There is a laundry list of reasons why Gabriel Luna, who plays a “Latin James Bond” in El Rey Network’s Matador, was meant to get this job.
But topping the list are an Austin connection and a grandfather’s unwavering support.
Luna grew up in the Texas capital city where Robert Rodriguez, the self-styled filmmaker and El Rey founder/chairman, is a local hero.
“My grandfather used to save newspaper clippings about everything Robert accomplished,” Luna says. “He would show them to me and say, ‘Hey, this is the guy you need to be working with.’
“I was still assembling my credits and acquiring experience at the time. I would say, ‘Maybe one day, Papa.’ ”
Two months after Luna’s grandfather passed away, the actor met with Rodriguez about the role of Tony “The Matador” Bravo. “It was Feb. 19, my grandfather’s birthday,” Luna says.
Matador premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Tony Bravo is a DEA agent-turned-CIA recruit, working undercover as a professional soccer player to gain access to the team’s corrupt billionaire owner.
Rodriguez, the man behind the “Spy Kids” and “Sin City” movie franchises and the movie Desperado, directed the first episode of the 13-episode first season.
Matador is a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek thriller that often feels like a graphic novel come to life.
When Luna was young, like most kids, he fantasized about being a cop, a spy or a pro athlete. “Now I get to stroll in and play all three,” he says. “It’s almost a regression to being 8 years old and playing with squirt guns and kicking the ball around.”
Another reason Luna is so right for the role: He has the sports background it takes to be believable onscreen as an up-and-coming soccer pro.
Before he caught the acting bug, Luna lettered in three sports in high school. In addition to running track (300 hurdles) and playing a small forward on the basketball team, he was a star strong safety for the Austin Crockett Cougars.
“Athletics is my first love — and as it is with many young men in Texas, I had originally been offered scholarships to play college football,” Luna says. “But I suffered an injury to my left shoulder, a dislocation, that ended my football career.”
But football’s loss is Matador’s gain.
Given the World Cup fever that recently swept the nation, the soccer element of the show couldn’t be more timely.
“We ran a commercial during halftime of the Germany-Brazil game — or I should say the Germany-Brazil massacre — and I got so many calls after the spot ran,” Luna says.
Working with Rodriguez
It still boggles the actor’s mind that, after all these years of idolizing Rodriguez, he now gets to work for him.
During their first meeting at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, Luna told him, “I had to take a really roundabout way to get a sit-down with you. It took moving 1,500 miles away from home and nine years!”
Rodriguez is beloved in Austin because of his support of the filmmaking community in Central Texas.
He was often advised to move to Los Angeles once his directing career took off. But he chose to stay put and now makes movies (as well as his first El Rey show, From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) at his own Troublemaker Studios, located at the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin.
So imagine Luna’s surprise when he learned that Matador would be filmed not in his hometown, but in L.A. But he quickly got over any initial disappointment.
“It would have been fun to go back home to do the show,” he says. “But it makes sense to do it in L.A. The team is based in L.A. The character is from Boyle Heights, East L.A. And the city itself is practically a character in the show. I don’t think we could have gotten the architecture in Texas.
“Besides, to all my friends and family and everyone who supported me back home, it’s much grander, more foreign and more exciting that it’s happening in Los Angeles, the capital of filmmaking,” he continues. “In a way, I think it elevates the mystique.”