Two Bite Interview: "Milk"s Diego Luna

Sean Penn and Diego Luna at the Milk premiere

On the eve of Tuesday night's premiere of Milk, the long-awaited biopic of Harvey Milk, Mexico's Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Havana Nights) sat down at a press roundtable to discuss his role as Milk's young lover, Jack Lira. was there to hear what he had to say.

Luna was soft-spoken but intense, sometimes pausing to find the English word for what he wanted to say. He said seeing the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which won an Academy Award for its director Rob Epstein in 1984, convinced him that a larger audience, including young people who might not even have heard of Harvey Milk, needed to know his story.

"I believe the story of Harvey Milk is a story that needs to be told," he said. "My generation and the generation that is behind me need to know that there was someone like him. Harvey was very important, and we should remind people that there are a few stories like Harvey's," he said.

"We cannot forget."

Love, he insisted, is the "first energy" of politics and change. "Harvey Milk saw politics as I see love," he said. "That's the only way we can live in the same world together. Politics should be about sharing and about curiosity... trying to find out what people need.... I believe this country needs another thousand Harvey Milks."

Diego Luna as Jack Lira

Luna first visited San Francisco when he was a teenager, and was entranced with the Castro district. He thought it was the kind of vibrant neighborhood that should be part of "every city, every nation, every community." But he also warned that communities like the Castro are "bubbles," outside of which things have not changed all that much since Harvey's day, three decades ago.

"There are little bubbles in this country where you can live like in SF, but it's not the reality of this country and it's not the reality of this world," he said.

"I do believe we haven't changed. I do believe we haven't got the message," he said. "We haven't accepted the power we really have to change things." Milk, however, accepted that power. "Harvey was ten months in office, but he worked years and years to tell people not to be afraid of who they are, but to celebrate it.... Who cares how long we're in the world? It's what we do with the time we have. Harvey did so much with his time."

Diego Luna, Jack Lira

Luna spoke compassionately about his character, a troubled young Mexican-American kid with a drinking problem. Most of Harvey's friends disapproved of his relationship with Lira, who had been disowned by his father when he found out he was gay. Lira committed suicide two months before Harvey was assassinated.

"Jack had a greater struggle than a young gay Mexican would have today," said Luna. "Imagine being gay and telling your father when you're seventeen or something like that, 'I like men,' and your father hates you and gets you out of your house, and you happen to get to a place and you're not going to say you're gay, but they ask where you're from and you say, 'I'm from Mexico,' and they treat you exactly the same way. So you're out there wandering around, and obviously [Lira] found in alcohol a great way to forget who he was."

The premiere of the film won't be Luna's first visit to the landmark Castro Theater. He directed the critically acclaimed documentary Chávez, about Mexican boxing legend Julio César Chávez, which showed there during the 2007 Latino Film Festival.

"The audience was 20 percent young teen-aged girls who'd seen me in Havana Nights" he said, laughing, "and the other 80 percent was the gay community. And I'm going to show them a boxing film. This is not going to work. But it was the most exciting screening ever, the best audience, because they allowed themselves to be touched by this.... They appreciated so much that the festival was happening, that they were showing a film, that the director was there, that the film didn't suck, that they celebrated it. It was special."

Does Milk have the power to break out of the bubble? Luna believes it does. "It's an artistically beautiful film with the power to touch people," he said. "It's not just about the gay community; it's about respect for differences. It tells you that being different makes this world richer. Being around different people makes your reality richer. You can either choose to be around people who just think like you and get excited by what excites you; that, to me makes a very boring life. Or you can choose to be around people you get surprised by every second, by what they like, what they do, and it's a constant challenge of trying to understand. You have to use your brain — which I like. I think we need to force this to happen more often, and I think this film will help with that."

"This is one of those films that change the world," he said firmly. "I do believe film can change the world. It has changed the world for me."

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