No Limits: Diego LunaOn the eve of the release of Rogue One, the Mexican actor and director Diego Luna reflects on his 30-year career and how he stays true to himself as an artist.
By the time American audiences became aware of Diego Luna for his breakout role with fellow actor and frequent collaborator Gael García Bernal in Alfonso Cuarо́n’s Y tu mamá también in 2001, he was already a veteran performer in his native Mexico. The son of set designer Alejandro Luna, Diego cut his chops on the stage, and over the past three decades he’s built an admired career working with directors such as Gus Van Sant and Steven Spielberg.
More recently Luna has turned to directing his own films (his fourth effort, Mr. Pig, debuted at Sundance earlier this year). The experience keeps him grounded and gives him the sense that he’s staying true to himself as an artist. Now, as one of the stars of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the biggest film of his career to date, Luna shares the tale of his own journey—and explains why he’s more than ready for the global exposure that comes with the power of the Force.
THE RED BULLETIN: You began acting at a young age on the stage and in film before getting behind the camera—how did those experiences bring you to where you are now?
DIEGO LUNA: Perseverance has been key. I have been acting and participating in theater, film and television since I was 6. By then, I already felt like an adult and thought I had found what I liked. The world of theater was fascinating to me, and I got into it completely convinced. Aside from having children, I have never done anything with such passion and dedication. And when I say anything, I mean it.
So you were lucky to be in a field that was also your passion.
I think I was lucky to find my calling and to be where I felt comfortable. Besides, what I do is a constant challenge. I know it has been said before, but if you analyze storytelling as a profession, you realize you mature alongside your work. The roles I have now are very different from the ones I had 10 years ago. The stories that I can tell today are told from a more mature perspective than in those days. Through storytelling you immerse yourself in different worlds, characters and realities that give you material. When I had a child, I made Abel. Now that I have a beautiful relationship with my father, I made my fourth film, Mr. Pig. My job gives me that opportunity.
What’s your ultimate goal in your career?
The thing is you set your own limits, but in reality you never cross a finish line, you never get there. I mean, there are actors whose last work is the most precise, the most moving. There are some directors that keep reinventing themselves until the end of their career, and that may be their goal, because you could also repeat your work, or make the same song every summer, the same movie or the same character all your life. You could do that of course, but to me that’s not interesting.
Do you feel you’ve accomplished everything you were supposed to?
No. It has always been clear to me that this is not over until you decide to quit or until your life situation says it is. On the other hand, you do enjoy immediate achievements or accept failure. But always knowing that there will certainly come more.
More opportunities. For better or worse there is always another opportunity. People say that you are your last work. I don’t like to see it that way, but what I do understand from that is that you should always think about your next work. Once you finish a movie it is no longer yours.
You can no longer reap its fruits; you have to start thinking about your next one. Theater teaches you that; it is so ephemeral.
What else have you learned over your long career?
Y tu mamá también was an awakening experience. It made me reset the limits for my career. As an actor, Alfonso Cuarón pushed me and made me into an actor that I had never been before. Suddenly we were at the Venice Film Festival and Gael García and I won a “breakout artists” award. Within a month I had an agent and was traveling around the world representing the film. I was hired to do three movies in the United States and my life had changed radically. I realized it was my decision to take things that far. And I realized I hadn’t been anywhere, that this was just the beginning.
Did this new reality make you reconsider your future?
Suddenly I thought, “My reality consists of nothing but making theater.” I kept on doing it, of course. Today I perform on small stages, for 200 people in Mexico City, but I could work in the United States, Europe, travel with my play through Latin America, produce for other directors… . We tend to look for our niche and settle there, and that’s very dangerous. Especially in my field, it can be really detrimental. If you are good at performing hip surgery maybe you can do that for the rest of your life. But in my case it is different. The audience has seen what you are capable of. Now they want to see you doing something else. If you settle, then in the long run you get lost.
Many people tend to settle and embrace stability. How do you avoid that?
When I lose my ambition, I will stop doing this. The best projects of my life have been the ones that have given me less money, like with theater for example. It’s a very small industry unless you try to make a profit out of it. Obviously you promote the plays and charge good money for tickets. But I’m not interested in that. The more I grow the less I try to charge for tickets. My goal has never been to make a profit and those projects have been the most rewarding ones. Directing Abel and Mr. Pig didn’t make me a millionaire. Instead, they cost me money. Fortunately, thanks to some projects, I’ve had a good life with my children—nothing excessive, just enough. But what I’m trying to say is that sometimes I lose money because of my ambition to renovate myself, because I constantly question what I am capable of. It all depends on our own definition of success. To me it’s having the freedom to choose what I want to do and that has been my goal.
As a director, you’ve had the chance to tell stories based on your life experiences. Was that cathartic?
You exorcise the things that haunt you. That’s one good thing about any artistic discipline. For example, postwar painting is more like a hallucination; it’s the roughest, because in any crisis there is a need for scrutiny, for people to exorcise those topics.
For that reason there are many voices in Mexico, a country that lives a constant contradiction. It is more difficult to have that kind of art from a country where everything works perfectly. To me, directing movies is just that. It’s a need to question myself and set the things that disturb me on the table. As an actor you are always someone else’s tool. You can have a connection with them and you can share their point of view, but ultimately you are helping them reflect. After acting for 20 years, I wanted to tell the things I reflect on. Instead of imposing my point of view I chose to direct. In the United States, it’s different. There, stars have their own system and actors are very powerful and end up imposing their point of view. Here in Mexico the director has more freedom, and I wanted to explore my stories. Abel is about the father I don’t want to be and the boy I used to be.
Are you happy with where things are headed?
What I’ve seen is that when you try to fulfill your needs, you rediscover limits and better opportunities come to you, like acting in Star Wars, for example.
What did you learn from being part of such a big-budget production like Rogue One?
When the heart of the people working on the production is in the right place, then the size doesn’t really matter. In the end, it’s about teamwork and how you can complement each other on the set. It’s a little like what the film is about: how important it is to connect with others in order to achieve something big. The director, Gareth Edwards, made the set sometimes feel like a very small independent film. I’ve worked before with so many directors who are so afraid of sharing the experience with someone else, as if it was going to be taken away from them. This film reminded me that there’s nothing like cinema because it’s about that interaction—that journey that you go through with others.
What unique challenges did you face as an actor?
First of all, I had to forget that I was a fan.
It was hard to be there and not want to take pictures of everything around me, call my friends and say, “Damn! I just realized how the creatures move!” And second, I had to be ready physically and mentally. It wasn’t just like you come in and say your lines—we were doing everything. We were asked to do the stuff that you do in combat. I went through military training to understand how the characters would react to certain kinds of situations. All that training paid off with how I should move, grab my weapon and how we moved as a team on the ground in dangerous situations. It was intense.
What qualities do you admire about your character, Captain Cassian Andor?
That he’s willing to sacrifice anything for the cause—that he’s a true hero, and one of those heroes that we could all be if we decided to. Every character in the Rebellion sends the right message—that change is going to happen if everyone gets involved. We understand that we’re capable of doing big things. There’s a lovely line in the trailer that says, “This is a story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” I think that’s a great message to send today in this world—that so much is about how we’re involved and how we act.
Did you ever imagine you’d be part of such a massive movie franchise?
No, never. The best things that have come to me in life have been a surprise. I think it’s because I have kept working, even in something else, and not because of waiting for it. I just think that when you focus your energy in the right direction things start to work out and life surprises you in a positive way. Maybe I’m being too romantic, but it’s impossible to travel somewhere looking to fall in love with someone. Instead, when you stop looking for it, it comes to you and soon you are in love. If I didn’t have a movie right now I would be very happy doing theater.
How will you handle the exposure to the limelight?
I’m glad this is happening after so many years in the business. I just hope that the people around me remind me who I am every day. In the end, it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the essence of what we do, which is telling stories. So hopefully, I’ll stay sane.