Gael Garcia Bernal: It's easier to kiss a man than play a girl

He is about to go stellar. But Gael Garcia Bernal will do it on his terms - and have a damned good time, he tells Fiona Morrow
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The Independent Culture

Gael Garcia Bernal is all over Cannes like a rash. His face stares down from posters and magazine covers; his booty has been seen shaking it on the dance floor. But then, Bernal is the hot prospect at this year's festival; the 25-year-old Mexican actor stars in two of the biggest films - Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education and Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries. An actor since childhood, when he hit the boards with his thespian parents, Bernal's star has been steadily rising since he came to international attention in Amores Perros in 2000 and built on it the following year with Y Tu Mama Tambien. The King, a US independent production starring Daryl Hannah and Sam Shepard, is in post-production. Hollywood can only be a heartbeat away.

And they'd be a fool not to snap him up: Bernal is seriously good. He also has all the physical makings of a movie star. On a blistering Cannes day, Bernal looks enviably cool in fitted jeans, cowboy boots and a mucho trendy black cotton jacket. His thick black hair is chopped about in the most modern of mullets.

Shock, horror: he's enjoying himself. "If this weren't a festival for cinema, it could easily be a pagan party," he notes with glee. Certainly, the opening-night bash for Bad Education was an unholy affair: as copious quantities of sangria were imbibed and specially imported Pata Negra ham guzzled, Bernal's Bad Education co-star Javier Camara - and his drag act the Diabeticas Accelerades - were camping it up with everything from torch songs to yellow cat-suited spoofs of Kill Bill. It wasn't long before Almodovar and his longtime collaborator Victoria Abril were up on stage fuelling the irreverent festivities.

But there was no sign of Bernal beside them. Why not? I ask. "I think there were many of us who were thinking how brave they all were," he proffers. I wait for further explanation and he gives a little shrug. "They didn't pull me up there. I wasn't going to just go..."

His insecurity is sweet, especially when you consider his confident performance in Bad Education. Bernal plays three characters - the wannabe actor Angel, transvestite Zahara and the coolly manipulative Juan, prepared to hustle his ass for a part in a gay director's film. It's a role that he says took a lot of research and preparation, not least in the matter of pulling off the cross-dressing.

Finding his feminine side wasn't difficult. "Oh, it was very liberating," he smiles. "You get to do things that you would never be able to do." Such as? "Like walk around with the power of a girl, with the control a girl has over men." He laughs as I raise my eyebrows. "As a girl, you can get men to do anything you want them to do - if you do it intelligently enough."

In fact, Bernal embraced his inner woman so completely, he went out on the town in drag. "Yeah, it was liberating to be out on the street," he enthuses. "It's like finding the clown you have inside you that's only particular to oneself. In Brazil," he digresses, "there are six football beaches, and once a month everyone dresses as girls and plays in drag there." He flashes a toothy smile: "It's nice to be anarchic with yourself and just enjoy it, you can learn a lot."

In Bad Education, the Spanish Catholic church exerts a powerful and abusive influence, but Bernal is eager to point out that its position is very different in his homeland. "In Mexico, the church cannot have any political influence at all and education is completely secular," he explains. "If the president of Mexico said anything related to God, it would be the worst thing he could do. Not like in the United States, where Bush says: 'God is on our side.' That would be completely unthinkable."

His own attitude to religion is unapologetically flippant. "The synchronism of the indigenous cultures in Mexico creates a kind of cultural Catholicism," he suggests, adding with a grin: "But it's more an excuse just to make a party. All our holidays are tied to the Catholic year, but really it's just about fun." He pauses, then adds quickly: "I do take the national Day of the Dead more seriously than the others, but that has nothing to do with the Catholic religion; it is something very different.

"So," he continues, "I think I'm culturally Catholic, but really I'm a hedonist - I'm of the religion that enjoys having a good time. I am into all the ceremonies and I believe in the energy that exists when you walk into a mosque or a synagogue. But I don't believe in the institutions." He is equally frank when discussing the pivotal act in Bad Education, where a priest molests a child in his care. "I think what is being dealt with in the film is one of the most horrendous crimes that someone can commit - to use your position of power as an adult to abuse a child. But I don't think that a priest abusing a kid is a sin, or that the priest is evil - I think it's a crime that should be punished by society. It's not a matter of washing off your sins and saying 'I'm saved now.' Oh, no."

As both Zahara and Juan, Bernal is required to portray some fairly explicit gay sex scenes, something that he's surprised to have found himself having to discuss. "I don't have any issues with sexuality, ever," he insists. "I'm an actor - you're supposed to do that. You're supposed to be free, and I want to expose myself to that process. It's scary, of course, but it's easier to kiss a man than to play a woman, to walk in high heels, talk in a Spanish accent, do a whole scene crying..."

His commitment is paying dividends: he's now a major star in his homeland and is gaining plenty of recognition abroad. The Crime of Father Amaro - a controversial adaptation of the 1875 novel by Eça de Quieroz, and a stinging attack on corruption within the Catholic church - was huge in Mexico: "It was our Titanic," exclaims Bernal brightly. Nevertheless, he insists, his life continues as normal: "In Mexico, you just go around doing your business and people approach you in a very positive way, talking about what they thought of the films. It's not like approaching you for an autograph, which is the most impersonal thing that can ever exist. An autograph and that's it, end of contact - and there wasn't even any real contact to begin with."

The idea that he might fall prey to big star syndrome creases his face into a generous grin. "You know, I wake up with myself every day," he laughs. "I don't wake up thinking: 'Shit, man, I'm a huge star,' and suddenly everything changes. I'm trying to keep it as a natural evolution in my life, in the same way as if I was doing something else - although there's no doubt this evolution is taking me places."

Next stop, of course, is Hollywood. Bernal says he has been genuinely taken aback by suggestions that Bad Education could hurt his career in Tinseltown. "Maybe the corporations are like that, but I don't think the people are," he argues. "And anyway, I don't want to make films to satisfy a homophobic audience."

His lovely face is sullied by a frown. "I consider myself part of the audience, too," he continues, clearly stirred up. "And I think we are more intelligent than they think we are. We don't want the same thing to be told to us over and over again," he exclaims. "If this film jeopardises my career in the United States then something is wrong. But if that happens, I will be proud of it."

It's fighting talk, and I have no reason to doubt his integrity. I can't help being cheeky, though. As we wind up the interview, I ask him how far he would go to get a part - would he go as far as his character, Juan?

Bernal's eyes widen in mock horror. "I would never, definitely, definitely never, ever do what he does," he says. Is he sure about that? He leans forward, eyes dancing in amusement, and whispers emphatically: "Definitely."