MATADOR originally aired on the El Rey Network in 2014. The series is now available in its entirety on Amazon Prime. Despite the title, MATADOR has nothing to do with bullfighting. Instead, Gabriel Luna stars as DEA agent Tony Bravo. Tony unexpectedly has his daydreams of being a professional soccer player fulfilled when he’s recruited by the CIA to try out for the L.A. Riot team in order to spy on its owner, international criminal Andres Galan (Alfred Molina). When Tony surprises his CIA handlers by securing a spot on the squad, his missions become more dangerous.
When MATADOR, created by Jay Beattie & Dan Dworkin & Andrew Orci & Roberto Orci, turned out to have a science-fiction twist on top of its action/espionage roots, some fans embraced it, while others were bewildered. Either way, it’s a unique experience.
Actor Luna is a native of Austin, Texas, which happens to be El Rey Network founder and chairman Robert Rodriguez’s home base; Rodriguez served as an executive producer on MATADOR, and directed two episodes. Lune had several feature films under his belt and had guest appearances on PRISON BREAK, TOUCH and NCIS: LOS ANGELES, but Tony is his first series lead. Since MATADOR ended, Luna has appeared in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, AGENTS OF SHIELD (as Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider), HARLEY AND THE DAVIDSONS (as real-life motorcycle rider Ed Hasha), WICKED CITY, TRUE DETECTIVE, and FREEHELD.
This interview with Luna was conducted at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at the time of MATADOR’s original premiere. However, it has not been published until now.
ASSIGNMENT X: Is it true that before MATADOR, you had made a movie with Robert Rodriguez’s brother?
GABRIEL LUNA: Yes. His little brother Marcel was the d.p., on a movie called DANCE WITH THE ONE that I did. It was directed by Mike Dolan, who is a great New York actor – he’s in HAMBURGER HILL and NECESSARY ROUGHNESS, a few pictures in the Eighties, BILOXI BLUES, and he went to [University of Texas] to study in the Missionary Program, which is a great writers’ program at the University of Texas. They came up with U.T.F.I., which is a professional production [company] with many of the roles being filled by students – of course, professionals in all the higher-end jobs, the actors are all paid and are professionals, but a lot of the crew positions are filled by University of Texas students and we all know it’s one of the best film schools in the country, and they’re all very talented individuals, and it was great. Marcel was one of those students.
AX: And so Marcel Rodriguez remembered you and recommended you to Robert Rodriguez, or how did you come to be involved in MATADOR?
LUNA: That’s a funny story, because recommendations came from all sides. When I initially started, when I initially auditioned, no one knew I was from Austin. I’d met Robert a few times, but I never made it a point to tell him I’m an actor. I just wanted to be near him, I just wanted to talk to him. He’s a great man and a great hero of mine and I just didn’t make it an issue. But sure enough, once I got further into the process and they started to come around and say that perhaps I’m the guy, it was fortified, it was buttressed by the opinions and recommendations of Marcel and Becca, his sister, and Tina, his sister who’s a friend of mine, Elizabeth Avellan, who’s [Robert Rodriguez’s] producing partner. Game Changing Films was the soccer-coordinating company that’s going to do this; I worked with them on [an American] football movie [INTRAMURAL] that I did last summer. So all of a sudden, he was bombarded from all sides by people going, “Gabe’s the guy.” So he told me it ended up being an easy decision – “It ended up being just like everybody felt it was you.” Well, first of all, you’re Robert Rodriguez. You could’ve just told them they were all full of it. But he believed, too. And now I’m just earning the honor and doing my best to make him proud.
AX: Were you also a University of Texas student?
LUNA: My brother is, my aunt is, my cousin is. I went to St. Edward’s University in Austin. But I’m an honorary Longhorn, because I did that UTFI picture.
AX: In real life, you had played American football?
LUNA: I did. I was the strong safety.
AX: Are any of the American football skills applicable to the soccer football moves you make in MATADOR?
LUNA: Yeah, definitely. As a strong safety, you have to perfect what’s called a tee-step, which is, you draw back in a backpedal, and you tee it off, and you plant and you pivot and you turn. And soccer requires a lot of pivoting and a lot of turning on a dime and spherical movement. Just in coverage as a strong safety, you learn how to manage an area of space, and that’s a big part of soccer.
AX: How would you say Tony Bravo sees himself?
LUNA: I think Tony Bravo sees himself as, he’s a lawman, he’s trying to do the best job he can. He’s trying to do right by his family, but there are so many requirements on his time in terms of having to go undercover for months at a time to truly fulfill his obligations to his family, and I think that he sees himself as someone who’s excellent at his job and is proud of being excellent at his job, but is still unfulfilled. When given this opportunity to become this soccer player, it’s something he’s dreamed about, that as the character I’ve dreamed about since I was a child, I’m now given this great opportunity to fulfill this dream, but meanwhile, that can’t be my primary directive, because I have this other directive, I have this other mission that’s much more important. But at the same time, I want to play this game, I want to play it beautifully, I want to honor my family, I want to do something that I love and I’ve pulled away from the mire of being a lawman and doing things in this unfulfilled life towards this something that’s greater, but I still can’t fully enjoy it.
AX: Does he see working with the CIA as a step up in his lawman career or does he see it as the CIA interfering with his DEA job?
LUNA: He sees it as the way to get his brother [who is in jail] home. Initially, that’s the leverage [the CIA] have, that’s what they use, and that’s why he does it. He doesn’t expect that it’s going to turn into this prolonged engagement. Initially, it was just, do this one job, you get my brother out of jail, we’re done, we’re square. But it becomes a thing when he ends up making the team, it becomes a thing where now he’s this very valuable asset and I have to keep fulfilling my responsibilities to these people. But what that provides me is an opportunity to play professional soccer, which is an absolute blessing, an absolute dream. So initially, it’s just get my brother out and I’ll do this thing for you, but it goes further from there.
AX: Are there aspects of Tony that are harder or easier for you to play than others?
LUNA: I’m finding that there are a lot of parallels and a lot of synchronicity in what I do as Tony Bravo, from the family structure to just the way this kind of nature – I found even in the auditions, I kept saying, when people would ask me, “How’d it go?” I was like, “Oh, man, it was like breathing.” It was as natural as breathing. So I think there are a lot of similarities between the character and myself.
AX: How do you feel when Tony has to hold a gun on someone?
LUNA: You just have to honor the danger and the severity of the situation. Even if it’s a cold weapon on set, you must still honor it as if there’s a full mag. It’s not to be trifled with, it’s not to be swung around. If you allow the moment the gravity that it deserves, then you can realistically get that across.
AX: Robert Rodriguez directed the MATADOR pilot. How is he to work with as a director?
LUNA: He lets it happen. He honors the actor’s process. He lets it go and he says in his book, “I can get everything right, I can fit everything, I can make the whole scene perfect, but if there’s an interesting actor on screen, just watch the actor go.” And I think the most he’ll say is, “A little faster.” Robert works quickly. He’s brilliant, he’s a genius, he has great vision. He sees ten steps ahead, so he knows what he can do without, what he needs. He gave me his guitar after we wrapped the pilot, and he walks around the set and he’s playing the score to the shot as it’s happening. He’s Robert Rodriguez. I’ve said it in every single interview – he’s the Miles Davis of movies. He’s just cool, man. It’s cool.
AX: And how is it working with Alfred Molina?
LUNA: Oh, man. I love Fred’s work all over the place, everything Fred’s done. He’s just fantastic. CHOCOLAT’s probably my favorite performance of his. When he lets himself go and he lets himself be overwhelmed by passion and food and love – finally, he beds down and it’s such a beautiful scene. Fred is one of the world’s greatest thespians and every opportunity I get to work with him is an opportunity for me to do my absolute best work, because you’re standing in front of a titan. And unless you come to work and you’re ready – I stay up nights [when] I know I’m working with Fred, not because I’m afraid, just because I want to be ready. I don’t want to let him down when I’m standing in front of him.
AX: Looking ahead, do you have thoughts about where your career will go after MATADOR?
LUNA: [laughs] Oh, man. I’m not even worried about that. I’ve never looked too far ahead. I describe my life to a lot of people as the “Billie Jean” video, because I was born to a fifteen-year-old widow and my grandmother worked in a Laundromat and my grandfather was a tile setter. None of them are involved in the arts. So everything I’ve ever done has been the “Billie Jean” video, where Michael [Jackson is] dancing down the sidewalk and the next panel of the sidewalk lights up and you step there and you’re dancing and then the next panel lights up and you step there. You just go where the light is and that’s all I’ve ever done. So I’m not really worried about what’s at the end of the alley, I’m only worried about, where is the light, where am I going?
Related: Exclusive Interview: Co-Creator Dan Dworkin chats Season 1 of El Rey’s MATADOR TV series
Related: Exclusive Interview: Alfred Molina on El Rey’s MATADOR TV series
Related: Exclusive Interview: Gabriel Luna on Season 1 of El Rey’s MATADOR TV series
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Article: Exclusive Interview: Gabriel Luna discusses the action series MATADOR