During a group interview at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with three of the stars of the new biopic “César Chávez” and talk about why this story of the late union leader is such an important one to tell, especially in these tough economic times. In the film, actor Michael Peña (“End of Watch”) plays the heroic title character who leads a movement of social change; actress America Ferrera (“Real Women Have Curves”) portrays César’s spirited wife, Helen Chávez; and actor Gabriel Mann (TV’s “Revenge”) is the son of a landowner and grape grower (John Malkovich), who refuses to give into Chávez and his organization’s demands for fair wages and safer working conditions.
Michael, you’ve played real-life characters before in past films. How different was this one in comparison to something like “Walkout” or “World Trade Center?”
Michael Peña: That’s my modus operandi, even in comedies. I did “Observe & Report” and [for that character] I imitated some dude from “American Pimp.” I swear, there was this one dude and he had two…lady friends. Someone asked him, “What is the secret to pimping?” and he goes [in his “Observe & Report” accent], “You gotta take care of your bitches.”
America Ferrera: And that was your inspiration to play César Chávez?
MP & Gabriel Mann: (Laugh)
MP: Yeah, but every movie I do, I think it’s more interesting to follow somebody else’s instinct; with that great example I just said. (Laughs) I just find it more interesting. If not, it’s predictably my work. But with this [film], I had a lot more people telling me not to mess this up.
America, you got to meet Helen Chávez and talk to her about this role. How beneficial was it to be able to get the inside story from someone who was so close to César during this time?
AF: It was such a gift to get to meet with Helen. I mean, I didn’t have as much to go by in terms of what’s out there in the press and what I could research because her contributions to the movement were not as well documented. But to spend time with her and with the kids and to hear and learn about the contributions that she made and all the different roles she played, from defending her children from bullies to protesting and getting arrested to running the credit union, and also being César’s partner. I remember, when we sat and spoke to Helen, Michael and Diego were both there, and what became so obvious during that meeting was that Helen and César were partners. They got married at 19 and they grew up together. Who they became as people was shaped by one another. Their cause was truly their cause. For Helen, she was constantly fighting dueling interests – to be a mother and to protect the children and to want their father there for her kids and, at the same time, to have an activist’s soul and want for César to achieve their shared vision. She had conflicting interests. I’m so glad that Diego made a conscious decision to tell her story, too.
I know the family had a lot to say about the script during pre-production. Was it good to have their input that closely or did you feel like there was added pressure on you to get the story right?
AF: They were there in a very supportive way. I think other people had approached them about making this film. Somehow Diego earned their trust. I’m sure they had suggestions and desires of their own, but they really gave us a lot of freedom to tell the story Diego felt connected to telling.
Gabriel, this film, of course, is about a Latino in history, but can you tell me why it’s not just for a Latino audience?
GM: I think it’s a human-rights story. I think it’s a story about families and fathers and sons. I think it’s culturally relevant to many cultures right now. César, himself, was bringing a lot of different people together under this movement he was spearheading. So, I think the colors of the faces are really irrelevant. The story is really about human rights and human dignity and the power one person can have to make a sweeping social change. Michael has talked about the fact that César was almost a reluctant hero. He was just one man, but he was a man with the power of his convictions and his beliefs to help other people.
How do you think this story is relevant in today’s workforce landscape? I don’t know if we have anyone that only makes $1 or $2 a day anymore, but at the same time there are people out there who can’t survive on minimum wage.
MP: Yeah, minimum wage is tough. My brother got fired. Wherever there is big business, they go after the little guy. It happens today. You should be able to [work] a full time job and make other people money, but at the same time you should be able to have your place to live and transport yourself. Not every job does that. Minimum wage is pretty damn low right now.
AF: And there are, in fact, places in the world where people are working for a $1 a day. I think César’s conviction wouldn’t have stopped at the United States. He travelled across oceans to get partnerships from people in other countries to see their struggle as ours. I don’t think César would ever say that the issues of our brothers and sisters across the world still living on $1 a day aren’t our issues. It’s our responsibility to care for all our brothers and sisters.