. Born in Guadalajara, he moved at 12 to Mexico City, where his parents, José Angel García and Patricia Bernal, were both actors in a university theater. "It's beautiful to watch your parents have fun," says Bernal. "I wanted to be on the stage with them. I wanted to play around."
He got his wish working on a Mexican soap opera as a boy. At 17, when students at his Mexico City university went on strike, the philosophy major set out for London, where he tended bar (he had studied English since age 11) and won a place at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He landed his first big role as a poor youth who enters his pooch in dogfights in Mexico's Amores Perros, a foreign-language Oscar nominee. A rough cut of the film got him cast in Y Tu Mamá.
While Bernal recently wrapped the English-language independent film The King in Texas, he's not hunting for a Hollywood blockbuster. "You want to tell a story and believe in it, regardless of what country it's from," he says. Now his goal is finding time to relax at his home in Mexico City. "I like hanging and traveling and reading and seeing friends and eating and going to museums," he says. "Common life has become something very uncommon."
Samantha Miller. Mark Dagostino in Toronto, Simon Perry in Cannes and Courtney Hazlett in New York City