Picture this: movie stars, tuxedos, jazz music, nudity, alcohol, drugs, an elephant and a party that seems to last forever. That is the introduction we get to the world of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s newest film, Babylon.
It is at this raucous party where the two main protagonists first meet, Margot Robbie plays aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva portrays Manuel “Manny” Torres, a Mexican-American film assistant. Amongst a comically large pile of cocaine, Nellie asks Manny, “If you could go anywhere in the whole world, where would you go?” Manny responds, “I always wanted to be part of something bigger. Something that lasts, that means something. Something more important than life.”
Babylon aims to end 2022 with a massive epic about the wild times of Hollywood’s burgeoning golden age in the 1920’s and the demise of the depravity in the 1930’s. It’s a dynamic reflection of the characters going through extreme highs and fathomless lows that glistens and glows for its three-hour running time.
Led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Hollywood newcomer Diego Calva, the cast is extensive and the story is ambitious.
The story is set in 1920s Los Angeles where the movie business is still in its infancy and has not yet become the tightly controlled studio system at the height of the golden age of Hollywood that lasted from around the 1930’s-1960’s.
It is a place where lavish parties, illegality and debauchery are the main pastime of the people involved in the movie business, and Chazelle’s epic does not shy away from showing all of it in its worldbuilding.
To find out some behind the scenes details of Babylon, we recently had the opportunity to speak to Margot Robbie and Diego Calva about their experiences working on a movie about actors, what parts of the journey reflected their own careers, how they build up their chemistry as co-leads, and how Robbie’s experience helped newcomer Calva into the world of modern Hollywood.
Babylon is in theaters on December 23, 2022.
To start off, I wanted to know, like, basically, what is it like being an actor working on a film that’s about being an actor working on films?
It’s so surreal. Yeah, we were literally a film crew filming a film crew making a movie. And that was not just in one scene. That was in a number of instances. I think the best part about it I mean, it’s just strange to look at, but it’s also just hilarious and wonderful. But the best part about doing that is getting to convey to audiences that feeling that I keep trying to describe to people when they’re like, “Oh, is acting fun? Is it hard to learn your lines?” That’s actually not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being on a film set.
And I wish I could transport everyone onto a film set so that you could see – it’s like sitting in the eye of the storm and there’s this beautiful, insane chaos around you. And when you capture a moment and everyone’s working, it’s such a community thing and it’s so crazy that everyone just wants to talk to actors at the end of it, because I’m like, “we are a tiny cog in this massive machine.” And, yes, we were there, but there were actually hundreds of people that we’re all really close with and we’re all moving in this, like, synchronized dance to achieve this one magical moment.
And you get to actually see how that happens in Babylon. And then I hope that audiences feel that thing that we feel when you do achieve that on set because there is no greater feeling. And when our characters say in the movie like, “Being on a film set is the most magical place in the world,” I really, really, really believe that. And in this movie, audiences get to be on a film set and feel that magic.
As Margot was saying, [it’s] like, beautiful and very meta, but also the relationship between me and my character put another layer into that kind of metafiction. My first day on set as Diego Calva in a Hollywood set with Brad Pitt, with Margot, with Damien, with 800 extras, it was my character’s first day on set. I think I felt like a very, very tiny line between me and Manuel all the time. For example, the emotions you see in Manuel’s face…all the emotion was real. So that face, I don’t know if he’s Manuel or it was me.
Margot, was there a feeling similar to that for you, that membrane between fiction and reality where you were acting, but your character is feeling that experience of moviemaking like you have in your career?
Yeah, there was a lot of those moments. I think for Nellie, she has that moment when everyone’s clearly going, “Oh, she’s not going to be able to do this right now.” And that was always my drive when I’d walk into it before I did The Wolf of Wall Street, after that, everyone expected something great, and that’s when actually acting got kind of scary for me.
But before that, I would just always walk into an audition and people wouldn’t be listening or, you know that they’re like, “Ugh, look, she’s going to be nothing, like, get her out of here,” sort of thing. And in my head, it would just get me so fired up and be like, “I am going to blow your mind! I’m going to make you look up from that piece of paper!” And it was such a motivating aspect to my acting to begin with, is that I knew no one expected anything great, and I was just so determined to prove everyone wrong. And Nellie definitely has that. Everyone’s like, “Who is this? She’s just a random chick from the party.” And she’s just like, “Just you wait.”
So, yeah, there are a lot of moments like that I definitely could kind of harness the energy that I’ve experienced in my own career and kind of put it into those scenes. And then there’s those really lovely moments where Nellie’s in a theater watching her film and then watching an audience react to it. And I did something similar in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Sharon Tate going to the cinema as well. And I’ve done that, too, where I’ve gone to the cinema and just it’s such a surreal moment. It’s completely surreal. So, yeah, there were lots of moments that were very art, imitating life.
Now, I want to talk about your guys’ collaboration on bringing Nellie and Manny to life. Just wondering how you guys worked on that chemistry and if you were leaning on Margot because you’re a lot newer to the world of American Hollywood. What was that partnership like?
Brilliant. I mean, I think we worked so well together and we did chemistry reads to begin with and that’s how we kind of knew that, A, we would have chemistry, but B, that we could kind of, like, support each other’s acting styles in a way that would only get the best work out of us. And I think to do that, you have to kind of know what your acting partner is comfortable with. And with Diego, it’s like there were no limits to what we could do or try.
We just had an understanding that we could do and try anything with each other. You never needed to hold back, which is so important to these characters. Like Nellie cannot hold back. I really needed a scene partner that I wasn’t going to tiptoe around in any way. And so I relied on him and needed him to push me so I could push him so we could get to these places. And that’s honestly just a credit to Diego as an actor, he’s so unbelievably talented, so present and such a supportive costar, like such a supportive scene partner where he’s like, “I got it. Try it. Go for it. Do it again. Let’s go.”
We could almost do that without even saying anything very quickly into the shoot. We could look at each other and be like, “yeah, okay.” We just had an understanding in that way. And I think we got the best – like some of the best acting I’ve ever done was with you and that’s because you are so good, but also because we have that kind of that trust and that limitless sort of no boundaries with our working relationship.
And I really believe that you made me an actor because I have acted before in so many things and everything, but never, like, with this kind of energy. And everything with Margot, I remember thinking so many times since the chemistry reading to our last scene, like “you have to do better. Look what she’s doing. Like, just go more and higher and higher.” And honestly, after Babylon, I even believe that I’m not a bad actor. I think I’ve grown a lot doing this.
And the trust, [Margot] just said the trust, like the confidence, that’s so important because it was my first movie, it was my first time meeting Damien. It was my first time acting with a superstar. And I’m talking about the chemistry reading, and I was so nervous, so afraid to fail. Like, can you imagine? I just didn’t want to blow this opportunity away. And from the first moment, when I realized, “okay, I can yell at her, she’s committed.” And [Margot] you just said there was something in the eyes, like, “do it, let’s play.” And I thank you, I owe you so much.
Okay, last question. What does the title Babylon mean to you?
I think when you hear the word Babylon, you think epic. I think epic. You think of like D.W. Griffith’s giant sets. And I mean, there’s so many different, like, correlations throughout Hollywood history, but Babylon was also considered at that time like a city of debauchery and excess, which obviously, but then there’s, of course, Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s book, which is just a fantastic read if anyone cares to look into it. Yeah, it makes me just think of, like, big, epic debaucherous, decadent insanity and then knowing that ultimately, it’s all going to crumble in a way, but also stays forever. It stays forever. Exactly. Like the myth of it ends up being larger than the thing itself.
Yeah, to me it’s that. But also, of course, the relationship with Griffith and everything. But also, I think it’s like something burning, like coming to life. It’s like the beginning. And Babylon is, for me, also like the beginning of Hollywood. There was nobody down there. It was like all little houses. [Babylon] makes you think about, like a whole castle, like something like Pompeii, like epic.