Bernal appeared on stage and in soap operas for a number of years before making his first onscreen splash as Octavio, a quiet, angry young man in director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s provocative 2000 film Amores Perros. While the critically lauded film allowed Bernal the chance to prove he had the goods, it was his role in the sexually explicit, overnight sensation Y Tu Mamá También (2001), from director Alfonso Cuaron, that really put him on the map.
Although Perros and También are foreign films, Bernal seems to possess a unique ability to cross language boundaries by using his large, revealing eyes and intriguing body language to convey the feelings of the characters he plays. Most recently, Bernal plays the young revolutionary Che Guevarra in director Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries.
"The first time [that I portrayed Che Guevarra] only helped serve the purpose for me to pay the rent," Bernal explains about playing the iconic leader in 2002’s English-language, Showtime miniseries "Fidel." "I wanted to do it again properly."
His second time around wearing the shoes of the famed leader of the Cuban Revolution, Bernal portrays Guevarra in his early days – when he was the young, idealistic, 23-year-old Ernesto Guevarra (not yet known as Che). The film, based on Guevarra’s journal about his trip across South America in the early 1950s, tells the tale of an eye-opening road trip that changed Guevarra’s life and ultimately led to his decision to become a revolutionary.
To accurately capture the young Guevarra, Bernal says he thoroughly prepared for the role before shooting began.
"I tried to soak up everything about him. I read a lot of biographies. It’s great because Che was a person who documented every important part of his life. Walter (Salles, the director) also prepared seminars about political, social, economical, cultural situations of Latin America in those times, which were really incredible."
Aside from learning a bit about Guevarra’s background, Bernal also bulked up for the role because, as he says with a smirk, "Che was, you know, bigger."
Even so, Bernal acknowledges that even diligent study did not completely prepare him for the part.
"You want to humanize this person but also not trivialize him," says Bernal. "There is so much information, there are so many points of view and you are going to interpret and bring back life to a person who already had life. So we had to learn to lend our experiences to the character as well, because you can prepare as much as you can but it will always be 30 percent [of the character]. The rest is just experience that you have to give to the character."
Bernal recounts a piece of advice that Guevarra’s real-life traveling companion, Alberto Granado (played in the film by Rodrigo De la Serna), gave to him during filming that allowed the thespian to really get inside the character’s head.
"[Alberto] told me during the voiceover, ‘Don’t use Che’s voice. Don’t try to imitate him,’" Bernal recalls. "He said, ‘Use your own voice because Che was only a 23-year-old Latin American [at the time]. That’s all he was. You are also a 23-year-old Latin American and your voice has the same importance as his.’ [I thought], ‘Of course. This is a journey of discovery. This is a journey about awakening of conscious.’"