Diego Luna may be a hot new import in the U.S., but he’s such a familiar face in his native Mexico that he almost didn’t get cast in his breakout role as privileged teen Tenoch in 2001’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (“And Your Mother Too”).
Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron was set on working with fresh faces and saw 250 other actors before deciding to use the telenovela star — Luna had appeared in four soap operas before the age of 19 — in the raw and racy road film.
“It was great to know at least that he went through every actor in Mexico and wanted me,” says Luna, laughing. “It’s good because then you know, ‘Good, you really want to work with me. You think I’m the best option, great!”’
The coming-of-age film became a muy grande hit, which catapulted Luna and his co-star and childhood best friend Gael Garcia Bernal — with whom he shares a production company — into international stardom. For Luna, it was all a welcome change after the grueling pace of Mexican television.
“I stopped doing (Mexican) TV and my life became so much better, because basically what they ask you to do is quantity instead of quality,” Luna admits, in his Spanglish. “We take three or four months to tell a story that takes two hours, and in TV in Mexico you do an hour every day, so how can you control things?
After “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Luna had a small part as Frida Kahlo’s first lover in “Frida,” as well as prominent roles in John Carpenter’s “Vampires: Los Muertos,” the “Dirty Dancing” sequel “Havana Nights,” Kevin Costner’s “Open Range,” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal.” He plays a snooping hacker in the recently released Mexican dark ensemble comedy “Nicotina.”
He’ll be appearing opposite John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal for the heist thriller “Criminal,” play an aspiring professional soccer player in “Goal!,” and he’ll be producing and starring alongside Alice Braga (“City of God”) in “Solo Dios Sabe” (“Only God Knows”), the latter two films coming out next year.
Raised to performAfter his mother, a costume designer, passed away when he was 2 years old, Luna was raised in theater. He began his professional acting career onstage at the age of 7 to be closer to his father, Alejandro, who is the most acclaimed living theater, cinema, and opera set designer in Mexico.
“It was just a chance to be a part of his life,” he says, “why I started, and then I started to like it a lot. It was like a game. It has never felt like a job. Also, I always enjoy the idea of these people preparing for so long this huge lie that we do, and to see them pretending to be somebody else was always very exciting. It is a lie in a way because people start to clap, and (the actors) go back to their real life, but also it’s a very alive process because when you’re there you’re working with feelings and emotions, and the emotions have to be real. So, it’s like therapy in a way. You find lots of things that you don’t allow yourself to use in real life, and you use them just onstage. It’s better than any psychiatrist or psychologist, and you get paid instead of paying!”
Luna uses the stage as his therapist couch in the same way he also uses each part as an opportunity to learn from his “teachers,” which, to him, are the directors and co-stars on each project. Besides a few workshops, Luna has had very little formal training, so he compares the stage to the classroom because of how much he grew as an actor onstage. He says he learned everything else by observing how veterans such as Spielberg and his “Open Range” co-star Robert Duvall work.
“I realized, at (Duvall’s) age, he’s still taking risks, and he’s still growing and learning from what he’s doing. It’s all about getting affected by what’s going on around you. I think that applies for everything in life.”
Luna is as famous as you could possibly get in Latin American countries; however, gaining Hollywood stardom is not high on his list. “That’s just another option,” he says, shrugging. “I think good movies are about good scripts, good stories, and the guy who’s going to tell the stories. I think that’s all you need, and you need money enough to shoot it. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was a movie that we did in Mexico for $2 million, and it did much better than many $60 million movies. So it’s all about the story and the people you’re going to work with.”
Aside from producing “Solo Dios Sabe” onscreen and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” onstage, Luna also produced 20 short films for the World Cup.
“The thing is, in Mexico, and I guess it works everywhere, you can’t be waiting for the call, because you might never get there,” he says of producing. “So, you have to make your own stuff. You have to generate your own projects.”