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‘Babylon’ actor Diego Calva gives a nod to the pioneers of Latin cinema

“Babylon,” which opens nationwide on Friday, tells an epic story about ordinary people who became Hollywood legends during the golden age of silent film in the 1920s.

Viewers will see these characters go to the excesses of their cinematic fame before disappearing from the spotlight – sometimes tragically and abruptly – as talkies make them feel invisible.

Mexican actor Diego Calva, 30, who shares the big screen in ‘Babylon’ with Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, wants viewers to remember these early film pioneers, some of whom were Latino, who helped make Hollywood but have been largely forgotten by history.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres with Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad in ‘Babylon’. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures
Diego Calva as Manny Torres with Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy in Babylon.
Calva as Manny Torres with Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy in “Babylon”.Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

“It was pretty cool to put a face to a successful Mexican in those days,” Calva told NBC News, referring to his fictional character Manny Torres, who eventually rose through the ranks from assistant to a movie producer. dumb. “Latinos, we were always there, you know, working on that.”

His role earned him a 2023 Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, which could make his move from TV to film more permanent. Outside of “Babylon,” fans will recognize him from Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” in which he played drug dealer Arturo Beltrán Leyva.

Calva said much of his success as an actor is driven by the same kind of passion for filmmaking that elevated his character in “Babylon” to a bigger role in Hollywood.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres in "Babylon."
Calva as Manny Torres in a scene from “Babylon”.Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

“For Manny, movies are like the doorway to a bigger universe, a bigger opportunity,” he said. “I think I share the same situation. This is my first time in Miami and I’m only here because I make movies,” he said in a video interview.

While some viewers might view the films as an escape, Calva said, he sees the film as “a way to become more immersed in reality.”

Early Latino actors were featured in stereotypical characters as bandits, cantina girls, and lovers. But some became legends in the 1920s, including Mexican-born actor Ramón Novarro, who starred in the 1925 silent film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

Novarro’s cousin, Dolores Del Río, also enjoyed crossover success between Mexico and Hollywood, and even starred in talkies after becoming a silent movie star. Her 1943 romance “María Candelaria” was the first Mexican film to screen at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Movies then and now, Calva said, have the power to attract viewers from different walks of life, with “Babylon” as an example of people teaming up to tell stories of diverse characters on the big screen.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres in "Babylon."
Calva as Manny Torres in “Babylon”. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

“I think it’s beautiful what’s happening right now, because we’re finally mixing all the stories to create something that belongs to everyone. And that’s important,” he said.

Looking back on the history of silent films, Calva pointed out the contradiction of how talkies also silenced the voices of people in the industry.

“Movie sets during the silent period were like noisy. Two movies were running at the same time,” he said, referring to a scene from “Babylon.”

“But then when the sound came,” Calva said, “the set went silent.”

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