Why Diego Calva moved in with Damien Chazelle before shooting 'Babylon'
"I've never before been surrounded by so many naked people in my life," exclaims actor Diego Calva, describing the bacchanalian set piece that opens "Babylon." "The background artists, the dancers, some actual porn stars, the musicians — at least 300 people in costumes and makeup all sweaty and dancing — it was impossible to not feel the energy!"
Amid the madness that is "Babylon," Damien Chazelle's portrait of decadent 1920s-era Hollywood, Calva channels his energy into a performance of quiet intensity as elephant-wrangling personal assistant-turned-studio executive Manny Torres. Flanked by Margot Robbie's mercurial silent movie ingénue Nellie LaRoy and Brad Pitt's frequently drunk matinee idol Jack Conrad, Manny rises through the ranks of a craven movie industry while his larger-than-life peers struggle to stay relevant when talkies take over.
"Manny's in survival mode," Calva says. "He has to find a way to be noticed as that guy in the background that you're going to remember." Unlike the equally ambitious Nellie, who's given to wild dancing, projectile vomiting and snake wrestling, "Manny's not going for the shock factor. When he realizes all these people around him are too lazy, too crazy or too coked up to think clearly, there's something in his mind that pops with ideas. It's about getting things done. For Manny at the start of 'Babylon,' it was maybe about cleaning up elephant s—. In my case, it was about playing well and doing good scenes, but we were both in the same bath. Somehow, we've just got to shine."
Director Chazelle spotted the Mexican actor's potential in classic star-is-born fashion: He liked Calva's headshot. Soon thereafter, Calva was self-taping auditions for the filmmaker and eventually flew from his home in Mexico City to Los Angeles, where he met Robbie for a chemistry read. "They had a suit for me to wear, and a groomer worked my hair to give it a '20s vibe," Calva remembers, speaking by phone from a Beverly Hills hotel. "It was beautiful, those scenes I played with Margot. For me, it was like a new level of acting."
Chazelle agreed, telling Calva he saw "fireworks" in his scenes with Robbie. Calva got the part.
But there was more work to be done. The actor moved in with Chazelle and his wife, producer Olivia Hamilton. For 10 days, he rehearsed "Babylon" with the couple in their backyard. "It was kind of like summer camp," Calva recalls. "We'd wake up every morning and do scenes. Olivia played all the other characters, and Damien recorded everything. By Day 11, Damien had the whole movie."
Calva also studied Al Pacino as a model for his still-waters-run-deep Manny persona. He says, "Al Pacino has something in his eyes that communicates 'I'm thinking. I'm going to solve this problem.' In 'Dog Day Afternoon,' Pacino's talking on the phone, moving his eyes from one side to the other. Watching him, you feel like, 'OK, here's a smart guy in a tricky situation.'" Silent-movie icons Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin also served as inspirations. "Damien told me the audience is going to see this movie through Manny's eye and he's going to be silent for a large part of the journey, so we needed to give Manny the ability to transmit all these feelings just with his face."
Even before he steeped himself in rehearsals and role models, Calva experienced the kind of casual racism faced by his character in "Babylon." "The first time I came to L.A. I remember waiting for Damien and Olivia outside this fancy place where I'd arrived a little early," Calva recalls. "Somebody gives me the keys to their car and says 'Hey, valet, park my car.' I was like, 'Whoa, Manny lived this 100 years ago!'" Calva also posed as a personal assistant during the making of an actual TV commercial, unbeknownst to its star, Brad Pitt. "I walked around with sodas and sparkling waters. Everyone's thinking I'm a PA. 'Hey, Mr. Pitt, do you need something? Here's your coffee' or whatever. Afterward, Pitt learned the "PA" was in fact his co-star. "I think Brad was confused," Calva laughs. "I was like, 'I didn't mean to lie to you — Damien asked me to!'"
Getting inside Manny's movie-besotted head space came easily to Calva, who grew up with cinephile parents. "My mother worked a lot, and movies were like my baby-sitter," he says. "I remember the first time I stole '8½' by Fellini from the stack of DVDs in my mom's room. I saw 'Caligula' when I was, like, 11. Maybe I was a little young to watch that one!" Calva attended Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica intent on becoming a director. "Everything changed after I watched 'Goodfellas' for the first time," he says. "'Kids,' by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, was super inspiring, since I was into skateboarding, And I love Denis Lavant, the French actor who works a lot with Leos Carax. I'll watch a Marvel movie and 'Enter the Void' and Kurosawa, you name it."
Following film school, Calva, now freshly turned 31, acted in numerous Spanish-language features and played a cartel boss in "Narcos: Mexico." But before "Babylon," he'd never experienced moviemaking on a grand scale. On the first day of shooting, Calva stepped onto the massive set of an old-time western. "We're not inside a car or a house or something," Calva remembers of the exterior sequence filmed near rural Piru outside of Los Angeles. "It was 800 extras, with horses, with explosions, with Brad Pitt over here, Margot Robbie over there. I see this film crew shooting a film crew shooting a movie."
"Babylon" wrapped its three-month production last October, and Calva went to work on other projects. "I was exhausted," he says. Now, with "Babylon" introducing him to new audiences, he's bracing for a post-"Babylon" future. "It's a very weird feeling," Calva notes. "I'd love to be part of 'Babylon' forever. At the same time, I want to keep acting, keep creating. It's like I have to break up with a girlfriend called 'Babylon' before the relationship becomes a little toxic. But right now, I just want to enjoy all these new experiences, and I hope Hollywood invites me to the party."
And next time he shows up for a meeting, it's a safe bet nobody is going to ask Calva to park their car.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.