You could say it was almost like love at first sight. Damien Chazelle did not know Diego Calva, but the first time he saw him in front of him was through a photo, “a cliche when interpreters are selected”, he admits. His portrait was among those of many other actors auditioning for the film, but there was something about his eyes: “His face felt like a dreamer’s, as if his eyes had poetry in them. ”. From that moment on, a “very organic and collaborative” process began between the two. They started talking about the role, Calva read a few scenes until finally Chazelle decided to pair him with actress Margot Robbie to see her chemistry. He recorded them with his iPhone in their backyard while rehearsing scenes. “It was like watching a talent blossom,” says Chazelle, winner of the Oscar for best direction for La La Landabout the choice of the Mexican actor for the role of Manuel Torres in Babylonhis most recent film.
The story of how he met Calva has been repeated in different interviews. actor’s choice 30-year-old, from Mexico City, was a bet from the director. They were six months of “very traditional and very meticulous” work, as the interpreter admits, since the director of whiplash prepared him for the role that earned him nominations such as the Golden Globe in the category of best actor in a comedy or musical, as well as for the Satellite awards, American association of professional entertainment journalists, and for best cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
The work between the two began before the pandemic. Given the impossibility of boarding a plane to Los Angeles, the process began virtually. Calva emphasizes the investment that Chazelle put in him, since it was an accumulation of first experiences. The first time living in the United States, working in English, with “superstars” and people he greatly admires, like Brad Pitt, Robbie herself, Jean Smart and Tobey Maguire who, in his opinion —and he says it with emotion— “always He will be the best Spider-Man.”
“The most complicated thing at the beginning was how to get out of my territory. Get out of my comfort zone. Damien helped me work on my English, he helped me work with my body, to live for the first time in Los Angeles, that is, he was a person who was by my side all the time. I think that is seen on the screen, in what he managed to get out of me, what I also managed to get out of myself. You can see the chemistry and trust that we always had”, Calva tells EL PAÍS.
Babylonwith three Oscar nominations -in the Costumes, Music and Design categories-, follows a group of ambitious characters: the silent film star (Brad Pitt), the young promise (Margot Robbie), the executive producer Manny Torres, a Mexican who seeks to succeed in the American film industry (Diego Calva), among others, who strive to stay on top of the raucous, ambitious and excessive excesses of the scene hollywood from the 1920s and preserve its importance at a time when the industry is moving into something new. Before making the leap to the mecca of American cinema, Calva had stellar leading roles such as in I promise you anarchy (2015), for which he won the Best Lead Actor award alongside his co-star Eduardo Eliseo Martínez at the Havana Film Festival, and in Narcos Mexicoseries in which he plays the capo Arturo Beltrán Leyva.
Before Babylon, had not had work experience with English, a detail on which he emphasizes, since his language base, like many contemporary children and young people in Latin America, was through video games. To understand and advance in the story, you had to grab an English-Spanish dictionary. “I will always say it, English was something very complicated. Acting for me is a very instinctive thing, it has to do with reacting and listening; and above all with understanding what is happening. When you are faced with a language that you do not know, that suddenly you do not fully understand, the phrase that another actor tells you or that you are looking for the words to answer, you become slow, then learning how to be agile in another language was definitely complicated. “, Explain.
Calva put a lot of sacrifice into this role. When she first arrived in Los Angeles, she stayed at Chazelle’s house for 10 days, where she held rehearsals in the director’s garden with her co-star, also an actress from I, Tonya. Together with the director of The first man, whom he considers his “carnal”, they worked a lot on his character. Both equally moviegoers reviewed many movies that helped Calva with the role, such as Boogie Nights (1997) and the character played by Mark Wahlberg; or the eyes of the soldiers in The thin red line (1998), as well as dog afternoon (1975), by Sidney Lumet; Singing under the rain (1952) or The boy (1921), by Charlie Chaplin.
“Those 10 days that I lived at his house, every night we watched a movie. We worked a lot on the character of Manuel around Al Pacino, his roles as a young man. The Godfather especially for his ability to explode and for his face, his silences with his eyes. He has made intelligent characters in difficult situations and we needed Manuel to have that mental agility. Those eyes that are thinking and solving, but also Chaplin’s eyes, because he had this wonderful thing of transmitting innocence, pain, sorrow. Other feelings ”, he specifies.
Calva gets on the train of Mexican talent in Hollywood, in which some, like Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal or Yalitza Aparicio, are more established. While others, like Tenoch Huerta, Mabel Cadena or Eiza González, are taking their first steps. The actor puts his character as a mirror of the importance of maintaining the culture or roots of where one comes from. With Manuel he realizes that everything starts to go wrong when he tries to lie about who he is, saying that he is from Spain and not Mexican; “when americanize and change the name to Manny”.
“That is something that happened to Latinos for a long time in the United States, to stop being who we are. Now I think we have shown the opposite. The rich and everything we can bring to the table. I am sure that it will never happen again that a Latino has to change his name to enter Hollywood or an industry. We are becoming more and more, we are covering more space and we bring our own stories and our own culture”, he affirms.
The cache of the chilango actor does not end with Babylon. Just finished filming On Swift Horses, by Daniel Minahan, a film in which he shared a set with Daisy Edgar-Jones and Jacob Elordi. Another period drama, this time about the making of Las Vegas. “Apparently they don’t want me to dress modern, they like me to look old,” she says with a smile.
It also has pending the premiere of midnight familythe first Apple+ series in Spanish in which he shares credits with the Oaxacan actress Yalitza Aparicio, who also, curiously, produces a film titled dreamer that has Calva as one of the protagonists. Between ceremonies, awards and all the work that he has ahead of him, the press has not hesitated to call him “the fashionable Mexican actor.”
Calva takes it with great humility, appreciation, and laughter, but has certain reservations about this last title: “For me, I swear, every award ceremony, every nomination, has been so new that I can’t get used to it. On the contrary, I still love them, it’s like an amusement park. And with this wave, like the ‘fashionable Mexican’, well I think it remains to be seen. I had a very cool thing, I don’t like to call it luck, but yes, it was like a huge train of names Babylon. Now I have to reaffirm this moment, continue working until I become one of those Mexican actors that one knows, not ‘the one in fashion’. I don’t think Diego and Gael are the fashionable actors, they are the Mexican actors. I want to get to that category.”
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