It’s rare to see someone on the verge of action-figure metamorphosis. Until now, Diego Luna was a well-respected actor (“Milk” and “Mister Lonely,” among many others) as well as a producer of TV and film, including his own directorial efforts “Mr. Pig,” “Cesar Chavez,” and “Abel.” He’s better known in his native Mexico than in the U.S.
However, as the male lead of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the first standalone feature in the rapidly expanding “Star Wars” universe, all of that will change as of December 16.
He’s giddy, if not geeky, about this turn of events. A naturally generous and fast talker, Luna punctuates his points with big hand motions and bigger smiles as he shares the same refrain that seems to be programmed into all newly minted “Star Wars” actors: They were fans first. Being cast in this cinematic universe is something they’ve only dreamed of.
However, Luna says his affection for something as massive as “Star Wars” is just as profound as his desire to make defiantly idiosyncratic films. They all spring from a place of deep, personal attachment.
“Before I was invited to do this one, I introduced my son to the world of ‘Star Wars,'” Luna said. “I wanted to share this with him. It establishes a very special connection. I cannot tell you it happens to me with other films, that I care as much as he does about them as a fan.”
A New Hope
Still, Luna admits that he felt the “Star Wars” franchise needed an approach that reflected the world in its current state. “Rogue One,” which follows a talented and diverse cast (including Felicity Jones, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Jiang Wen) who portray unexpected allies brought together by a mission to steal the architectural plans to the Death Star, is certainly more progressive than its predecessors.
“There is a need to have a modern approach to this world,” Luna said. “There was a need for a ‘Star Wars’ film that talked about racial diversity, that rethinks the role of women, that is modern, that has more to do with the world we live in.”
Luna has long been a progressive thinker, especially as it applies to his industry and craft.
More than a decade ago, he co-founded the documentary film festival Ambulante alongside childhood best friend Gael Garcia Bernal, producer Pablo Cruz, and Elena Fortes, to bring documentary films to people and places that traditionally don’t get them.
In 2011, Ambulante received the Human Rights Award from research and advocacy nonprofit the Washington Office on Latin America; Luna now sits on WOLA’s Board of Directors. Last year, he narrated a WOLA video that explores the experience of Mexican migrant children who pursue a safer life in the United States.
Going Behind the Camera
Just weeks before signing on for “Rogue One,” Luna was wrapping production on his third directorial outing, the charming road trip dramedy “Mr. Pig,” which debuted at Sundance earlier this year. That’s when everything changed.
“I finished ‘Mr. Pig’ a few weeks before Gareth Edwards told me I had the part for ‘Rogue One’ and I went, ‘Shit, okay,'” he said with a laugh. “I had to put ‘Mr. Pig’ in a very specific niche to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come back, I promise you. You are my baby, but I have to go and shoot this film that I cannot say no to.'”
As with of all his films, Luna said “Mr. Pig” is rooted in Luna’s own life and experiences. “‘Mr. Pig’ is a film about how I feel today in the relation with my father and how lucky I feel to be able to share my life with him.”
It doesn’t get much more personal than that. His talky, sweet film stars Danny Glover and Maya Rudolph as a father-and-daughter duo who set out on a road trip from Southern California to the Jalisco region of Mexico, all made on a slim budget with a lot of love. The differences between productions were stark to Luna, but he found an unexpected way to bridge them.
“The last week of shooting (“Rogue One”), I was mixing ‘Mr. Pig’ at night in London,” he said. “‘Mr. Pig’ was done with 2-million-and-something dollars, not even the amount ‘Star Wars’ spent in catering for this film. I did the mix in the best mix studio ever because I happened to be in London and I had it to figure things out. That’s how much ‘Star Wars’ has changed my life, that a film that we shot with whatever we had or whatever was in front of us was mixed in the biggest studio of the planet.”
The Necessity of Telling a Story
When asked if his acting changed after his first trip behind the camera, Luna was so eager to respond that he interrupted the question. “Definitely,” he said. “Dramatically.”
After directing three films, Luna said he can’t imagine his career without the ability to both act and direct. For him, the experiences are now inextricably linked.
“As a director, I do need the experiences I’m having as an actor,” Luna said. “I’ve never lived from my work as a director. Directing, for me, comes as a necessity of telling a story. For me to direct, something has to happen in my life. Acting is the exact opposite. It’s the best way to make sure something happens to you, because these journeys are so intense. I need that in order to get inspiration and go and direct.”
Luna said those stories are always very personal. He sees no reason to change his motivations now.
“I wouldn’t direct something that is not personal and that doesn’t come from an experience I just had,” he said, “I did ‘Abel’ because I had a kid and I wanted to do the film about the father I didn’t want to become.”
The 2010 family dramedy debuted at Sundance, and follows the eponymous young Abel (Christopher Ruíz-Esparza), who stops speaking after his father abandons the family. When he finally gets his voice back, he’s taken on the persona of his absent dad.
It’s funny and sweet and definitely strange, but Luna keeps a winning grasp on tone that keeps it afloat, even as it wrestles with issues as profound as how to be a good father. And while Luna’s followup, the Michael Pena-starring “Cesar Chavez” biopic, may not sound as personal as “Mr. Pig” or “Abel,” Luna said it is.
“I did ‘Cesar Chavez’ because I was living with my kids in the states and one was a Mexican-American and I wanted to tell a story about a Mexican-American that could inspire my son,” he said.
Once Luna wraps the “Rogue One” marketing tour, he’s planning to work on directing his next film, not that he knows what it will be. He’s clear that it has to be as near, dear, and personal to him as his previous features. And if he’s able to make that happen because he’s now “Star Wars star Diego Luna”? So much the better.
“It has to come from the right place,” Luna said. “I also think I have a freedom, and hopefully this film will expand the time of this freedom for me. I’ve had a freedom of doing the film I want to do, getting the right crew around and the right team for the right reasons.”
He added, “That is something very rare to have, and I’m going to fight for that quite a long time.”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will be released in theaters on December 16.