‘Chavez’ star says film is also a tribute to a Fil-Am labor leaderBy Ruben V. Nepales
Philippine Daily Inquirer
TORONTO, Ontario — Acclaimed actor Michael Peña, who’s here for the Toronto film festival, said the coming movie “Chavez” also pays tribute to Filipino-American labor leader, Larry Itliong.
In the film, Michael played the title role of American labor organizer and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.
Actor Diego Luna directed and Keir Pearson (“Hotel Rwanda”) wrote the biopic of Chavez, who helped lead the farm labor movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Diego produced the movie with fellow actors Gael Garcia Bernal, John Malkovich, among others.
Touting David Ayers’ gripping entry, “End of Watch”—where Michael and Jake Gyllenhaal turned in nuanced performances as LA cops who form a deep brotherly bond—the actor answered our questions about “Chavez.”
While Chavez worked with several Fil-Am farm labor heroes, including Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Andy Imutan and Pete Velasco, it’s Itliong who was portrayed in the film. He was played by Darion Basco, a member of the clan of Fil-Am actors.
Michael said Itliong represented the Filipino farm workers, who partnered with Chavez in the American labor movement. “It was important to Diego Luna to have the Larry Itliong character in because he did a lot for the Filipinos,” said the actor whose credits include the Oscar-winning “Crash.” “It was a shout-out to him, for sure.”
He explained that “Chavez” cites the fact that Filipino workers led the landmark Delano, California grape strike in 1965. “If you know the story of Cesar Chavez, it is a cool one,” Michael said. “I didn’t even know about this, but the Filipinos were the first ones who went on strike. They’re the ones who took the initiative. I have this speech in Spanish where I said—the way Cesar talked was like this—‘Brothers and sisters, our Filipino brothers and sisters have taken a step. They’ve asked us to join them. And we have to do this. Let’s put our differences aside and join them.’”
Michael added: “That’s exactly how Cesar Chavez was. He really didn’t take the credit very much. He was a humble man. I think he would have loved that part (the Filipino workers’ contribution to the movement) in the movie. It’s an important part.”
Michael said Chavez, who died in 1993, was regarded as a civil rights icon.
“Cesar Chavez was not in most history books when I was in school,” he pointed out, and then joked, “80 years ago.”
“The movie covers 1964, 1969, 1974 and 1993 when Cesar passed away,” recounted the 36-year-old actor. “It’s a lot about him, of course, but what I thought really cool is that the film shows his family. It shows how he had eight kids.”
Breaking into a grin, Michael again cracked: “That’s a lot of kids even for a Mexican. Sorry about that. I love saying that.”
He continued: “But all those kids gave up stuff. They were constantly moving. Thematically, the film deals with equal rights for farm workers but it’s also about his family, which is a beautiful touch. It shows what the family went through as well.”
America Ferrera played Chavez’s wife, Helen. Of the actress, Michael commented: “I don’t know if she would like me in this movie because we play like, not opposing characters, but you know how it is (between a husband and wife). Then, as soon as she showed up, she was like, ‘Hi babe!’ I was like, ‘Hey baby! How are you?’ She’s a fantastic actress. She did really good.”
The film wrapped shooting last June. “I only saw a bit of ‘Chavez’ but what I saw was really cool,” Michael remarked.
Speaking of California farm workers, imagine our complete surprise when we watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” at its Toronto gala screening. The movie, which won major awards at the recent Venice Film Festival, was hailed as one of this year’s best movies.
Almost halfway through the film, Joaquin Phoenix, who played an ex-Navy drifter, toiled as a farm laborer in post-World War II California.
In a night scene at the workers’ camp, we suddenly heard them singing Mike Velarde, Jr.’s classic “Dahil Sa Iyo.” Joaquin’s character was with Filipino farm laborers, it turned out.
Amid our grueling Toronto interview schedule, we made sure to meet Jun Robles Lana, who directed “Bwakaw,” and his producer, Ferdy Lapuz. Jun, who was in Toronto for the first time, courtesy of his winning film which stars Eddie Garcia, will proceed to the Big Apple where “Bwakaw” is in the main slate of the 50th New York Film Festival.
Later, after his entry’s official screening, Jun e-mailed us: “The screening went great. The theater was filled to capacity. The audience —there were only a handful of Filipinos—was very much into the film. Considering that ‘Bwakaw’ is a very personal film, I am amazed that it resonates with so many people, even with a foreign audience.”
Brillante “Dante” Mendoza’s “Thy Womb” was the other Philippine entry in Toronto. But Dante decided to skip Toronto after attending the Venice Film Festival where his Nora Aunor drama was also an official selection.
(Editor’s note: In the Sept. 19 issue, Only In Hollywood reported on Fil-Am sax player Michael Paulo’s successes, including a gig with jazz superstar vocalist Al Jarreau in Rock in Rio, said to be the largest music festival in the world. Michael told columnist Ruben Nepales, “The largest number of people I’ve ever performed for was over 300,000.” What came out in print was “over 30,000.” Our apologies for this inadvertent error.)
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