Diego Luna: My Childhood Nanny Shaped My Political Awakening

The Sundance Film Festival is usually swimming with celebrities, red carpets, and after-party gossip mongers but a few big names are able to make it through the fest, under the radar. Diego Luna was in Park City for the famed fest but it wasn’t for a flashy premiere — his short film Nana was commissioned as part of the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge.

Meant to “spark a global conversation about solutions to challenges like extreme hunger and poverty,” the contest winners were picked from more than 1,000 entries. In addition to the winners, Sundance Institute alumni, like Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Marialy Rivas were approached to create shorts which screen alongside the winners during the festival.

At the world premiere, just a few days ago, Diego explained why he felt compelled to honor the work of women who raise other people’s children in his film, “I thought about who made me who I am. My mother died was I was two years old so my father had to use a nanny for my whole childhood. I guess I see the world, from the perspective… from her point of view, or from the many women I met. I have the feeling that there was an amazing gift that I was given. If we acknowledge this, and when I say we, I mean all the kids that were raised by people who come from a different place than us… we might be able to change the world one day. Maybe we won’t change the world in the short, but maybe that kid will in 20 or 30 years, I hope.”

Ahead of the screening we caught up with him to talk about Nana, the indelible mark nannies have left on his life, and Mr Pig, a new movie he directed.

Your film was commissioned for this challenge. When you were approached to direct a short, how was it explained to you? What were you told it should be about?

I knew the intention of the project. There were some boundaries and there was a concept. But regarding what story to tell, I had complete freedom. There were no suggestions, it wasn’t like, “You only can talk about this or this.”

It was more about the angle you talk from, the perspective. My intention [was to] find hope in this reality we’re living in. Those stories can bring us the light and the feeling that there might be something good happening that one day will bring our realities closer to each other.

So I decided to do the most personal thing I could’ve done. It’s the story of a nanny and the journey she has to to go through, to get to work. And the first thing she has to do is to leave her kids with someone else.

“I like cinema when it raises questions. I hate when it tries to give you answers.”

There’s a lot of irony in her situation.

Right, the irony and the paradox of that. And then she travels, leaves home. Probably she will travel three or four hours, depending on traffic. So she leaves home at night in order to be there at 10 in the morning to work.

So that’s one storyline that ends with the moment where I feel the hope arrives… Even though it’s a job, even though it comes out of necessity there is a real and magical connection between this kid and this woman. Something gets filled there and it’s something that we’re all searching for and that we all deserve, that feeling of warmth and of being fulfilled.

And then [in the short] I interviewed the first nanny that my first kid had. And she talks from a different perspective. She says, “I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I could bring my daughter. I don’t have to stop being a mother in order to help someone else on this journey,” which is, I mean, it’s very simple.

Luna and Miguel Castro at Sundance’s Gates Foundation Reception
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I like cinema when it raises questions. I hate when it tries to give you answers. And it’s an interesting reflection [on] how many times parents decide not to see the sacrifices others make to perform the duties they themselves are not willing to.

Yeah, it’s like a full circle.

Like today, many parents, you know… You go to buy the crib, the diapers and you get a nanny. [There’s a mentality that] you cannot be a parent if you don’t have those things.

And it’s interesting to see how fast that has happened. Like, my father’s [upbringing] was the opposite. His mother wouldn’t allow anyone to feed her kids. If you tried to make a sandwich they were like, “No! I am feeding my kids. Step back. Help me with something else, not with this.” And right now it’s like the opposite.

“My relationship with my nanny shaped who I am.”

I’m a father, so I wanted to reflect on that. And I guess the point where this connects with the whole concept of the project is how this relationship, or these relationships, can shape you.

I mean, I’ll tell you from my own story. I had a nanny when I was eight. My father always needed a nanny because my mother died when I was two, so nannies were very important in my house. When I was 8 years old in Mexico there was an election happening, the ’88 one, where there was this, it was an awakening in many ways for my country. The society was fractured… I was 8 years old and my nanny was a supporter of the left wing, of the Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas party.

Was that the PRD? [Partido de la Revolución Democrática]

But he wasn’t in PRD back then.

Luna and other participants in the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge
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Oh, before the PRD existed?

I think it was the Frente Cardenista de Reconstrucción Nacional… Today, I see this time of my life as very important, as a turning point. Suddenly this woman would come and talk to me about what was happening in the plazas and the movement and how they were pushed from here and there and there was no time in the media that Cuauhtémoc had. Basically, I witnessed a social awakening. That relationship with my nanny shaped who I am.

Was your father supporting the other side?

My father used to the read the newspaper everyday. I’m sure that he voted for Cárdenas, but he wasn’t active at all. He is not that kind of person. He’s very liberal in his way of thinking, but he talks with his art. That’s his way. But anyway, definitely he wasn’t talking to me about that at 8 years old. It was her.

I remember doing a trip with another nanny I had when I was 6 to a very poor town in Veracruz and spending the whole summer with them because my father said, “Yeah, you can go if you want. They’re inviting you.” And I witnessed the life of this family and this community. That shaped who I am.

So if there’s some wishful thinking in this — it’s that the kid, at the end of the short, will realize that he’s part of something bigger. To me that’s the only way where we can actually change what’s going on today, the day that we care about what’s around us, because we tend to allow indifference to run our lives.

You are very outspoken about politics. Do you think it comes from the influence from your nanny?

Yeah, and also the community that I belonged to, which is the theater community of Mexico. My father couldn’t, you know, just keep me at home, so I was part of his world. That’s why I studied acting very young and that’s why I guess I started worrying very young about these things.

“I can tell how stressful each movie is based on the amount of hair I find in my pillow the next morning.”

I think it’s part of being an actor also. I’ve always had a curiosity about what’s going on with others, about other people’s stories. And once you allow those stories to hit you, you react. It’s as simple as that, I think.

In the film, there’s a very clear division, visually, between the nanny’s home and the boss’ home. It’s very obvious and serves to highlight the class differences. But, some people who grow up with nannies, may not be aware of or sensitive to class differences. What do you think is the reason that some people, like yourself, become aware of their privilege and then want to do something about it versus other people who just go on with their lives?

There’s a very small part of society in Mexico, which is the middle class, that lives in the cities that have access to a lot, but at the same time have to work every day to hold on to that position. It doesn’t come just naturally by heritage or something. You have to work every day. I grew up in that community, and that makes you interact with different layers of society. It’s almost instinctive that this reflection [and awareness] comes out. In my school, I remember seeing other people’s parents who were aware of that happening.

I do think that every day Mexicans are much more class conscious than the average American. It’s something that’s thought about and talked about in mainstream society in Mexico, where in the U.S. it’s ignored. We talk about race more, but social class in the U.S. is kind of a secret. People don’t want to talk about it.

Even though you travel through the States and you find a lot of poverty.

Luna on set of upcoming film ‘Mr. Pig’
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Oh, absolutely.

I agree. It’s something we’re exposed to from day one [in Mexico], that contrast of having one of the richest men on the planet [Carlos Slim].

Who just bought The New York Times.

Yeah, who just bought The New York Times. At the same time we live in a country where so many have so little. It’s just ridiculous.

I know that Gael García Bernal also directed a short. Since you’re such close friends, was there any friendly competition there, like who can do better?

Nooooo. I haven’t even seen his. I’m going to see it today. He sent his script, I read it, we talked about it.

So you guys help each other on projects?

“Gael and I talk about things that matter, like love… or fútbol.”

Yeah, but it’s like, I don’t know… If our life was full of what everyone says about us, it would’ve been so much fun, but I would be exhausted, you know? There’s always this feeling of like, “So, you guys…”

People think there is a lot of drama?

“A lot of drama must be happening. Now you’re directing, he’s a director.” It’s like, no, it’s been something much more organic. And when we talk, we talk about things that matter, like love… or fútbol. [laughs]

Yes, fútbol… very important. Things that matter! [laughter] Last year, I did an interview with you about Ambulante California and we talked about a film you were going to direct, Mr Pig. I don’t think you had started shooting then. Where are you in the process now?

I was in L.A. trying to get an actor, I think, or something. I don’t remember what I was doing, but yeah, that was before. Yeah, I shot it and am a little more than halfway done with the editing. And hopefully getting it ready in the next two months.

Do you want to share a little bit about the story? I know some of the actors are American. Is the story in English or is it bilingual?

Most of the story is in English because the characters are American, but there’s a lot of Spanish because they’re traveling through Mexico. It’s a story of a farmer who loses everything but one hog.  He develops a relationship with this hog, traveling around Mexico trying to find a home for it. This is the story of a farmer and his relationship with his pig and with his daughter, who is played by Maya Rudolph.

Are you sitting there, in the editing room, throughout the whole post-production process?

Yeah. Right now we are on hold because we’re shooting a few missing things  — landscapes and stuff like that. But then I go back to edit non-stop until we’re done. I hope in two months we’ll be ready with the film.

Well, that was very fast because we only talked a few months ago.

It was very fast… With Cesar Chavez it was five years of my life. With this one it’s been a year. It’s a road trip, so we found the story on the way. And that was part of the challenge, to do it this way. Not to be stuck in this project for another four years. This is like a chance to breathe fresh air again after Chavez, which was so intense. I’m happy.

So, it seems like directing your other films, Abel and Cesar Chavez, were much more stressful?

I can tell how stressful each movie is based on the amount of hair I find in my pillow the next morning. And with Mr. Pig it was much less.

That’s your measure of stress?

Uh-huh. With Mr. Pig I only found two or three, that’s it, which means I’m back on track.

Several of the short films will premiere on digital platforms beginning February 3 with Marialy Rivas’ film Melody on the New York Times Op Docs page, Gael García Bernal’s film The Visible Hand on VICE Mexico, and Diego Luna’s film Nana on AJ+.