Flixclusive SXSW Interview: Michael Pena, America Ferrera, Gabriel Mann (Cesar Chavez)


My final interview of SXSW was a three on one with Michael Pena, America Ferrera, and Gabriel Mann. I had just seen the screening for Cesar Chavez the night before, and we were all kind of pumped to talk about the movie. Just by talking to these three for the short time I had, I could tell they were excited about their project and excited to celebrate Cesar Chavez’s life. 

During my short time with them we talked about the amount of pressure Cesar Chavez has on it because its the first, the kind of mindset you need to be in order to strike, and how Chavez is the first real step for the Latino community. 

There’s quite a bit of pressure on this because Latinos don’t really get a lot of representation, and the fact that Cesar Chavez finally has a movie is a big deal. How was it taking part in this film knowing everything was going to be heavily critiqued?

America Ferrera (AF): I would urge especially someone who has a vested interest in Latino stories being told. I think the other point of view is to say “This is the film about this story being made” which is shocking, and it shouldn’t be the first and it shouldn’t be the only. The hope is that a story this big with this many perspectives, characters, and events, and issues would need so many stories, movies, TV shows, books to really get the scope of it. Diego is incredibly brave by being the first because as you say, one way to look at it is there is an enormous amount of criticism on the first to be all things to everyone and it’s just impossible to expect one film to be all of those things, so what we hope more than anything is our own community, the Latino community, shows up to support this film because it’s the only way more films like it are going to be made. It doesn’t have to be the last word, it’s just the beginning of the conversation.

Michael Pena (MP): You’re just opening up the book on this one. It’s funny, in a perfect world there’s got to be someone that steps out and takes a stance. Diego Luna was one of them. In a perfect world this would be a 30 to 40 million dollar movie, and we would have way more days, way more extras, and it would be a three hour movie. Gandhi was a three hour movie. You need to know where the person started from and how he got there. We’re taking diagonally the last ten years of what he did. I think it’s great to have a movie like this out. 

Gabriel Mann (GM): I think also when you approach a project, you can never approach it from a place of fear. I think if you were to approach from the fact that “Oh there’s so much pressure on everyone to get the story right” then it would never get made. Honestly those are the things that start to come into play more now, and maybe that was the case for Diego and the people who pulled all of this together. 

Speaking of fear, knowing you’re going to play the “villain,” do you have to get into a certain mindset? 

GM: What was great about this movie and Diego’s approach as a storyteller was that nothing was black and white. There were a lot of subtleties. When I looked at it, I wasn’t looking at him as villain. These people felt justified, the grape growers and business owners, and the behavior they were involved with. That’s the way I approached it, and when it all came together, it all became clear who was on the right side and who was on the wrong side of history. 

So Michael, I know you’ve done comedic stuff on the side, but you’re able to come back to the drama quite well. What influences your dramatic work? 

MP: Everybody has humor, but when I started looking at my own life, when I was living in shit, in the ghetto, that’s one of the best times I ever had. We didn’t know we lived in the ghetto or that life was hard, that was just our life. And I had great parents. Cesar had the same kind of mentality. He had a great partner in Helen. He tried to make the best of what it was, and this story has a lot to deal with that. Yeah you’re doing something that’s going to be beneficial and it’s going to change America, but you’re still trying to enjoy life because if not, why do it? This guy was courageous, a reluctant hero. I’m just glad his story’s being told. 

Do you have to have a certain mindset in order to rally, to shout “Huelga!”

MP: For me it’s always good to work in present time. My brother got fired from a bank, I used to work at a bank. I caught some heavy resentment toward these guys who were giving themselves bonuses when they got a bailout. It was really shitty, to be honest with you. You know, you scuk at your job, the country’s suffering for it, you go bankrupt, and then you give yourself and your colleagues bonuses? I thought that was straight bullshit. And I think it’s kind of what Chavez thought at the time. It’s unjust, unfair, unnecessary, and somebody’s taking advantage of whatever loopholes they can. I think that’s what happened. When you deal with it in front of your face, mistreated in front of you, that’s when you have to speak up. Somebody has to, and thank god Cesar did. 

How were you [to Michael] first approached for the role of Cesar Chavez?

MP: When I was first emailed about Cesar Chavez, I was like “Whoa, wait, is Cesar Chavez the boxer or civil rights activist? Cause if it’s the boxer, they should get someone Mexican. And thank god it was the civil rights activist because I had heard about him. But I didn’t really know his story until I started doing the research and figured that’s a great reason to do the movie. And I like it because it’s almost like voting where you say “my voice doesn’t matter,” but if one person in every town voted that didn’t think their voice was important, then it would make a difference in every election. 

AF: And that’s especially true in the Latino community today. There are a lot of issues that Latinos care about in the same way Americans do: healthcare, access to education. But we don’t show up to represent ourselves. If we don’t vote or educate our communities then the things we care about are not going to be put on the table. And as we’ve seen in recent years, just the tiniest notch up of Latinos showing up at the polls created an entire conversation around immigration reform. So in order for the things we care about to be on a political agenda, we have to show up for ourselves politically. Was Cesar was fighting for then was engagement, show up, stand up for yourselves is the same message that we should be sharing with our communities today.