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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ryan Gilbey

Babylon breakout star Diego Calva: ‘I owe this role to Margot Robbie. Something happened between us’

Diego Calva at the premiere of Babylon: ‘I want every day to be 48 hours long because I’m enjoying it so much.’
Diego Calva at the premiere of Babylon: ‘I want every day to be 48 hours long because I’m enjoying it so much.’ Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a three-hour extravaganza about Hollywood hedonism in the silent era and beyond, could never be accused of subtlety. There is, though, a flash of understatement near the beginning of the film, when Nellie, a dizzy ingenue played by Margot Robbie, turns to Manny, the indefatigable studio dogsbody, and tells him: “You know, you’re not bad-looking.” Manny is played by the smouldering newcomer Diego Calva. How handsome is he? Put it this way: one smile from him, even on a fuzzy and faltering video call, and it is as if Ramon Novarro never existed.

The 30-year-old actor is under the weather today, but his whopping hazel eyes still gleam beneath their sleepy lids, and his voice sounds darting and musical, sandpaper-scratchy though it is. “I feel a little sick but we’re good to go,” he says through his sniffles. Calva was meant to be in Los Angeles but illness has kept him in his New York hotel room, where he squints into his webcam as we talk, and pads around restlessly in nothing but a pistachio-coloured sweater and his underwear. The impulse to hop on a flight to JFK bearing soup and a blanket is not an easy one to suppress.

It is less than a fortnight before Christmas, and only a day since Calva heard that he is in the running for a Golden Globe – the sole newbie, and the one nominee of colour, in a category that also included Daniel Craig, Adam Driver, (the eventual winner) Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. “Babylon is the first time I’ve been involved with a movie that has chances,” he says blearily. False modesty this is not. Aside from a handful of screen appearances, including his role as a real-life drug lord in the third season of Narcos: Mexico, he is fresh out of the wrapper.

He laughs now at the sense of wonder he felt on Narcos. “That was the first time I was on a set with a lot of big toys. On other shows, you only get to fire the guns three or four times, even in a violent scene, because the bullets are so expensive. Narcos was the first job where they told me: ‘Fire a hundred bullets if you like!’”

Babylon represents an escalation in scale, as well as a turbo-booster for Calva’s career. Chazelle, the director of La La Land, spotted the actor’s headshot when he was searching for a newcomer to play Manny, who climbs the industry ladder from lackey to studio executive. Along the way, he also becomes personal assistant to the hell-raising screen idol Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, and tries to save Nellie from herself.

Calva began auditioning in 2019. “Then during the pandemic, I didn’t hear from Damien for a few months,” he says. “I thought: ‘OK, he cast someone else.’” When the film-maker got back in touch, he asked Calva to send more videos of himself performing scenes from the script, and to brush up on his patchy English. Finally, he was flown to LA for a chemistry reading with Robbie. “I owe this role to Margot because something happened between me and her. That day in Damien’s back yard, I reached a whole new level. Like a video game, you know?”

Calva with Margot Robbie in Babylon.
‘She is going to go in the books of history’ … Calva with Margot Robbie in Babylon. Photograph: Scott Garfield/AP

Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, also rescued the poor lost lamb during his early days on set. “Margot saw that I was going back to my hotel alone each night after shooting. She realised I was in a lonely place so she invited me to live with her and Tom. We cooked, played cards, went to the beach. I met her friends.” He is practically swooning. “She is a true artist. She is able to be so vulnerable and then so, like …” He searches for the right word, then starts growling: “Grrrr! Big! Scary! She is going to go in the books of history.”

The poignancy of Calva’s performance is informed by the similarities between him and his character. Before drifting into acting, he studied screenwriting in Mexico City, then helped on any set that would have him. In 2015, he bagged the lead role in I Promise You Anarchy, an indie feature where he and his childhood amigo Eduardo Eliseo Martinez play gay skateboarders embroiled in a blood-donor racket, of all things.

Wherever he looked, there were parallels between him and Manny. “One day he is cleaning up elephant shit, the next he’s with Jack. As for me, I was living in Mexico City and then I’m having dinner with Brad Pitt.” Or flying on a private jet with Pitt, Robbie and Jean Smart, who plays a gossip columnist in the movie. “Everyone realised it was my first time on a private jet, so they were all talking about their first times. It was like when you compare your first time getting drunk.” Where actor and character differ is in their experiences as Mexicans in Hollywood. Calva insists he has never curbed or compromised his identity, whereas Manny disavows his full name (Manuel) and claims to have been born in Madrid. “He starts losing his soul. He corrupts himself to the point where he lies about who he is.”

Babylon’s orgy sequence, which features a cream-spurting pogo-stick phallus and a spot of watersports, has earned the film an 18 certificate here and an R rating in the US. Do parties like this still happen in Hollywood? “Ah, unfortunately not,” he grins. “Maybe I haven’t been here long enough. But I tell you, shooting the party scene was like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It went on for two weeks. No windows, so I never knew what time of day it was. I thought for the rest of my life I would be chasing that chicken.” This is no euphemism: he really does chase a chicken. But then animals figure strongly in Babylon – Manny is defecated on by an elephant, menaced by an alligator, and watches a man eating a live rat. The overall impression is rather as if Noah’s ark had run aground at Stringfellows.

With Brad Pitt in Babylon.
With Brad Pitt in Babylon. Photograph: Scott Garfield/AP

When we speak, Babylon has not yet been released in the US. But it is already clear that it will be divisive, with early critical reactions ranging from “delightfully delicious” to “truly monstrous”. (The film-maker Paul Schrader later calls it “misconceived” and questions its historical veracity, though he also adds “imaginative, daring and fearless” to its list of qualities.) Even these conflicted responses can’t harsh Calva’s mellow. “My life feels like a movie,” he says. “For the first time, I prefer to be awake rather than sleeping.”

It isn’t until I listen back to the recording of our conversation that it strikes me how sad a sentiment that is. When we catch up by phone a month later, I ask him about his remark. Was life before Babylon so unhappy that he really didn’t want to leave his bed?

“I’ve always been honest with my family so they know I deal with depression sometimes,” he says. “There are moments in life when you want to sleep because of what’s going on inside your head. Since Babylon, I want every day to be 48 hours long because I’m enjoying it so much. Maybe it will be like this for ever or it will just be a moment, but anything that happens from now on I’m going to try to enjoy.” It’s for that reason, he says, that he didn’t make any wishes or resolutions at the start of the new year. “Most of my wishes already came true.”

• Babylon is released in the UK on 20 January

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