Diego Luna: 'Cesar Chavez' is no history lesson

Diego Luna is in director mode.

The Mexican actor ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") effectively called "Cut!" on himself as a siren interrupted him mid-answer during a recent interview at the Peninsula Hotel.

"Is this going to work? No, right?" he asked, pausing to look out the window and watch the emergency vehicle pass. "Otherwise you'll never [use] it."

"Cesar Chavez," Luna's English-language directorial debut opening Friday, focuses on the Mexican-American labor leader's work during the 1960s, when Chavez became the face and voice of a southern California grape boycott that would grow into an international movement.

"Chavez" is just the second time in the director's chair for the 34-year-old, most recently seen in last year's "Elysium" but perhaps more memorable as Katy Perry's artist boyfriend in the video for "The One that Got Away."

At the Peninsula, Luna talked about why he cast Chicago native Michael Pena in the lead role, what would make him cry and who would be able to turn him into an 8-year-old again.


Michael Pena, who plays Cesar Chavez, and John Malkovich, who plays Chavez's main adversary, they're actually from Chicago. What have they told you about Chicago?

Steppenwolf is a project and a reference for me for quite a long time. I do theater; that's how I met [Steppenwolf ensemble member] John Malkovich. ... And definitely, the story of Michael here ... it's one of the reasons why I cast him. ... He was born in Chicago, he's a first-generation [American] and he lived here a very similar experience to the one Cesar Chavez had to go through in Arizona, basically being born in a place that reminds you every day you don't belong, having to go to school and study in English and then go back home [where everyone speaks Spanish].

Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera are in their 20s and 30s, as are you yourself. What was the most challenging part of making a movie that was set mostly in the 1960s?

That distance is good because it's not the same when you talk about something that you experienced, because then you have your own agenda. ... My film is more to let everyone know that Cesar existed, to tell the story to all of those who think Cesar Chavez is a street or the name of a park but they don't know why, and what he means for a community. I think we're at the right age to tell this story.

As a Filipino-American, I was surprised at the role Filipino workers played in the beginning of the workers movement.

Everyone talks about the [Mexican] farm workers going on strike and what it meant back then and the strength they showed, when in fact it was the Filipinos who went first and they decided to join. I really love that way of starting the film. It was this community following another community. ... I don't think this film is [just] for Latinos. I think this film is for everyone in this country, because the film is about a boycott, and what the boycott did is that the story of farm workers suddenly became the story of America. 

In the movie, Fernando Chavez complains that his father makes everything into a history lesson. If someone said that about your film, what would you say to them?

I would start crying, because from Day 1 I said, "I'm not going to do a history lesson." ... Every time [teachers] come to me and say, "Why did you leave this out? Why did you not talk about this?" I go, "Listen, film is not a history lesson." Film is in fact about engaging emotionally ... and it's about having a good time in the cinema. It's about entertaining. Cinema can bring some curiosity for people to go and investigate a little more about Cesar. But film shouldn't be teaching you. At least that's not the film I like watching.

You've now both acted in and directed English- and Spanish-language films, you have your own production company, you've co-written a screenplay and you've even been in a music video. What is one thing you haven't done that you would like to do next?

[Laughs.] What haven't I done? Definitely the parachute experience is something I will do one day, once my son becomes old enough to do it with me. I guess one thing I'm never going to be able to do is be a -- well, here I have to say a soccer player.

Is that something you wanted to do?

I always wanted it! I always wanted it, but I was never good enough. I did a film where I played a goalkeeper.

Was that your dream coming true?

You know, I don't give a [bleep] about anyone coming in or out of a room, but if suddenly [retired French soccer player] Zinedine Zidane comes in, I just can't handle it. I become an 8-year-old, and I need an autograph, and I can't stop staring at them. I have that thing with soccer players, just with them.


edelossantos@tribune.com > | @elisekdelo

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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