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Diego Calva knows that his experience on Babylon was not traditional. First of all, to get the role of Manny Torres, a wide-eyed striver who moves up the ranks of the film industry in its nascent days, the Mexican actor did “30 or 40” self-tapes. Then he moved into the Los Angeles home of director Damien Chazelle and his wife, producer and actress Olivia Hamilton, for about 12 days. “We rehearsed the whole movie in his backyard, like a bizarre kind of summer camp,” says Calva. In the evening, they’d watch movies and film clips, studying Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon or Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights.
There was a “metafictional” element to Calva’s experience on Chazelle’s ambitious film. Like his character, Calva, 30, is a newbie to Hollywood suddenly in the orbit of some of the biggest stars in the business, in this case Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Calva’s first day on the Babylon set was also Manny’s first day on a movie set. “I stepped out of my driver’s car and I saw this enormous desert with cranes and, like, 2,000 people there,” he says. “I remember being afraid. It was overwhelming. And then Damien just said, ‘Action.’ ”
Similar to Manny, Calva got his start in his home country by doing whatever would get him closest to film production, whether that be construction or catering. In fact, one of his early acting gigs in his home country came when he was operating the boom on a friend’s short film and stepped in for a performer who didn’t show up.
As Manny, who we meet hauling an elephant to a debauched Hollywood party, Calva is the audience’s eyes into the indulgent world of the silent era. But while other characters had direct historical analogues, Manny is entirely a creation of Chazelle and Calva. Chazelle gave Calva the go-ahead to create Manny’s backstory, and he did so by researching the Mexican American community of Chavez Ravine, now the home of Dodger Stadium. In Calva’s mind, Manny worked as a busboy at Musso & Frank before landing the gofer gig he has at the start of Chazelle’s story.
As part of his process, Calva also went to the Los Angeles Zoo. “It was really cool to watch the elephant and then go back to my house and read the elephant scenes again with the notion of, OK, this is the size of an actual elephant,” he says. (The elephant in the movie was CGI.)
Calva didn’t have to spend much time developing a rapport with his co-star Robbie, who plays the wild-child actress for whom Manny falls hard. As soon as they met for the first time in Chazelle’s backyard, “something happened,” according to Calva. “At least in my heart, I know that I unlocked a new level of acting that morning,” he says. “If this was a video game, I literally went to the next level.” That night, Chazelle added some of the lines to the script that Calva and Robbie had improvised.
In Babylon, Manny eventually rises through the ranks and becomes a producer. Calva could see himself doing that one day, following in the footsteps of Robbie, who has her own production company. He might also like to direct. For now, however, he’s enamored with the craft of acting. “I want to respect acting,” he says. “I want to dedicate myself to it. Acting is my life now.”
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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