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Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, Diego Luna talk about the legacy of 'Cesar Chavez'

Michael Peña and Rosario Dawson
Michael Peña and Rosario Dawson
Pantelion Films/Participant Media

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.

Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Diego Luna and Rosario Dawson at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas
Getty Images

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 Peña, Dawson and Luna said at a “Cesar Chavez” press conference at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival (in Austin, Texas), where “Cesar Chavez” won the Audience Award.

Diego, how did the “Cesar Chavez” movie get started?

Luna: Even though we knew it would be great to work with Michael [Peña], I just have to say why he did auditions. I believe this [Latino] community hasn’t had many opportunities to be represented, so I thought of all of those who are probably out there, but they never had a chance to do a film or break into theater even. So we did an open call, and we sent an email to every theater company, every radio station [saying] that if you thought you could play Cesar Chavez, you should send a tape. [We got] hundreds of them.

It was exciting to see the reaction of a community wanting to participate. I got so many phone calls and emails from friends and people I met on the road who suddenly said, “Oh, I want to audition. Please give me a chance! I want to be part of that project.”

It’s quite unique that even before you do a film, you find out it’s so important for so many. This keeps happening and happening to the point that last night, I saw on the stage, when we were introducing the film, the faces of the people around, you could tell that they were celebrating someone like Dolores, like Cesar. Being able to be a part of this is a big thing.

Michael, what was it like to work with Diego as a director?

Peña: It’s way different from any other director I’ve ever worked with. Shooting in Mexico. We actually went golfing a couple of times, and there was this guy, a caddy named Lupe. And in America, “humble” is a negative connotation, like, “He’s trying to be humble,” but this was a society where people like this did exist. This guy was as humble as could be but very smart and funny at the same time, almost deadpan on delivery.

I kept meeting more and more people in Sonora. I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing thing.” I’m glad that we shot it there, because it was more toward the truth of the people we actually dealt with. My dad is a lot like that. He’s a very humble guy.

When I got the part of Cesar Chavez, I said, “Hey, Papa, I got the part of Cesar Chavez.” For five seconds, he there was nothing. And he said, “Good.” See, that’s the kind of acknowledgement from a certain group. Thank God Cesar Chavez fought for them. He was acknowledging them and acknowledging their life. My parents were both farmers, and I’m sure they thank him tremendously.

Diego, how does your acting experience play into being a director?

Peña: [He says jokingly] He’s super-bossy!

Luna: [He laughs.] Definitely. First of all, every day, you have to look at what you want to do, what everyone should be doing, and you have the answers. Many times, you don’t have a clue of where to go — red or green. And this one day, it’s all about decisions, and you have to be the one pretending to know.

And that confidence, I had to use my acting skills a lot of time when I knew that things were going terrible, but you have to arrive in the morning saying, “Oh, we’re so glad we’re here. It’s another beautiful day at work.” And I knew last night the checks bounced, and the film might fall apart at any second, and you have to pretend the film is great.

But then, I do have to say that I see everything from the perspective of an actor, I think. I am very aware of the process. And if I expect something, it’s the chance to be surprised by those playing the parts, because you know where you want to go and what you need. Before I have that I don’t allow anything to happen. Whatever you dream with has to be there.

But then, there’s time for other actors to go, “What if we go this other way? What if I say this another way?” And then magic starts to happen. The great thing of having actors is being able to be surprised by them. I trust actors, and I was lucky to have these ones.

Michael, how did it feel to have the responsibility of portraying Cesar Chavez? What did you do to embody him?

Peña: At first, I was completely excited. Then I read the script and I was completely terrified. The more and more I did research, in reality, it was easier to do. He wasn’t a person elected to do this thing. He was a natural-born leader. The necessity level was so high because these people were treated very badly. I thought that was really cool that this was an unlikely hero, a reluctant hero, and then all of a sudden, he rose up because he had to.

There are some people and politicians, even now, who talk a good game and are very charismatic, and they don’t do anything. And this guy was he exact opposite. He did everything, and then tried to take as little credit as possible.

It definitely changed my viewpoint about things. I didn’t know that it was this rough, to be honest with you. My parents came from Mexico. And you hear about, but you don’t actually know until you do the research.

My hat goes off to him and Dolores. It was not an easy struggle. There was a lot of nerve. Your life, you think it can end from one simple decision that’s life or death. And these people actually had the courage to go through with it and make other people’s life better, not just theirs.

Do have any funny stories to share about when you were filming “Cesar Chavez?”

Luna: We have to thank the Vasco family. We shot in Mexico, and we were looking for a Filipino community, and we found 14, and they were 28 hours away by car, not even in Mexico City but Mérida, I think. It was so far. And Darion Basco, who plays Larry Itliong [in “Cesar Chavez”] said, “Don’t worry. I’ll bring my family!”

And we said, “Your family is two or three people. We need 10, 15 people to put in front of the camera. They have to be all Filipino to be accurate.” And he said, “We have 10 people.”

Dawson: And they’re all act; they’re all performers.

Luna: They’re all actors.

Peña: And they’re all super-charismatic.

Luna: And they got in a van and drove from Arizona to Mexico. And when they arrived, it was all incredible. They came with golf clubs and shorts, thinking they were going to Cancun. They’re in every shot.

Then they came to do voices, because there’s a moment where you hear shouts, and they came to the studio to do voices. This is their film. They made sure that the Filipino community is celebrated on film. Not many know, but they were the first ones to go on strike.

Diego, what did you learn from Mexican-American activists?

Luna: I learned a lot, not just from [Cesar Chavez] but from everyone around him. I learned a lot from those who care about the story today. I think as communities, we’ve been looking for every difference we have that separates us, and that’s very stupid. I think we should look for those things that connect us. We are very similar.

You know, in Washington, they gave me a number that is just ridiculous. Just 2 percent of the business that is owned by Latinos get to export to Latin America. That’s how far away we are. We have to share stories, learn from each other, celebrate each other. We’re family.

It’s just make no sense that the Latino experience here is not celebrated in Latin America and the other way around. I learned a lot. I learned that I had to do something and that I cannot let that horrible and stupid wall that keeps growing to separate me from people I can learn from and I can relate to.

Diego, how did you choose what parts of Cesar Chavez’s life to show in the movie and what parts to leave out?

Luna: It was painful. We edited for almost a year-and-a-half. We had three editors. It was a long process. We have about three hours waiting in a hard drive to be seen by people, hopefully in the DVD. We’ll probably edit another film [from the unused footage] and do it from another angle.

There are characters that are part of the story but not in the film, but that’s how it is. I hope this generates curiosity for people to go and find out who they really are. We did a film, and this comes from a specific point of view. But then, the amazing story of Dolores Huerta, she’s still writing. It’s there for you to go visit and investigate.

The movement is very written. There’s tons of film to watch, articles to read, memorials. I hope this is the beginning of something bigger, that it doesn’t stay as just a cinematic experience inside the theaters.

How do you strike a balance between being true to the facts and yet bringing your own creative spin to the movie?

Luna: I guess that separates good films and bad films. It’s all about listening. It’s making sure you’re going to please people like Dolores, Cesar’s family, like Helen, without forgetting why you’re there. You have to remember that first connection you had with the story.

To me, at the end, if I have to tell someone from a context far away from farm workers in this country, I would say, “Please watch this film, because it’s about a father and a son and the sacrifice a father has to do to [do] better for his family and kids and to change the life of his kids.”

It’s just about that. It’s as simple as that, and I think that makes our film a universal film, and that makes it my film, because I am thinking about my kids. If I’m honest with that, that connects with me, then I’m going to find an audience.

The movement chose us. We’re not here alone. If something worries you, get out of your little bubble that you’ve created and find who thinks like you. You’re going to find more than one. And then your voice has strength.

Same with filmmaking. If you’re honest with that, that connects with you, and you don’t try to please anyone but yourself, then you’ll find an audience.

How did John Malkovich (who plays farming tyrant Bogdanovich Senior) get involved in “Cesar Chavez”?

Luna: He’s a good friend. We met at a film festival, and they organized an amazing dinner for the special guests. And the only ones who showed him were he and I. So we sat down and talked all night abut theater … and we started talking about doing theater together. And he came to Mexico and directed a play that I acted in. Since then, we’ve been working. He produced a previous film.

We couldn’t use the actual names of the growers or the [employers], obviously. This press conference would be in jail. But the character played by John Malkovich is based on a grower who, in fact, comes from where his grandparents come from. So we based everything on that person, and we created a role for him. He was happy to come.

In a way, I thought it was stupid to bring him at the end, because he showed us the commitment and the rigors that an actor has to have to become that big. He didn’t speak Spanish, for example. He learned Spanish for this [movie]. He would be training all day, [reading] in his chair, getting ready for it. It just reminded us that if you put that amount of work behind what you do, it pays off.

How did you portray real people without falling into the trap of doing an impersonator?

Peña: [The character I played] on “Crash” was a combination of my brother and a good friend of mine. Even for comedies like “30 Minutes or Less” or “Observe and Report,” [the characters I play] are based on somebody real. I’ve been doing that a long time, but there’s this added pressure that he actually meant something.

And it didn’t help that everybody was saying, “Don’t mess this up. Try your best, but don’t mess it up.”

A week-and-a-half before filming, Diego said, “I think you should do his voice, man.” I was like, “Oh, man! We have to shoot in a week-and-a-half.”

So it was [preparing] all day, every day. It was the right choice, because it’s the right cadence that leads you to it. It’s almost like you say, “What did your mom think about this?” And you almost see life through her eyes. That’s a little window to what you can do potentially as an actor. That’s what I try to do.

Dawson: For me, it was really intense and really scary because I love [Dolores Huerta]. I got a chance to meet Dolores years before with Voto Latino. We were at a town hall about immigration. I remember being so excited to meet her.

She got up to speak, and said, “Rosario said earlier …” I was like, “Oh my God! This is amazing! She knows how I am!” I remember going up to my friend and said, “She retweeted me!” She was just repeating what I said, but she actually does tweet me.

And we call and talk to each other. We communicate. She had notes for the film, and she read the script. She was part of this. It was really intense.

I love [her]. She’s still out there doing this work, incredible work. She was getting a Medal of Freedom while we were working. Just being able to have the chance to do advocacy work with her to come and support our foundation and wear a Voto Latino shirt, I’m just beside myself anytime we have any interaction.

I’m so inspired by her and through my family in New York City. My grandmother used to go translate pamphlets for marches and things, into Spanish, so the Hispanic community could be part of it. This is a legacy that affected my life for many years.

So to have an opportunity to honor that work and celebrate it is something that I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s so incredible but incredibly unnerving and nerve-wracking, because you want to get it right. You hope that your presentation is something they feel good about, because I can’t even imagine what that must feel like to have your life portrayed in a film and consolidated down into these little bit moments.

They didn’t do this work for it to be made into a movie. They didn’t live it in a perfect, three-, four-act structure. They had no idea what was coming up next and what was going to be successful and what wasn’t.

We wanted to honor that: the moments they were plagued by doubts, the moments where they celebrated and just had barbecue and beer with each other and danced and had music. They were people. It’s really hard to represent that if you’re just having artistic license, let alone when you know the person is going to watch it later.

I have to say that it was really remarkable to see the movie with Dolores yesterday. Dolores was sitting next to me as we were watching the movie and telling me her favorite bits. I think it would be really amazing for her to do a DVD commentary. Sitting next to her is so remarkable and it’s such a gift that [she is] still with us and still doing this work and it’s so relevant.

Unfortunately, Richard Chavez [Cesar’s brother] died before the summer we started filming. As you know, Cesar died over 20 years ago. We still have Helen and so many of the different people. And to have those different resources is just unbelievable.

For more info: "Cesar Chavez" website

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