SXSW 2014 Interview: CESAR CHAVEZ Director Diego Luna and Actor Rosario Dawson

Valentina I. Valentini, Contributing Writer
Four years ago, Diego Luna sat down with the Chavez family and asked permission to tell the story of Cesar Chavez to world through film. "We sat down with Paul Chavez, Cesar's son, and explained to him why we felt the film had to be done and why with us," director Diego Luna told Twitch. In February, Cesar Chavez premiered at Berlin Film Festival and played to a packed Paramount Theater in Austin for SXSW filmgoers and activists, Chavez family members, people who were involved in the movement, and the stars of the film - Michael Peña (Chavez), America Ferrera (Helen Chavez) and Rosario Dawson (Dolores Huerta).


Twitch: What was it like screening to such a passionate and involved audience?

Diego Luna: It was the perfect mix between those who care a lot about the story and those who might be hearing about Cesar Chavez for the first time. There were so many there who have some connection with the movement or are at least aware of the struggle it means to be a farm worker and the urgent necessity of celebrating them and paying attention to what they do. It is important that we send that message to those families that are feeding this country that their story matters. 

And for the ones who were listening to the story of Cesar, the union and the work of people like Dolores Huerta for the first time, it was amazing to see that everyone connected with the film. Normally I expect when the film ends for like 20 percent of the people to leave, because they have things to do or kids or they just didn't care about the film they watched. But this time everyone stayed. When Dolores and Paul [Chavez, Cesar's son] came out on stag, it was like suddenly we were all reminded of the importance of the film we made. It's about real people actually doing stuff and showing us that change is possible.

Rosario, as an actor, how was it sitting in that room, feeling that energy?

Rosario Dawson: I was sat next to Dolores so it was a whole other experience for me. I had seen the movie before but I hadn't seen it with her. I had been wondering if she had seen it yet, because I really wanted to know what her opinion was. I didn't want to just call her outright so I just had to wait and see if she was digesting it. 

Just after the screening, I get this Tweet from her that she put out on blast saying she was very honored that I portrayed her and she thought I did a good job. I just love that she's so savvy - she Tweets, she writes, she emails, she calls - and so it was really fun. While we were sitting there watching the movie she'd lean over and whisper things like, "Oh this is my favorite part," because she had now seen it a couple of times. It was so fun watching it with her. I was telling Diego that we should definitely do a DVD commentary with her!

DL: Yes, she said to me after the film, "This is the time I've enjoyed it the most, because it's not easy to see a film about you." I was so happy to hear that because I wanted to tell her that it's not easy to do a film about you! It was probably one of the happiest moments of my life. It's a lot of pressure to know that [the real people you are making a movie about] are around. You want to please them and also not forget why you are telling this story. I hate when I see a film that is trying to please everyone, because then you are not pleasing yourself. It's about that connection, you know, why you are doing it.

There were a lot of funny lines in the film, despite the somber content. What was the thinking behind that?

DL: If you go to history books, they don't tell you how much fun these people had in the process of going through a really tough struggle. We [found that humor] in all the interviews that we conducted during the research process.

I remember one day I was shooting in the dumps of Mexico on another film, and I saw something that has stuck with me forever. Amidst these horrible dumps there were two kids around six or seven years old playing futbol with a soda bottle. They were pretending that it was a ball, and they were playing on top of garbage, on top of horrible things and smells, and they were having an amazing time, laughing and enjoying themselves. That image reminds me that we are survivors, that we always find a way to love and to smile. It doesn't matter what the conditions are. 

So apparently Cesar used comedy a lot to break the tension. The line he says at the end of the film - "This little Mexican kicked your ass" - actually happened. It's not about us trying to be smart, it actually did happen. On such an important day, he came up with a joke for a guy he'd been fighting for so many years. That's their way of behaving.

RD: They'd have a beer after work and they'd sit down and relax with each other. And when they would do these big meetings, there was music and there were children running around and there was food. They were all together all the time for many, many years. It wasn't just some people coming together to march and then disappearing back into their own lives. They were really involved in each other's lives, so they had things that they could make fun of each other about. I loved that energy and knowing details like the kind of music that [Cesar] listened to (jazz and blues). It was different than what you would expect and what you would project onto these people. Showing how they actually behaved is really important. That part of the storytelling I thought was as critical as getting the marches and the facts and the contracts and all that kind of stuff right.

Rosario, how did you come to find out about the project and then get attached?

RD: I had already met and worked with Dolores before, so she gave me her blessing to perform. And I had met America [Ferrara] a bunch of times over the years because she was a really big Hillary Clinton supporter and then she joined Voto Latina, which I'm a part of, because she decided she really wanted to do something, wanted to help and didn't want to be as partisan about it. While we were filming Dolores got The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and America started the America4America campaign. It was so interesting to be pretending to do this kind of activism in a film and in these characters' clothing, and then in our own lives we were doing it as well. It just felt so cool. I think it was probably nice for Helen and Dolores to not just be portrayed by some actors who didn't want to [connect with them]. I think it was probably comforting that we as actors were also activists. For years, the Chavez family has been approached to do a film and they always said no. I think we were the right group. I think Diego was the right director to champion it. 

DL: I remember that day you and I sat down in a restaurant in Venice. We started talking and for a second I had the feeling I was sitting in front of the actual Dolores Huerta. I mean, I was there to talk about my film and [Rosario] just kept shooting the questions at me, asking me my position on immigration reform and what's going on in Mexico, etc. I was so surprised because it was supposed to be the other way around, me interviewing her, and then I realized - not just with Rosario but with America as well - that they have the spirit of their characters. They're like a reincarnation of what these characters would be today. Also, I think they are a result of what happened back then, the change. In a way they can be who they are today, so loud and active because of people like Cesar and Dolores that started drawing attention to our community.


Cesar Chavez opens on March 28.

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