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Diego Luna tells the story of a civil-rights hero by directing 'Cesar Chavez'

Diego Luna at the New York City premiere of "Cesar Chavez"
Diego Luna at the New York City premiere of "Cesar Chavez"
Getty Images

Directed by Diego Luna, “Cesar Chavez” is a dramatic movie that chronicles the birth of a modern American movement led by famed civil rights leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez, played by Michael Peña in the movie. Torn between his duties as a husband and father and his commitment to bringing dignity and justice to others, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in his struggle for the rights of farm workers.

His triumphant journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one individual's ability to change the system. “Cesar Chavez” also stars America Ferrera (as Cesar’s wife, Helen) and Rosario Dawson as National Farmworkers Association/United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Here is what Luna said at the New York City press junket for “Cesar Chavez.”

Did you automatically want to cast Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez or did he have to audition for the role?

He was definitely on the first list I made, but because of this community not being represented in film, I had the feeling that I had to look everywhere, not just in films, to find the right actor for this role. So what we did was an open call. We spent some time looking at videos of people that people would send. We did a call out to theater companies, and not just professional ones, but to everyone in their communities doing theater to say, “Well, if you think you can play this role, send your tape.” Through radio stations, we put [the announcement] out.

We basically saw hundreds of people before we even sat down in front of Michael. Then we sat down in front of Michael. He was shooting “Gangster Squad.” I said, “Look, man, you’re great. You’re perfect for the role, but I would love to have — I don’t call them auditions — I would say a session with you.”

As an actor, those auditions are important for actors. It’s a chance to sit down and do it. I never do it if the director’s not there. But if the director is there, I’ll do it, because it’s a chance to see if I also believe in that person, if I’m going to be able to follow his lead, if I agree, if I care about his point of view.

So I think I think it’s for both sides to see if you’re going to have a good journey. Because after that, it’s a year or two of work where you’re going to have to be next to someone and follow the direction of someone. So I said, “Please come and let’s do it.” It was two or three sessions that I organized with another actor and the DP [director of photography]. We shot it as a normal shooting day, where shot it at different angles. Then we went to edit and put together the scene.

To me, that’s important. You spend four years of your life hoping for something to happen. I don’t like surprises. I want to make sure we have a chance to communicate.

And with Michael it was easy. He understands the journey of the character and the experience of the Mexican-American, a first-generation, which is a very complex thing to ask someone to portray. You were born in a country where you want to belong but reminds you every day that you don’t belong. Cesar wrote and said in interviews how it marked him that when he went to school, they did not allow him to speak Spanish. So you have to interact with kids in English.

Then you go back home and everything is in Spanish. They talk about a country and they’re not able to experience because they’re never going to go back for the fear of not being able to cross the border again. So you grow up, and they talk about this place that whatever in a good way or bad way, you don’t know. This whole duality of being a first-generation [Mexican-American] was something he could portray easily. His instincts were already right.

And also, not just for him, but also everyone in the cast. There’s never really a chance to have characters that are complex, that have depth, that talk about the diversity the community has. Normally, the Latino community is portrayed with so many stereotypes. I found with every actor, a kind of urgency, like, “Yes! This gives us a great option to explore things that normally films wouldn’t allow us to.”

So everyone wanted to go audition, which doesn’t happen often. I got calls and emails from actors I probably met once on a red carpet or an audition, saying, “Please, can you audition me?” It felt great.

When you were growing up in Mexico, were you aware of Cesar Chavez?

Not really. I remember images of his funeral. I was 14 years old or 15. I remember the image of thousands of farm workers walking with the wooden box that he asked his brother to build for him. It wasn’t even painted. It was as simple as it could be, sending a message of equality. And I remember that image, but I didn’t know why he would move so many people.

It was by being in California and going back and forth between Mexico and California after “Y Tu Mamá También” that I started realizing the story of someone who did an amazing thing for a community that meant so much for the life of many and that I knew very little about. It felt horrible to be driving through an avenue called Cesar Chavez without knowing who he was, to see murals, to see schools and parks named after him, without knowing why. I started researching, and I was shocked there was no film about him. And so that’s why I started this.

Can you describe the process of making "Cesar Chavez?"

We were already talking about the idea of doing the film with [“Cesar Chavez” screenwriter] Keir Pearson when we were editing. It was a long process. There was already a script, and the [Chavez] family was already working closely with this writer. And I remember when I was touring California with the first film I directed, which was a documentary about a rock star called Cesar Chavez, I remember in every interview, they were like, “So, you did a film about Cesar Chavez” And I would be like, “No, it’s about the rock star.”

I realized there was this urge for the film to be out. We started a long time ago, but then it was a very long process. First, convincing the family that we were the right ones to do it. And then, finding out the right story to tell, because the very fist script started from the day he was born to the day he died. That, to me, is very unfair. Film can never do that.

The whole idea of the film is to make you engaged emotionally with a character and his journey. By telling the story of 60 years of the life of someone, you’re going to end up pissing off everyone, because there’s no chance to give focus and give depth to the story. It took me time to realize that it was about the boycott that I had to focus on, because that would make it universal. The boycott is a tool of change that can be used anywhere, anytime. It can be applied to whatever your reality is today, no matter where you live.

It’s about those who are suffering and concerned about an issue. If they go and talk to other cities and find a way to connect their stories to theirs, there’s a chance to be a part of something bigger. It’s about farm workers sharing their story with the consumer, and making people realize that they’re part of a chain, a bigger thing. Food does not arrive magically into the store.

But if you ask yourself, “What needed to happen to get this in front of me?,” then you’re probably doing something good, because you’re making it part of your problem. And to me, that was the amazing message that they send: Our story should matter to you because it’s your story. You are being part of it when you buy that grape.

So I decided to focus on [the boycott], and that took time, not just writing but editing. We edited this film in a year and something. There were three editors I worked with. I have another four films in the hard drive waiting. I wanted to shoot everything I knew, but then I had to edit not just anecdotes, but complete characters that were edited out.

For more info: "Cesar Chavez" movie

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