Diego Calva had already landed a role in Babylon, acting alongside Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, when the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, called him with an odd request. A few months earlier, in January 2021, Calva had flown from Mexico City, where he lives, to Los Angeles to read lines with Robbie in Chazelle’s backyard. Their chemistry had earned Calva a part in the film. Now Chazelle wanted him to meet Pitt.
At the time, Chazelle was directing a commercial that starred Pitt. He asked Calva to come to the set and pretend to be Pitt’s assistant without revealing his identity to the legendary actor. Chazelle thought of it as a rehearsal for Calva, who plays Manny Torres, an assistant to Hollywood star Jack Conrad, played by Pitt, in Babylon.
“I worked on the commercial for two days,” Calva, 30, tells me. “I had a backpack full of Coca-Cola. I brought the coffee and said hi to everyone.”
The secret didn’t last long. Mary Zophres, Babylon’s costume designer, who had already met Calva, happened to be working on the commercial, too. “She saw me and she said, in front of Brad, ‘Brad, have you met Diego? He’s playing Manny in the movie.’ It was a shock moment, with three seconds of silence.” After a pause, Pitt said, “Well, Damien, I think somebody has something to explain to me.”
Shortly after the reveal, Pitt pulled Calva aside to say, “This is a good one—you don’t get a lot of these,” referring to how special Babylon would be.
The film has several metafictional elements for Calva. Babylon begins in late 1920s Hollywood, just before sound was introduced into movies. Like Calva, Manny is a movie buff who moves from Mexico to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. On his first day on an American movie set, he shot a scene about Manny’s first day on a movie set. It required Calva to ride a horse while getting chased by 300 extras.
The actor, who has lived in Mexico City his whole life, is the only child of a single mother. He was alone most of the time, and his mother had him watch movies to keep him “quiet and safe.” His first movie love was Clyde Geronimi’s 1946 animated short “Peter and the Wolf.” “I remember being super-scared of the music [and] of the wolf,” Calva says. “Those emotions of fear were what got me hooked.” He estimates that he’s seen the movie 100 times.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor,” he explains. “I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to something related to movies.”
When Calva was 16, he started working with friends on short films. At age 20, he began taking small jobs in Mexico’s film industry, such as catering, operating the boom mike, and working as a production assistant. Acting came accidentally. One day while recording audio for a short film, an actor didn’t show up to set. The director asked Calva to step in. “That was my first time in front of the camera,” he says. He’s wanted to act ever since.
Calva’s first leading role in a movie was in the 2015 Mexican indie film I Promise You Anarchy. He had a stint as a cartel leader on Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico. Then, shortly before the pandemic began, Chazelle started casting Babylon. He came across Calva’s headshot and thought, “Oh, that’s the face of a dreamer. Those eyes have real poetry in them,” Chazelle has said.
After Calva auditioned, he didn’t hear back for months. “I had this beautiful script [for Babylon] with me, and I just kept reading it,” he says. Throughout his quarantine, he acted out scenes from the film. Then Calva suddenly got a call from Chazelle and was flown to Los Angeles to do that chemistry reading with Robbie.
Calva credits Robbie, who plays Nellie LaRoy, an up-and-coming movie star, for helping him get the role. During their reading, “Damien told me he saw fireworks,” Calva recalls.
Robbie remained a pivotal part of Calva’s experience during the shoot. She quickly realized that he didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles and that he returned to an empty hotel room every night after work. “She had had a similar experience with The Wolf of Wall Street. That was her first time in America,” Calva explains. So “she did something beautiful—she said, ‘Diego, don’t be alone, and come live with Tom [Ackerley] and me.’” Calva moved in with Robbie and her husband for a few weeks.
“She saved me more than once,” he says. “It felt like family.”
Now Calva is back in Mexico City, where he intends to stay. While he wants to continue making films, Calva says he would be content even if Babylon was the last movie he ever worked on. “I love to act, and I would love to direct, but I could spend the rest of my life watching the movies other people are making,” he says. “It’s not about being in the front row. It’s more about enjoying your art.”
It’s almost certain this won’t be his last film. When asked what he will do with his last few days of quiet before the world watches him in Babylon, Calva says he hopes to go on a beach walk with his mother and then take her to dinner. Soon, he won’t be able to do that without getting recognized.
Babylon is in theaters now
Clara Molot is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL