Diego Calva knows that his experience of Babylon not traditional. First of all, to get the role of Manny Torres, the big-eyed playboy who rose to prominence in the film industry in its early days, the Mexican actor shot “30 or 40” tapes himself. He then 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 some kind of weird summer camp,” Calva said. In the evening, they watch movies and videos, study about Al Pacino in Dog day afternoon or Mark Wahlberg in Boogie night.
There’s an element of “super-fiction” to Calva’s experience of Chazelle’s ambitious film. Like his character, Calva, 30, is a newcomer to Hollywood suddenly caught in the orbit of some of the biggest stars in the industry, in this case Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Calva’s first day on Babylon The setting is also Manny’s first day on set. “I got out of the car and saw a huge desert with cranes and about 2,000 people there,” he said. “I remember being scared. It was overwhelming. And then Damien just said, ‘Action.’ ”
Similar to Manny, Calva started out in his hometown doing whatever brought him closest to film production, whether it was construction or catering. In fact, one of his early acting gigs back home came when he was running a friend’s short film and taking the place of an actor who didn’t show up.
In the role of Manny, who we see dragging an elephant to a Hollywood party of debauchery, Calva transports audiences into the indulgent world of the silent film era. But while the other characters have direct historical similarities, Manny is purely a creation of Chazelle and Calva. Chazelle allowed Calva to create Manny’s backstory, and he did so by researching the Mexican-American community in Chavez Ravine, now the home of Dodger Stadium. In Calva’s mind, Manny worked as a troubadour at Musso & Frank before landing the gofer gig he got at the start of Chazelle’s story.
As part of her process, Calva also went to the Los Angeles Zoo. He said: “It was so much fun to watch the elephant and then come back to my house and re-read the elephant scenes thinking, OK, this is the size of a real elephant. (The elephant in the movie is CGI.)
It didn’t take long for Calva to develop a relationship with co-star Robbie, who plays the wild child actress Manny has a crush on. According to Calva, as soon as they first met in Chazelle’s backyard, “something happened”. “At least in my heart, I knew I had unlocked a new level of acting that morning,” he said. “If this were a video game, I really took it to the next level.” That night, Chazelle added some lines to the script that Calva and Robbie improvised.
In Babylon, Manny eventually rose through the ranks and became a producer. Calva may find herself doing just that one day, following in the footsteps of Robbie, who has her own production company. He may also want to direct. However, for now, he is passionate about the acting profession. “I want to respect acting,” he said. “I want to dedicate myself to it. Acting is my life now.”
This story first appeared in the independent January issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.