Charting His Own Course
When Diego Luna walks into the Boathouse on the Bay, a restaurant just steps from the Long Beach Marina, he looks like a natural for the setting: tan, with a stubbled jawline, hair falling across his face in the way that comes naturally to a ladies’ man, wearing a simple red T-shirt and yacht-appropriate white pants. The 37-year-old actor has, in fact, spent most of the day out on the water, aboard the Curlew, an 82-foot, 1920s schooner, for Rhapsody’s cover shoot, and, although he disavows any suggestion of nautical prowess—“The good thing about the shoot,” he says, “was that we were not pretending I’m a sailor”—he doesn’t hesitate to describe the deep connection he feels with the ocean.
“The beach represents that place where things happen for the first time,” he says, as he takes a seat in a booth in the middle of the mostly empty, pre-dinner-rush dining room, looking out through shaded windows onto Alamitos Bay, late-afternoon sun glinting off the blue water. “I relate many awakenings to the beach. As a kid, being closer to my dad and not having to share him with work; as a teenager, the chance to have a whole summer with the girls that you like, with your friends; and then Y Tu Mamá También, which is the first movie that actually got me to travel around the world, and it happened on the beach, and it represents those kinds of trips that are just different, that just, like,” he snaps his fingers, “become an awakening.”
Y Tu Mamá También may have garnered Luna international acclaim back in 2001, when he was just 21, but the past year has seen the Mexican actor achieve yet another awakening—that of a true Hollywood star. Last December, he joined the ranks of the most important movie franchise in history, leading the rebels in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, a megahit that raked in more than $1 billion at the box office as well as critical praise. This month, he stars alongside Ellen Page in Flatliners, the anticipated sequel to the 1990 sci-fi horror film of the same name, directed by Niels Arden Oplov (the director of the original, Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). And he’s even gone for a ride in the tabloid rumor mill, both for exploits on camera (he’s attached to star in a Coen Brothers–penned remake of Scarface next year) and off (he’s reportedly dating British model and actress Suki Waterhouse).
For most people, this would be a whirlwind, but for Luna, it’s the life he was born into. The Mexico City native is the son of Alejandro Luna, a set designer who worked on many of Mexico’s best theater and film productions, and Fiona Alexander, a British costume designer. Luna’s mother died in a car crash when he was just 2 years old, and he essentially grew up backstage, while his father built sets. The draw of acting was inevitable.
“I think my father would have chosen something different for me,” he says. “But when I was a kid, acting was just something I could do to stay closer to him. I think a psychologist would say that it was an attempt to keep my father from leaving me, like my mom. So how do I make sure I belong to this world? Well, at 6, 7 years old, I cannot be a set designer, I cannot be a light designer, I cannot be a director, I cannot be a writer—but I can be an actor.”
Luna’s first role, in a play called La Película at the National Theatre of Mexico, threw him into the deep end. “It was quite a hard-core play,” he tells me in a slight accent, recounting the story in the jokey, profanity-laced way you’d tell it to a high school buddy. “It moved through three decades of Mexico, and in the transition to the ’70s, all the actors got naked. I had to walk from the back to the front with a white flower in my hand and give it to someone in the audience, completely naked, in the biggest, most amazing theater in Mexico. And I was just a 6-year-old going, ‘OK.’”
By the time Luna was 9, he was doing telenovelas—and kept doing them through his teens. “I stayed doing TV longer than I should have,” Luna says, in between bites of grilled salmon and vegetables (he subs out the mashed potatoes and declines the bread and butter). “As an actor, it wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t taking me anywhere, it wasn’t forcing me to take risks.”
That all changed with Y Tu Mamá También. The achingly beautiful film tells the sexy story of two teenagers and a beautiful older woman on a road trip from Mexico City to a Oaxacan beach, while at the same time offering a parable of class in Mexico. It not only rocketed both Luna and his costar and lifelong friend Gael García Bernal (the actors have known each other since they were babies) to international stardom, but it was also an early entrant in the 21st-century renaissance in Mexican filmmaking that has been led by its director and cowriter, Alfonso Cuarón, along with Alejandro González Iñarrritu and Guillermo del Toro. But to hear Luna tell the story, he almost didn’t get the part.
“Gael did Amores Perros first, and Alfonso was interested in working with him,” Luna recalls. “Myself, it was the opposite. I had a car crash, and I arrived in a neck brace, without knowing the lines. I did the worst casting [call] ever in my life. And Alfonso saw that and he said, ‘F*** this guy, he’s terrible,’ and he went all around Mexico, and he couldn’t find someone. And then he went, ‘OK, let me see you again, and this time concentrate.’ And Gael was there, so we did a session together, and there was this chemistry and this friendship that we lent to the characters—something was already happening just by having us next to each other. And also I was paying attention then,” he adds, deadpan. “And right after the session, Alfonso said, ‘Do you want to do the film?’”
The movie met with worldwide acclaim, and at the Venice Film Festival, Luna and García Bernal shared the Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging actor. “That definitely changed the perspective that I had for what was possible,” Luna says. “Basically, that day, it was clear to me that there were no boundaries, that my cinema or my work didn’t have to be that niche that we had in Mexico. It was like an awakening again.”
Over the next decade, his career continued to blossom, gradually and inexorably. He began to appear in American films, such as Salma Hayek’s Frida, Kevin Costner’s Open Range, and Gus Van Sant’s Milk. In partnership with García Bernal, he started Canana, a production company that has released acclaimed films including Searching for Sugar Man, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Gomorra, as well as the Ambulante Documentary Film Festival. (Not every-thing was serious: He also starred in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, the goofy Mexican soccer comedy Rudo y Cursi, the even goofier Will Ferrell-in-Spanish comedy Casa de Mi Padre, and the music video for Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away.”) Despite his success, he never transitioned to living full-time in Hollywood.
“Every time I get asked, ‘When did you move to the States?’ I’m like, ‘I never had to move,’” he says. “The world is changing. Before, we were comparing ourselves just to what we could see, what was in our reach. And the internet has brought this thing where you go and you ask questions and you see references and you’re suddenly digging into the lives of people who apparently have no connection to you. I think cinema is reflecting that change of perspective that we have these days.”
There is perhaps no better indication of that change than Luna’s role in the blockbuster Rogue One. He played Cassian Andor, one of the leaders of a small group of brave rebels who sacrifice their lives to steal the plans to the original Death Star. It’s a different sort of Star Wars, one that Luna says “is about regular people doing great things. But it’s the most contagious one—contagious in the sense of influencing people. It goes straight into your consciousness and tells you, ‘Hey, even in this world, there is a moment when the people have to take control.’”
Director Gareth Edwards’s decision to cast a Mexican actor as one of the primary leads was a bit revolutionary for Star Wars, and he and Luna chose to lean into that decision by not having the actor mask his accent. Fans applauded the choice, and when one took to Instagram to recount her Mexican father’s pride at seeing a Mexican hero in a blockbuster film, Luna shared it on Twitter, writing, “I got emotional reading this!”
When asked about the groundbreaking role, Luna fixes me with a serious look. “I thought about that every day. I never lived it from a position of, ‘OK, we’re gonna take what’s ours.’ It’s not like revenge or a battle for representation. It was more just like, ‘This is great—finally the world is changing.’ And when Gareth and I talked about the accent, we said, ‘Let’s give him that feeling like he comes from somewhere very specific in this galaxy far, far away, and very different from where the others are coming.’ So this rebellion represents all of these very different people coming together in order to fight for the same cause.”
Almost on cue, a Latino waiter comes by, bringing a piece of complimentary cheesecake from the kitchen. In Spanish, he tells Luna he’s a fan of his work, and the actor responds with a gracious, friendly “muchas gracias.” (After we finish, he takes selfies with the whole waitstaff.) I ask him whether this has happened more since Rogue One. “Yes, it happens more,” he says. “In California, many of the border states, New York, Chicago—it happens a lot. There’s tons of Mexicans, man,” he adds with a laugh.
The Mexican-American community is at the center of another one of Luna’s achievements. He has directed four films, the most high profile of which is Cesar Chavez, the 2014 biopic of the civil rights activist and founder of the United Farm Workers union.
“My son was born here, so I wanted to tell a story about a Mexican American I admire, so that I could tell my son a little bit of his history and where he comes from,” Luna says. “And I felt that it was ridiculous that there was no representation in cinema of this amazing community that is feeding this country. It was quite a paradox. We couldn’t get the money to shoot it in the States. It’s all Mexico, and we got the support of the country, of the government. It tells you a lot of why this film hadn’t been made before and how difficult it is for this country to accept that part of its history—and the hypocrisy, because there is this community feeding a country, but they don’t want to accept their existence.”
While Luna is often traveling for various projects, he spends as much time in Mexico City as he can, largely because that’s where his son, Jerónimo, now 9, and his daughter, Fiona, 7, live and go to school. The children split their time between their father and their mother, Mexican actress Camila Sodi. (The couple separated in 2013, five years after marrying, though Luna says, “We’re very good friends—we help each other to have the freedom to keep working and doing the stuff we like.”)
Luna also makes sure to spend a month with the kids each summer, and last year, he brought them along to Toronto, where he was filming Flatliners. Luna is adamant that it’s not a remake of the original, which starred Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts—“I think Julia Roberts had a lot to do with why I loved that film,” Luna says, grinning—as medical students who kill and then resuscitate themselves in an attempt to discover where we go when we die. While the premise is the same, the characters are all different (save Sutherland, who reprises his role), rendering it more of a sequel, albeit a highly stylized one directed by Oplev, who convinced Luna to take the part of Ray, a fireman turned medical student and the skeptic among the group.
“Diego brings an authenticity to the character because he is a very complex and intelligent actor, and he raises all the right questions,” Oplev says. “Being from Mexico and shooting more indie films, he has a naturalness in situations where there’s intimacy between the characters. He’s a leading man—he has that sort of aura.”
Flatliners once again returns us to the notion of awakenings—in this case, the literal reawakenings of characters who are being brought back from the dead—and naturally leads to one of humankind’s biggest questions: Does Luna believe in the afterlife?
“I don’t,” he says, and then pauses. “I do believe in energy. I do believe we’re part of something bigger, but I don’t think we just leave this body and we are the same consciousness. I think this has a beginning and an end, and then we become something else, and we contribute to something else, and we become part of…”
A broader energy? Something one could perhaps call … The Force?
“The Force.” He smiles. “Exactly.”