There’s no place like home for ‘Babylon’ star Diego Calva
Hollywood may have come calling, but as our first Latin American House gets ready to open, the actor reveals why – for him – all roads lead back to Mexico City
Monday 28 August 2023 By Mario Abad Photography by David Suarez Styling by Fernando Fernández Grooming by Davo Sthebané
For Diego Calva, this photo shoot – weaving his way between construction workers amidst the historic architecture and classical fresco paintings of the soon-to-be-opened Soho House Mexico City, dressed head-to-toe in Gucci – was a full-circle moment. While the actor was rehearsing for Babylon (his first Hollywood role, starring opposite Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, no biggie) the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, invited him to stay at his home in Los Angeles. Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, lent him her Mini Cooper for the trip. ‘I remember driving in LA when Damien called me and said, “Diego, you have to be at Malibu Beach House at 8am [for a meeting]”,’ Calva recalls. Cut to the actor waiting at a nearby parking lot. ‘Somebody threw their keys at me, for a Tesla or whatever, and said, “Hey, Chico, park my car”.’
For those familiar with his turn as Manny Torres in Babylon, this encounter plays like a scene from the script. Calva inhabits the role of a Mexican worker in his twenties and at the beginning of the movie, everyone calls him ‘Chico’ because no one knows his name. ‘It’s the first time he’s in LA, working with celebrities and he’s literally parking cars,’ Calva says. ‘But 10 years later, he’s one of the [industry’s] greatest producers.’
It’s a case of art very much imitating life: the global fanfare and awards buzz around Babylon proved pivotal for Calva, bringing him to the attention of worldwide cinema audiences, as well as industry casting directors. It’s clear Calva has very much had the last laugh. Who better, then, to feature in a shoot at Soho House Mexico City – our first Latin American outpost – than one of its native sons and hottest rising stars?
Jacket, approx £1,370, trousers, approx £670, and shoes, approx £240, all Emporio Armani. Steel watch, price on request, Omega.
Jacket, approx £2,530, trousers, approx £930, boots, Calva’s own, all Gucci. Gold chain and white gold and diamond bracelet, both price on request, Tiffany & Co.
‘Before a big event or premiere, you meet at Soho House. After the party, you go to Soho House. There’s a big community around it’
Soho House Mexico City is situated in a restored casa in the heart of Colonia Juárez. Its design reflects the building’s historic French influences and baroque heritage, preserving much of the original structure and interiors. Though it’s still something of a work in progress for this cover shoot, trust us when we tell you that the finished House – complete with outdoor pool and greenhouse-style bar – will be impressive. Calva agrees. ‘It’s in a cool old neighbourhood,’ he says. ‘You can tell that a really big, rich family used to live there and it still has the original ceiling. There’s a very romantic painting of three naked angels with the trumpets and all that. It’s great to see that they didn’t destroy the space, they played around with it.’
The area feels very familiar to Calva, who grew up in downtown Santa María la Ribera and in La Condesa (‘Way before it became a fashion place,’ he adds). In many ways, he feels his generation was among the last who would actually spend their days out in their neighbourhoods, playing on the streets. ‘I remember I went to the park in Mexico to play soccer,’ he says. ‘I used the city a lot. I would take my skateboard and go super far away from my house, just to find a spot that somebody talked about in the south of the city.’
Above: Trousers, £925, shirt, £650, and tie, £215, all Dolce & Gabbana.
Mexico’s creative scene has long been an inspiration for Calva, whose parents were both artists. But meeting the punk-artist-turned-film-director Artemio Narro, who ran underground gallery La Panadería (Spanish for ‘bakery’) four blocks from Calva’s house, proved seismic. He eventually started working for him as a 14-year-old and, a week after our interview, in yet another ‘full-circle moment’, Calva will start shooting a movie with Narro in Mexico City.
Calva welcomes the fact that the new Soho House could bring some positive momentum to Mexico City’s creative scene. ‘All my meetings in LA are at Soho House,’ he says. ‘In New York, before going to a big event or premiere, you meet at Soho House. After the party, you go to Soho House. There’s
a big community around it. I truly believe Mexico City is a centre for the arts. There are people from all over the world here. Soho House in Mexico City is going to open that community up to the artists and people across Latin America. It’s also going to open up a whole new world of people to Soho House.’
Calva began his movie career very much behind the scenes, working on independent Latin American movies with other creatives from Guatemala and El Salvador. From the sound and art departments to construction and catering, he’s done it all. ‘I fully respect all the people working [on set],’ he says. ‘I know there are many jobs where you don’t receive a clap, but they’re still so important. I’ve been the coffee guy and I know the satisfaction of knowing how the actor takes his coffee and being helpful.’
Shirt, approx £625, Emporio Armani. Scarf, vintage Hermès (stylist’s own).
Jacket, approx £3,500, Off-White at Jet Store. Trousers, approx £380, Asai at Silver Deer Store. White gold and diamond bracelet, price on request, Tiffany & Co.
But going from behind the scenes to front of camera is a different beast, and something Calva never intentionally set out to do. One day, he was working as the boom mic operator for a film and the lead actor didn’t show up. The director, a friend of Calva’s, asked him to step in as a favour. He then started doing other acting jobs for free and, in his own words, ‘became a little popular’, landing 20 or so short film roles before he’d even entered college.
His first lead role in a movie, a small independent film titled I Promise You Anarchy about skateboarders in Mexico City, featured a lot of his high school friends who also played his friends in the movie. ‘It was kind of this weird documentary of my life,’ he says. It led to an abundance of travel opportunities to places like Switzerland, Costa Rica and Spain. ‘I started to realise, “OK, I’ve been looking for my way to get into the movies. Maybe this is it?” So, I dropped out of school and the rest is history.’
It wasn’t just Babylon’s critical success that proved to be a game-changer, but also the process of making it. For Calva, creatively speaking, it was a dream come true. Chazelle gave him four months to prepare: to work on his English, perfect his accent, learn how to ride a horse and really immerse himself in the character. It was a process that has since informed the kind of projects Calva hopes to take on in the future. ‘I don’t want to rush things anymore,’ he says. ‘I want to have all that time. I don’t want to play anything I haven’t properly prepared for.’
His new level of fame and success means he’s been able to be more selective with his roles. Up next is On Swift Horses, the film adaptation of the novel by Shannon Pufahl about a forbidden love triangle after the Korean War, co-starring Jacob Elordi, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Will Poulter.
Calva has also discovered an interest in high fashion. Along with the racks of designer clothes he’s encountered on glossy photoshoots, the relentless red-carpet press circuit has presented an opportunity for sartorial experimentation. He’s been working with Ilaria Urbinati, one of the most in-demand Hollywood stylists (her roster includes Ben Affleck, Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds), who has encouraged Calva to try less traditional takes on menswear. A close working relationship with Gucci followed, and Calva now champions Mexican brands such as Barragán, Sánchez-Kane and Francisco Cancino.
‘I always use clothes as part of my code,’ he says. ‘I was the skater kid with a The Cure T-shirt full of holes and into street fashion. It was a whole discourse for me. I always said a lot with my clothes. So now, wrapped up in the high-fashion world, there’s a lot of ways you can talk. There’s a statement, there’s a whole history there and I really like it.’
Following the success of Babylon (which landed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), Calva is contemplating a full-time move to Los Angeles. But while the city of dreams is less than a four-hour flight away from his hometown, the potential wrench away from his beloved Mexico City is already something he’s wrestling with.