Interview: Diego Luna on how hard it was to make ‘Cesar Chavez’

Diego Luna directed (but did not act in) the biopic "Cesar Chavez." Credit: Getty Images
Diego Luna directed (but did not act in) the biopic “Cesar Chavez.”
Credit: Getty Images

Mexican actor Diego Luna has been working in the industry since he was a boy, but he didn’t get America’s attention until “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Alfonso Cuaron’s 2001 comic road trip. He has since teamed with his co-star, Gael Garcia Bernal, not only on other films (“Rudo y Cursi,” “Casa de Mi Padre”) but on a production company that makes films intended to appeal to audiences on both sides of the border. That includes “Cesar Chavez,” a biopic on the labor union organizer (played by Michael Pena) that Luna directed.

What is your own history with Cesar Chavez?

I didn’t know much about him. In fact, it was the shame I felt [laughs] that made me want to do this film. I remember the funeral was when was a teenager. I remember the image of thousands of farm workers in the streets in California. I remember the wooden box he was in. It had no paint, no nothing. He was sending a message of equality even when he died — no luxury at all. I remember thinking, “Who is that guy?” But that curiosity did not make me go deeper. When I started traveling in the states and working in California, I’d see avenues called “Chavez,” murals about him in East L.A., schools named after him.

What changed that?

My company opened an office in California, and we started looking for stories that would appeal to both sides of the border, that would allow us to work in the States but talk about who we are and where we come from. This sounded like a perfect one, because it’s a story about a Mexican-American. He was born in Arizona, but he was very connected to my country.

Much of what he rebelled against is still a problem.

It’s about how a completely ignored community found a way to connect with consumers. That’s why we focus on the boycott and those ten years of his life, because what they did was ahead of their time. Instead of going straight to the industry and falling into violence, they talked directly to the consumer. They made the consumer understand their story mattered. It’s about that responsibility that it is to be a consumer today. When you buy a product, you’re a part of something.

Actually, the film often looks timeless. There’s not a lot of period stereotypes.

I wanted to avoid stereotypes in general. When I started researching, I realized how far Chavez was from the cliche of the Mexican-American stereotype — with tequila in his hand and a mariachi sombrero eating a chorizo burrito. This man was a vegetarian. He read Gandhi. His movement was nonviolent. They keep his office as he had it, and they allowed me to come. I promised not to break anything. I was shocked by the music he would listen to. It was all jazz — Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. No one would imagine the leader of farm workers, this Mexican-American, was a fan of John Coltrane. Well, he was.

This is the second fiction feature you’ve directed, and you’ve made shorts and documentaries. What made you want to transition from acting in the first place?

I’ve been acting since I was 6. I think I was just getting bored with it. And I was starting to become a pain in the ass for directors. I think it’s very dangerous when an actor tries to impose his point of view when you’re working on a film. I like film when it celebrates the point of view of one person, and that’s the director. As an actor you are a tool for someone else’s point of view. When you’re trying to impose your point of view, you can be difficult. I have the feeling I was starting to be a little like that. I realized I had to tell my own story.

This is a bigger production than the other films you’ve made, in that it’s about a real person’s life and spans years. What were some of the difficulties?

Everything was difficult. We would try to get financing from the studios. That was a big shock. Everyone was like, “This is an amazing idea, we’re glad you’re doing it, but we’re not going to join.” I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” Someone literally said that. They said like, “Can you have an A-list actor doing it, like Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem?” I was like, “Have you seen Cesar Chavez?” It’s almost like asking me, “Can you make it a non-Latino?”

You rarely find films about this community, about the Latino experience. The other day we were in a meeting in Chicago, and someone in the foundation said this was the first film about a Latino that is not from the entertainment business. It’s ridiculous. This community is so important in this country. This is a country that celebrates every heroic story in cinema. They grab stories that are not heroic and make them heroic in films. The last film I remember being a biographical film was “Selena.” There’s no other hit that has made it into the mainstream. It’s pathetic! Our goal is to show that there’s a market for these films, that there’s an audience that wants to be fed, that wants to be represented. But it’s not easy to prove something, you know? It will be easier for the next one if we succeed.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Sharpton adapts adversarial style to de Blasio's New…

It was not the first time the Reverend Al Sharpton made his way to City Hall in a fiery mood to scold a mayor about New York City police officers…

National

Sprint and T-Mobile offer further price discounts

Sprint unveiled a plan on Thursday that gives subscribers access to unlimited data for $60 a month, the industry's cheapest unlimited data offering.

National

Hundreds pay it forward at Florida Starbucks in…

The spontaneous chain of kindness continued for about 11 hours, totaling 457 transactions by the time it ended.

National

Weather system east of Caribbean could turn into…

An area of low pressure located east of the Caribbean Sea has a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm in the next 48 hours, U.S. forecasters…

Music

polyphonic

Movies

Review: 'When the Game Stands Tall' is both…

The high school football saga "When the Game Stands Tall" fumbles around for a focus while Jim Caviezel offers the most low-key coach in history.

Movies

Girlfriend in a coma: Chloe Grace Moretz

Chloe Grace Moretz is the best cheerleader "If I Stay" could ask for. As the star of the film adaptation of the successful YA novel…

The Word

The Word: Summer lovin' for Zac Efron and…

Ah, the summer romance. So intense, so fleeting. With Labor Day fast approaching, it should come as little surprise that the incredibly surprising romance between…

NFL

Fantasy football draft guide: How to draft your…

Many are wondering if we’re entering a new age in fantasy football drafting — one where running backs take a backseat.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Giants storylines to watch

The Giants have plenty to work on as they reach the dress rehearsal preseason game Friday night against the rival Jets.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Jets storylines to watch

Metro looks at three Jets storylines to watch as they play the Giants Friday.

NFL

Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.

Sex

Big weddings may lead to long-term happiness

Dreaming of a big wedding? A new study indicates that the longer your guest list, the happier you’ll be in the long run. l A…

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…

Tech

Siren: A new dating app that puts women…

Online dating can be brutal, especially for single women. Noting that many women hate wading through inappropriate messages and photos, two tech entrepreneurs decided to…