It’s a classic Hollywood story: A director spots an actor's headshot out of a pile of hundreds, maybe thousands, and decides that they have that certain something to be a part of their film. That's almost what happened to Diego Calva, the breakout newcomer in Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle's Old Hollywood epic, Babylon.
"At the beginning, it was like a pretty normal situation. I got a casting, I didn't know who was directing or anything, I sent a couple of self tapes," Calva tells A.frame. "I think this is after Damien saw [my] headshot. And then, my manager told me this is a Damien Chazelle movie and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I sent another round of self tapes, and then, Damien called me. That was also like one incredible situation, you know, because he was casting like hundreds of actors, but he took the time to talk probably with all of them... He's just very particular with that."
Chazelle took his time working with Calva, especially as the pre-production process was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Calva had the script on hand for Babylon, where he plays Manny Torres, a film lover from Mexico, who, through hard work and a little bit of luck, stumbles up the ladder of Hollywood as it transitions from silent films to sound films.
"I was locked in my apartment with my roommate, and we kept playing with the script. And I think that's when I literally fell in love with Manny and with the whole Babylon universe. Damien called me a month after and told me, 'I'm restarting the casting of Babylon.' And by that time I literally knew a lot of my lines and a lot of the other characters' lines. I think he liked that."
Calva eventually joined Chazelle in Los Angeles, and stayed at the director's house as they honed in on his character, developing a shorthand that helped him tackle his integral role in the story.
"He flew me to his house in Los Angeles and I stayed with him and his wife, Olivia [Hamilton, who is a producer on the film, as well appearing in the film as director Ruth Adler]. And we record[ed] the whole movie, the whole movie in his backyard, with an iPhone. And I think that doesn't happen very often. And it was pretty helpful because when we start[ed] rehearsing with other actors, Damien and I had cues and shortcuts."
Calva may be a newcomer to Hollywood, making his English language debut in Babylon, but the 30-year-old has been acting in his hometown of Mexico City for years, and is probably best known to American audiences for his work on Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico. Still, Calva was happy to receive assistance from Chazelle, who paired him with a dialect coach and also with acting coach Susan Streitfeld, who has worked with, among others, three-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. "Damien gave me a lot of time [to prep]. That was cool because my English, I mean it's still pretty bad, but it was even worse," Calva jokes.
As the process evolved, Calva also got to meet and work with his co-stars, Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt.
First, there was Robbie, who plays fellow Hollywood dreamer and schemer Nellie LaRoy. The two actors developed an instant connection, fitting for their characters, who Calva describes as having an almost "toxic kind of sibling" relationship as they navigate the highs and lows of Hollywood. "...When we did the chemistry reading together, something happened. I still believe… that chemistry reading, those takes, those videos that Damien did of us playing, it's still the best acting I've ever done. And we had a blast."
Then, there was his meeting with Pitt, a cheeky exercise in method acting, one that mirrored the relationship that his character in Babylon has with Pitt's character in the film, silent film star Jack Conrad: Hollywood newcomer meets Hollywood icon.
"Damien called me. I was in Mexico. And he told me, 'Diego, I have an idea because I'm about to direct this commercial for a coffee brand, and Brad Pitt's going to be the lead. But also, I think it could be cool if you come because the costume designer, the A.D… there's going to be a lot of people involved in our movie that are going to work in the commercial,'" Calva explains. "So, I flew to Los Angeles and I thought that I was just going as a, I don't know, a guest… But Damien told me, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you're going to pretend you are my assistant. You're going to pretend you're like a PA.'"
"I worked the first day of the commercial, giving out Coca-Colas to everyone, just trying to be helpful. And I met Brad, that way like another PA, [addressing him as] Mr. Pitt. On the second day of the commercial, Mary [Zophres], the costume designer, came to the commercial [shoot]. We had met before in Damien's house, when we were rehearsing the whole movie in his backyard. She says to Brad, 'Hey Brad, have you met Diego? He's going to play Manny on Babylon.' And yeah, I think he was a little, like, 'Can somebody explain to me what's going on?' But I think it's a very cool way to meet Brad Pitt, no?"
By Elizabeth Stanton