When writer/director Damien Chazelle set out to make the decadent tale of Babylon, he needed an actor capable of portraying the whirlwind ride of a rags-to-riches Hollywood story. Through a rigorous casting process amid the COVID lockdown, Chazelle found Mexican actor Diego Calva.
“I was locked in my apartment with the script, and I literally fell in love with my character,” says Calva. “I just kept reading it and playing it with my roommate just for fun.”
Much like his character of Manny, Calva has quickly acclimated to Hollywood after being thrust into the spotlight with his star-making turn in Paramount’s Babylon. The film delivers a decadent tale of rising stars and aging Hollywood royalty as much come to terms with the transition from silent films to an era filled with sound and spectacle.
Calva’s Manny has an arc that sees him go from glorified chauffeur to studio executive and ultimately a mild-mannered electronics shop owner. With English as his second language, Calva was known for his work on Mexican and Argentine films, but he had yet to connect with US audiences.
Babylon marks Calva’s feature debut, and Chazelle gave him a lot of reference points, with some being very brief in duration. “Damien is very specific with references,” Calva said. “He sent me super small clips like the look of Charlie Sheen in Platoon or The Thin Red Line, but just for one particular scene for two seconds.”
Calva spoke to Awards Focus about the process in getting Babylon, the rehearsal and lengthy shoot, and the allure of the makeup and hair trailer.
Awards Focus: How did you meet Damien Chazelle and get involved in the project?
Diego Calva: My manager sent me an audition like any other project. In the beginning, I didn’t know it was a movie with Brad Pitt and all these A-listers. I sent my first couple of self-tapes in before the pandemic and then Damien contacted me and sent me the script.
I was about to come to LA and Covid happened and I think the process started slowing down significantly. For a moment I thought that Damien might have gone with someone else because I didn’t hear anything for a month.
I was locked in my apartment with the script and I literally fell in love with my character, I just kept reading it and playing it with my roommate just for fun.
When I got the second call from Damien, he told me that they’re casting again and I already knew the lines of my character. When I flew to LA and did my chemistry read with Margot, Damien told me that was the day when he decided I was the guy.
AF: Did you feel any kind of pressure once you got this Oscar-caliber film?
Calva: Of course. When my manager told me that this was a Damien Chazelle movie, I got super excited and then everything started to get real… meeting Margot and then meeting Brad, it’s overwhelming.
Because of the preparation with Damien, all the time we had together, I was confident in doing the part. We rehearsed the whole movie in his backyard.
AF: Did Damien give you any references from other movies or any books that you could use to prepare for your role?
Calva: Damien is very specific with references and sent me super small clips like the look of Charlie Sheen in Platoon or The Thin Red Line, but just for one particular scene for two seconds.
We also watched movies together like Boogie Nights and we talked a lot about Al Pacino in The Godfather which was, at least for me, the main inspiration for Manny.
Damien gave me one super helpful book, “A Parade Goes By.” It’s a book with a lot of interviews of different workers, and people involved in the movie industry, I could learn about all these pioneers and how crazy and wild that time was.
AF: How long did it take to shoot the film? It’s a three hour endeavor, so I can only imagine many months that requires.
Calva: For me, a period of eight months, but I think the whole shoot was about three months in length.
AF: Did you know all of Damien’s movies before he reached out to you?
Calva: Whiplash since day one is a movie that I loved, but I had seen them all. After getting to know Damien and working with him, I went back to watch his films again. That’s something very special after hearing him talk about the situations in First Man I was able to rewatch the movie with new eyes.
AF: There’s a lot choreographed moments in the film and it requires physicality. Out of everything you did, what was the most challenging moment in the film for you?
Calva: It was definitely the speech in the movie. When my character gives a speech and he is pretending that he speaks super good English, that was hard. I really worked with the words and I worked with a dialog coach to do that. The English was very challenging. This is the first feature I’ve done in English.
AF: What would you like to see as the next phase of your career?
Calva: I want to work with a lot of great directors and great actors, and I want challenges. I think I grew a lot with Babylon, because Babylon wasn’t easy and I want more projects that put me in a tricky spot where I have to learn more skills.
Also, I want to go back to Mexico and Latin America and keep working on movies there. That’s something very important to me, telling stories of my country and my people.
AF: There are a lot of departments that work very hard with incredible skill to make period films a success. Did you feel that collaborative spirit on set and is there anyone you’d want to highlight?
Calva: In the movie making world you create also a family, you know? For example, I remember the makeup and hair trailer. It was an amazing place and we all loved to be there with that team.
AF: Babylon will undoubtedly carve a special place in the hearts of fans. Do you have any movies that really resonate with you in that type of manner?
Calva: I think I’ve seen Goodfellas around forty times, and I also love Beginners, but Peter and the Wolf is still my favorite movie.