Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio: (Non-)Professional Acting and Authenticity in Mexico

I have been thinking a lot about performance – of the self, gender, on screen, online – in recent years. Most recently, this led me write about performance and authenticity in Amat Escalante’s films, Los bastardos (2008) and Heli (2013), as a way into thinking about his work as prestige productions. To situate this discussion and to give a sense of typical/atypical careers for actors in Mexico, I looked at Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio. He is a well-established actor, whilst she falls under what is called a non-professional actor.

Although particularly successful in that his trajectory is representative of other, perhaps less well-known actors, Luna crosses over between commercial and arthouse cinema. He began with small parts in Mexican television telenovelas (soap operas), such as, Ángeles sin paraíso (1992), El abuelo y yo (1993), and La vida en el espejo (1999), alongside occasional small parts in low-budget Mexican films.  Mexican telenovelas tend to be of fixed duration and are produced quickly with an emphasis on exaggerated gestures and close-ups on the characters’ emotional responses. With Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) Luna took his first English-language role and shortly thereafter took a lead role alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Gael García Bernal, in Y tú mama también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001). Subsequently, this has led to numerous film and television roles in Mexico and abroad including arthouse films such as, Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), high-profile roles in the Star Wars franchise film Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and a lead role in the Netflix TV series Narcos: Mexico (2018-). Luna’s performances cross-genres, media, and platforms. He is a highly mobile translational star acting in Spanish and English and has worked as a director and producer. Across his multiple roles, his acting style conveys a “realistic portrayal of characters through in-depth psychological analysis and bodily transformation” that demonstrates he has acquired the cultural capital to conform to Hollywood and arthouse acting styles (Leung 2009, 20). However, his tendency to be stereotyped in English-language roles that require him to act Latino encourage excessive movement “focused on the surface such as facial expressions that look[ed] good in close-up” typical of television acting (Leung 2009, 21). An example of this can be seen in the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018). Luna’s move between styles of acting and across genres is a particularly successful iteration of what it means to be a Mexican transnational film star. He demonstrates range and a capacity to adapt his style as required with a primarily realist approach.

Luna’s professional career trajectory contrasts with that of the non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. In February 2019 Luna interviewed Aparicio, the protagonist of Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). She is someone whose foundational narrative resembles that of many of the actors in Escalante’s films. She is a non-professional who expresses a desire to return to Central Mexico to fulfil her previous ambition to become a teacher (Luna 2019). Although, she often mentions it in interviews, it is seldom commented that she comes from a family of performers and has had experience on stage. This gives her invaluable experience and understanding of performance. Her responses in the interview are the insightsof someone with this awareness. Aparicio explains that Alfonso Cuarón’s did not show her the screenplay, a decision which was intended to provoke instinctive responses to other (non-)actors (Luna 2019). A similar approach was taken by Escalante.

In interviews, Escalante has discussed this process with the non-professional actors in Los Bastardos and Heli. Considering how this method changed in the making of the horror film La región salvaje (Amat Escalante, 2016) reveals much about his previous approach and his different attitude to professional actors. Escalante states that La región salvaje “was the first time I gave my actors a screenplay. In previous projects, since the cast were not interested in being actors, we would work in the moment and they wouldn’t read the screenplay because I didn’t want to confuse them with a lot of information” (Aguilar 2017). For him, this directorial style results in spontaneous performances born of minimal knowledge of the narrative arc and is integral to working with non-professional actors. It will take a longer piece to unpick the variations in acting style and the mix of professional non-professional performers in his film. What is clear is that in Los bastardos and Heli Escalante elicited subtle low-key realist performances that, combined with an audio-visual style using long wide shots and close-ups conform to the aesthetics of arthouse cinema aiming to convey authenticity.

In my book, I will be looking at Escalante and how his work is read in terms of taste and consider the idea of the authentic and natural in relation to the non-professional actor. For me, the non-professional actor as a concept is under-explored, in particular in relation to recent thinking around authenticity. What’s here is a working through of something I have needed to think through before getting to the substantive issues I do tackle in the book. Further updates on the book to be announced soon.


Aguilar, Carlos (2017) “Pleasure and Pain in Guanajuato: Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is an Unusual Sort of Creature Feature” Movie Maker, 1 August, https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/tentacle-love-amat-escalante-on-creating-the-creature-in-the-untamed-and-filming-in-his-native-guanajuato/

Luna, Diego (2019) “Diego Luna Interviews ‘Roma’ Oscar Nominee Yalitza Aparicio — Exclusive”, Indiwire Feb 13, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/02/diego-luna-roma-interview-yalitza-aparicio-1202043684/

Leung, Wing-Fai W. (2009) “From Wah Dee to CEO: Andy Lau and Performing the Authentic Hong Kong Star”, Film International(40): 19-28.

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