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Diego Calva Says ‘Babylon’ Production Was ‘Beautiful Organized Chaos’

"I can't imagine being in a room with 800 people, and that be a chill, calm situation," the actor told IndieWire.

Lukas Haas plays George Munn and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Lukas Haas plays George Munn and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in “Babylon.”

Scott Garfield


Babylon,” director Damien Chazelle’s three-hour-and-eight-minute epic about the dark side of Hollywood’s early sound era, has the kind of breathtaking period detail and scale that looks like it was hard to pull off. As one of the actors working inside of that experience, Diego Calva confessed that it was never easy.

“We are not soldiers,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t imagine being in a room with 800 people, and that be a chill, calm situation. It was messy all the time. There was a beautiful, organized chaos.”

Calva is at the center of “Babylon” as Manny, a hired hand who endures a dead-end gig in the service industry before breaking into Hollywood as a film producer in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It’s the kind of breakout role that has been a long time coming: Though he spent half a decade in everything from small-scale features (“I Promise You Anarchy”) and TV shows (“Narcos: Mexico”), “Babylon” marks a turning point for the actor, who was nominated for a Golden Globe last week. On the set, he could immediately tell that he was entering a whole new world with “Babylon” — and his director expected him to keep up.

“Everyone was running one way to another, everywhere, all over the place,” said the actor. “That’s what Damien was able to create and build mostly — to synchronize everyone, even if it’s a thousand persons on set at the same time.”

Calva said he didn’t have to act much in his early scenes as Manny. “I like to tell the story of how we had the same first day on a Hollywood set,” he said, referring to his character. “My first day is his first day, so some of the surprise faces or the awe you see in my face, or in Manny’s face — it’s me, sometimes. We share a lot of first new experiences, like meeting Brad Pitt, working with Margot Robbie, working with Damien, and in his case, maybe Nellie and Jack.”

He was still coming to terms with the scope of the project, at one point following on his reflections on the experience by adding: “How cool is it to say this out loud.”

As for his scenes with Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, a rambunctious silent film star who Manny falls for, Calva didn’t mince his words. “I became like an actor working with her,” he said. “That was so challenging, but at the same time so special. I don’t know if it’s going to happen again, that kind of connection. I hope so.”

Calva gave similar high marks to Pitt, who plays aged silent film star Jack Conrad, a mentor to Manny. “He’s been in the moviemaking, acting, and storytelling business for so long that he’s now even able to realize if you are having a bad time,” said the actor. “Even if you try to hide it, like, ‘No, no, no, I’m cool, I’m cool, I’m cool.’ No, he knows.” Pitt was a reliable source of advice on the set.  “I remember one beautiful day when he approached me and said something helpful, something that from an actor to another is important,” Calva said. “‘Protect your craft and trust your instincts. And if you’re gonna make a decision, take it and go all the way with your decision. Don’t be afraid. Don’t doubt it.’”

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in “Babylon”

Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures

It was advice the young star needed going into the back half of the film, where Manny begins to see success — something he may not be on the verge of experiencing himself. “I don’t know what it is, for example, to run a whole Hollywood set,” he said. “Manny did it, and he committed some mistakes and betrayed some friends, but in the end, he was there. He’s way different than me in a lot of situations. And a lot of moments in my life I had the thought that I would love to be more like Manny sometimes.”

What helped the Calva as well was the way Oscar-winning filmmaker Chazelle would give specific direction, but still allow time for his stars to give their input or improvise. “He knows what he needs, he knows what he’s looking for, and also he knows how to pull that out from you, how to take you to that place, or to higher your energy. He knows how to direct actors, but at the same time, he’s pretty open,” said Calva. In one moment, Chazelle would tell his actors to open their eyes even wider; in the next, he would ask, “You wanna try something?” Calva said that playing Manny “was a different adventure every day. It was a different mood and a different situation every day.”

Despite now being a Best Actor contender, Calva said he’s still “living a Manny situation” right now — an observation with some unsettling connotations. “I remember just standing outside of a big Hollywood party, me, Diego Calva, and somebody threw his keys to me like, ‘Hey, valet parking, take it.’” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Whoa, this is such a Manny moment.’”

At the same time, as he works the awards party circuit, the Mexico City native is meeting some of his heroes like Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. In Calva’s recollection, the pair both told him something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re the new kid? If you have any problems, you can call us. Don’t worry, us Mexicans, we’re family.”

Diego Calva

Diego Calva attends the Global Premiere Screening of “Babylon.”

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

While he has some worries about how the price of anymore fame may be the effect it has on his family, Calva would like to use his new platform to stay close to his roots, and tell stories that mean as much to him as the long-gestating “Babylon” meant to Chazelle. “I want challenges, but not only like, ‘Let’s go to space!’ I mean, I would love to, but it’s very important who wants to tell this story and why,” he said. He’s not shutting the door on his roots. “I have one foot in Hollywood right now, and I was invited to this beautiful Hollywood party,” he said. “I plan to stay and keep working with people that I admire, that I dreamt to work with when I was a little kid. But at the same time, I want to try to build a career back in Latin America too, and to go to Mexico and tell stories that matter to me in a lot of ways.”

However, he was thinking more expansively than his home country. “There’s some issues, for example, particular issues in my country, particular issues in Argentina and Colombia,” he said. “I just wanna go back to the Spanish audience and keep doing those movies.” And there are practical reasons for still doing work in Latin America as well. “It’s beautiful to act in your own language,” he said.

Paramount Pictures releases “Babylon” on December 23, 2022. 

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