Diego Luna has had one of the most intense years of his life. Beyond working on his new Amazon Prime Video series, “Pan y Circo,” he also struggled with both his children coming down with coronavirus preceding the global pandemic and stay-at-home orders that changed everything. But the Mexican actor and filmmaker likes to think positive, and right now he’s committed to helping the world transform itself with his new series.
“Pan y Circo” is about a lot of things, specifically the integration of food with everything from politics to social justice, from the environment to ethnic identity. In the series’ seven episodes Luna and a group of activists, reporters, and scientists get together to share a meal while debating issues affecting Mexico in general, but the world overall.
The sense of community is something Luna is excited to see, particularly with regard to how the show translates to American audiences. “We were thinking a lot about the importance of doing something that can travel,” Luna told IndieWire. “It starts from a local reflection but has to become something global.” The actor said that living in different environments — or different countries — can often leave people believing they’re disparate from each other. Sitting at the table with the panel reminded Luna of how much he had in common with others, which he’s hopeful will help viewers realize they not only have more in common with strangers than they think, but that they’re also not alone.
There’s an intimacy around the table and meal Luna organized, with the actor spending time at the beginning of each episode with the chef creating the food. Luna only personally knew a few of the chefs he worked with on the series; for him, it wasn’t just about selecting people he enjoyed listening to, but that he genuinely wanted to improve his cooking skills. “I wanted to be around the best chefs, learning how to make the magic they do,” Luna said.
But it wasn’t enough to be a great chef in order to be selected for the show, according to Luna. “We had to find chefs who had something to say about the topics we were talking about,” he said. “There had to be a reason for you to cook that menu that would trigger conversation.” It wasn’t enough for the chefs to focus on whether something was vegetarian or gluten-free. “Here, they have to know what they thought about that specific topic,” Luna said. “I don’t think they’d ever been so connected to the people they were going to feed.”
In the premiere episode on gender violence, the chef discloses that she’d utilized delicate ingredients in a violent manner. “We went like ‘holy shit,” Luna laughed. “The food took on a different form [from there].”
Luna described the pre-production as intense, but even after assembling the panelists it was unclear what the interactions would yield. Luna said that he knew everyone at the table certainly had something to say on the topics picked, but that didn’t immediately mean a conversation would flow naturally. But for a show with “circus” in the title, Luna said after the first half hour the conversation became unstoppable. At certain times he’d have to take control of the table just to end the episodes. “These people just didn’t want to leave,” he said.
The conversation wasn’t just organic, but compelled everyone to speak in a way that, Luna believed, they hadn’t ever done. He joked that could have been the result of a lot of tequila, mezcal, and wine being imbibed — but not necessarily. “The feeling of sharing the food relaxed everyone in a way,” Luna said. The talks became less about someone saying what they needed to, and more listening and reacting to what others were saying. “The big challenge was to edit because normally the lunches or dinners lasted for two-and-a-half or three hours and we have to create a 30-minute show. We could have done many shows about one dinner,” he said.
But as the panelists were reacting and transforming so was Luna. During the episode focused on identity and racism the actor was forced to acknowledge that he’s participated in a racist system. “I sat down at this table thinking I wasn’t a racist,” he said. “I’ve told my kids I’m not a racist, but after this lunch I realized how much I contribute to a system I benefited from.” Luna said he was painfully confronted with his own ignorance and it was hard to reconcile. It was from there that the actor realized the ultimate objective of “Pan y Circo”: to transform a bigger audience and promote healing.
This was only given more prominence by the global health crisis — but it took some time for Luna to realize that. He had locked himself into the editing bay with the first six episodes Amazon greenlit. “I couldn’t allow anyone to go and edit this,” he said. “I had to be there every day sitting with the editors finding the exact show we wanted to make.” It was towards the end, as they were putting together the credits and music, that the pandemic hit. Luna said that “in the past world” of four months ago, releasing a series like this in the height of summer would be a bad idea, with people doing more traveling and watching less television.
But once Luna realized that “people were reacting to something that was more important than anything else” he wanted to use the series to confront the moment. Adding to this fact was Luna’s own children contracting the virus, so the pandemic was really all he could talk about. “The reflection that has been forced for me [showed] how much I need contact with very few people and how much I have to reflect on what’s next to me,” he said.
If the series was going to focus on issues that couldn’t wait, he explained to his producers, this was one of them. And the six episodes they’d already filled took on grander implications post-lockdown. An episode on gender violence would come back around to discussing how women were dealing with staying at home with their abusers, or an examination on migration translated into a question of what quarantine means when you’ve left your home behind.
More importantly, Luna hopes all seven episodes of “Pan y Circo” will put the pandemic into perspective. “Let’s hope we do get the message out of all of this,” he said. For Luna, this has caused him to start looking for more local stories. “I have to start telling stories that have been in front of my house, in my neighborhood. It’s forcing me to see my profession in a different way,” he said.
He said that maybe all this was meant to make him confront more, and he hopes others will as well: “I would be really sad if in a few months or a year we turn back and realize we went straight back to what we had been thinking.”
“Pan y Circo” premieres Friday, August 7 on Amazon Prime Video.