One of Mexico’s biggest actors Diego Luna spearheaded the recent resurgence in his country's cinema with performances in the likes of Gabriel Retes Un Dolco Olor a Muerte and Alfonso Cuarón’s seminal road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001).
And his performances as Jack Lira, Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and as the troubled football player, Beto, in Rudo Y Cursi also received critical acclaim.
A child actor since the age of five, he has recently turned to directing. His first film, the excellent documentary J C Chavez in short tells of the life and career of six-time world champion in three weight divisions boxer Julio Cesar Chavez who, considered the finest boxer pound for pound in the world ‘enjoyed ‘ a career that spanned over 25 years.
His latest film Abel could not be more different as it focuses on a 10-year-old boy who after a period in a psychiatric institution returns home and believes he is the father of the household. He chides his mother, smokes cigarettes, eats tripe for breakfast and berates his older sisters boyfriend. Both hilarious and eventually nerve-wracking it is a cracking dramatic feature film debut that presents a quite amazing performance from first time actor 10-year-old Christopher Ruiz-Esparza as Abel.
How about the lead – God what a performance from a 10-year-old?
Man, I had no movie without this kid. It was a long process and the most important one. We put an ad in a paper and we saw 400 kids, chose three and did a workshop for three months with them. We settled on Christopher as he enjoys acting. Every kid loves make believe but can be shy when they are being watched, however this boy in front of an audience brings something out of himself that is really extraordinary. And then one day he brought his five-year-old brother along who I cast as Paul his brother in the movie and they were perfect together.
Exactly how to tease such remarkable performances out of the two minors?
I think being an actor helps one direct as you know what to tell them. We had them act out little fun games and then brought the family in one by one and had them behave as a family – the mum cooking food for us and hanging out on the set as if it were a real house with us in the sitting room talking. It felt as if they were a real family. This film is about a family who at first are in a difficult situation but soon realise that they have to live with it and accept it.
An unusual premise for a movie. Where did the idea spring from?
It stemmed from an idea of a kid behaving like an adult from a book about a boy who has a mental condition whereby he changes characters and, although made up it appealed to me. I then went with my father to watch a Trevor Nunn production of Hamlet and mentioned that the actor who played Hamlet – Ben Whishaw – had a real baby face and so I told my dad that having Hamlet as a 10-year-old might be a great idea, So I came back to Mexico and with Augusto Mendoza my co-writer, developed the idea of this young kid coming back home to find his father not there and so in his head becomes the King, the head of the household and has this kind of love story with the mother and feels the necessity to protect her, keep everyone away from her and look after his siblings.
Are there similarities between you and Abel?
My mother died when I was two and I started work at five and by the time I was 15 I was living on my own, had my own house, a car and a life and I was appearing on TV a lot. I was still a teenager but felt like an adult and even now most of my close friends are aged between 45 and 60. I was an adult before I was ready. My sister meets with her generation of friends she grew up with and went to school with and they meet up with each other. All my friends are those I have worked with – actors and directors and that is sad. I met my wife on a set. I’ve known little else. It’s as if I‘ve lived in this cage all my life. Now I am a father and I hope to do it right for my son. I missed out on a lot but it has been a good life so far.
Tell me about Chavez
I followed him for seven months and then something happened and we were filming and I was like, ‘poor guy, I hope this is not happening,’ but it gave me an ending. It was amazing as it was going on as we were rolling and it was quite shocking. After we finished I felt we had to leave him alone as he received so much attention so fast that it impacted massively on his personal life and his relationships. He was maybe one of Mexico’s biggest heroes of recent years and I really admire him as a man.
How was Milk?
Working with Sean Penn was amazing. He transforms himself into this person. He is a different actor. There's no one like him. My two favourite actors are him and [Javier] Bardem. But the way Sean becomes the part he is playing is incredible. I knew Harvey [Milk] through film clips and when I saw Sean as him on set I was astounded, shocked – it was too close. Bardem and Penn take what they do so passionately and will start a fight about what they believe in and will only do movies about something they believe in, whereas many actors do the opposite.
Which directors do you admire?
Alfonso Cuaron is a great director. He directed me in Y Tu Mama and is a lovely man and a lovely director. The Coen brothers too. All their films have been a huge influence. A big reference for me is Barton Fink and the way they twist reality is amazing. You almost believe it is possible and bring humanity to anything that moves. Every character in their movies is admirable. I also love Wes Anderson who also creates parallel worlds that are perfectly impossible but I believe exist. The Royal Tenenbaums is like a family one always dreams one has where everyone can be as different as they want. Paul Thomas Anderson again I believe speaks a different language and I like the language he speaks. I also love Harmony Korin. I played a Michael Jackson lookalike for him and working with him was inspirational. Gus van Sant is also amazing .Each film is different and takes a risk and he aims at something and goes all the way.
What have you to look forward to next?
To go back home and see my son and wife. I now have to come back home with something and am creating a collection of stuff for my son. I have been on 15 planes in the last six weeks and I know have filled his little table full of crap. It reminds me of why I should be there.
Which do you prefer – acting or directing?
Directing for sure.
Abel is released on January 5, 2011.
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