Diego Calva interview: ‘Babylon’

To hear Damien Chazelle tell the story of how he ended up casting Diego Calva as the lead of his new film “Babylon,” it almost sounds like a scene cut out of “Babylon.” “I saw a headshot randomly and I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s the face of a dreamer,’” Chazelle told GQ about finding Calva. “‘Those eyes have real poetry in them. Who is this guy? Has he ever acted before?’”

As it turned out, Calva had acted for years in his native Mexico and appeared on the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico.” But “Babylon” was at an entirely different scale than what came before – a lavish Hollywood production set in the 1920s and 1930s where the actor shares scenes with Oscar winner Brad Pitt and two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie.

“At first, he wanted to figure out if I was able to act,” Calva tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview of his earliest conversations with Chazelle. “In those early days, it was, I think, more like realizing if he was investing in something that makes it didn’t make sense.”

Fortunately, the conversations were fruitful. Calva won the role of Manny Torres in “Babylon,” an audience surrogate who rises and falls alongside the Hollywood glamour of the era as the industry shifts from silent movies to talkies. A newly minted Golden Globe Award nominee in the Best Comedy/Musical Actor category, Calva says much of his own experience mirrored what his character goes through onscreen – including Calva’s first day of shooting, a lengthy sequence when Manny is given the opportunity to see the art of moviemaking up close.

“All those faces [Manny makes], they’re real in a way,” he says of the chaotic sequence, where Manny is in the middle of an epic production. “But this is just Damien Chazelle’s mind – making everything a little meta-fictional, you know?”

Before production began, Calva, Chazelle, and producer and “Babylon” co-star Olivia Hamilton (who is also married to Chazelle), spent hours together working on the film. That time – a 10-day stretch during which Calva estimates they shot the whole movie in Chazelle’s backyard – was key for the actor to help hone Manny’s character and his arc. One place they looked for inspiration, Calva says, was Al Pacino’s performance in “The Godfather.”

“There were many different moments in Manny’s story in the script when he starts to lose his soul, he starts to be corrupt, he starts to lie,” he says, adding that finding the right spot to deploy those changes was foundational to the performance. “When you’re watching ‘The Godfather’ it’s incredible what Pacino did with that. You can literally feel how the character is changing by the way he dresses, the way he put his hair – like everything. There are some little moments when you start to notice, ‘Okay, this is a different guy.’”

Pacino wasn’t the only legendary actor Calva and Chazelle referenced for Manny (even if there are certain scenes when Calva looks like a dead ringer for Michael Corleone). The pair also thought of Charlie Chaplin’s performances in “Modern Times” and “The Kid,” specifically the way Chaplin’s eyes could convey innocence with merely a single glance. That preparation paid off in the end, as the final sequence in “Babylon” – an epilogue that catches up with Manny years after his Hollywood experience – is built on Calva’s wordless expression. Calva says Chazelle shot the conclusion toward the end of production, and its positioning on the schedule helped art imitate life once again. The director sat next to his star for the scene and recalled personal anecdotes Calva had told him during the production about his life and goals.

“The direction was impossible. The direction was, ‘The audience has to rewatch the movie in your eyes.’ That’s the most beautiful direction, but the hardest acting direction. So we went to actual feelings,” Calva says, adding that his bond with Chazelle allowed the actor to excel.

“Only if you have a director that you can trust, can you literally open that part of you and let someone see you,” he says.

“Babylon” is out in theaters on December 23.

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UPLOADED Dec 16, 2022 10:32 am