Diego Luna is often cited as the one of the most popular actors in Mexico, alongside his close friend and acting co-star Gael Garcia Bernal. His big break into film came in 2001 when he starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien, alongside Bernal, and he has since gone onto become a household name in his native country, while making a big impression on the international film scene. Making his directional debut with Abel, the story of a disturbed 9-year-old boy whose father’s disappearance causes him firstly to become mute, and then to take on the role of head of the house, Diego Luna chatted to View’s Matt Turner about the differences between acting and directing and his unique way of getting a young child actor to play a part so convincingly.
Congratulations on the film. I saw it at the London Film Festival when you did the Q&A and it seemed to go down really well.
Diego Luna (DL):
Yeah, I'm happy with the film. I love how the audience responds to it. There's a lot of laughter and it's nice to do something that makes people laugh. That is the first thing, I mean, really, just the feeling of an audience enjoying the film is so nice. Just as a director, you know, it feels so different.
When you do a Q&A like that, do you feel the urge to sit in the audience and re-watch the film with them?
Yeah, I've done it a few times. I've seen the film so many times that I've started to think of what wasn't done. I have stopped watching the film, but when I see bits of the film I still enjoy it. I don't hate it yet!
Where did the idea come from?
It's a mixture of things. It came from a book I read called La Puerta Abierta [The Open Door] that had a kid with a special mental condition that was like the beginning of this. But then also, I saw Hamlet in London and I remember talking to my father about the idea of doing a Hamlet that was nine years old and I guess that was the genesis of the project. A boy that comes back and his father is not there anymore and he has to become the king and he's not ready.
How did you find the experience of directing your first feature? You'd directed a short, hadn't you, before that?
Yeah. I also directed a documentary and that was the first time I really got into the feeling of directing a story that lasted more than an hour. It's so weird, because as an actor, you believe you understand the process but then when you do a film, you realise it's a different thing, you know, it's a very long journey. And I found myself very comfortable doing it and I loved editing. Today, you edit in front of a computer and if you have an idea you see it in that moment; it's not like in the old days where you had to glue the film together – cut it and glue it and that's it. Here you have the chance to watch it, to go back to your first idea. So there was a moment when we had so many versions of the film that you can also get lost.
Can you say a little about how you came to cast Christopher [Ruiz-Esparza, who plays Abel]? How did you find him?
The casting was the most interesting process because the whole film is about the kid and the mother. I wanted a kid that had no experience. I wanted this experience to be the first time of his life. We saw like 400 kids and then I did a workshop with the three that I thought could play the role. And after that workshop I decided it was him. It took like four months, the whole process and then another two months of rehearsals - which was not really rehearsing because I didn't want him to know the story – but we were kind of creating and building the character. So every day I would tell him what we were doing but he never knew the whole picture.
So not at any point?
No, no, no. We shot in strict order, so every day he would come to the set with a lot of curiosity, wanting to know what was going to happen in the story. So there were no rehearsals, no nothing – I would tell him in the morning what the lines would be and what I was hoping the scene would be. And then in a way we had his first reactions to things.
Did you often find that you were using those takes, with his first reactions?
Yeah, many, many times. There are many reactions that are just real, you know? And many other times I had to shoot the adults first or at the end and he was not there. So many times I would ask the mother to do stuff to get a reaction from the kid that I needed. And it was interesting. The scene where he's having a shower and suddenly, boom, the shower breaks – he didn't know it was happening and the reaction we got is the real reaction of a kid that thought he broke something, you know? So we used a lot of that.
To read the second part of the Diego Luna interview, click on the link below.