Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The boyfriend who nobody understood


Diego Luna on playing Jack Lira in Gus Van Sant's 'Milk'

Sean Penn (Harvey Milk) and Diego Luna (Jack Lira) in Milk. Photo: Phil Bray
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In Milk, director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's powerful new agit-prop memoir of slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, two of Harvey's real-life boyfriends, Scott Smith and Jack Lira, illustrate how hard it is to marry a movement god and be the good male wife. Smith (James Franco), the Mississippi-born country boy who would achieve a kind of immortality as Harvey's #1 lover, and later, the odd title of "the widow Milk," becomes the movie's representation of the good lover. But it falls to Lira to suggest not only the dark side of same-sex coupling but also the peculiar pitfalls awaiting a public couple who must share their conflicted feelings in the piranha-infested fishbowl of West Coast municipal politics.

Apart from Sean Penn's revelatory turn as an astonishingly humane Harvey, Milk's great casting coup is Mexican film actor Diego Luna's paradoxically exuberant/mood-shifting Jack Lira.

Born just after Christmas 1979, Diego Dionisio Luna Alexander is the son of the English-born costume designer Fiona Alexander and the Mexican-Italian set designer Alejandro Luna. In person, the slender, boyishly handsome international film star is impeccably dressed in a style that appears impervious to gender while at the same time quietly and almost demurely masculine. Fluent and emotionally expressive in his mother's native tongue (she died in a car accident when he was two), Luna is passionately indebted to the love he feels from his father, a love he suspects was sorely lacking in the home of Fresno-raised Jack Lira. This missing love from an abusive father was an early clue to unraveling Lira's inner life.

"[Jack was] a guy who had a big struggle in life," Luna said. "He had a lot of loneliness, and just the fact of not being accepted in your family sounds like enough to get lost. I believe that I am what I am because of my father, because of the amount of time he invested in me, and the amount of love he gave me. So I think it was really strong what he had to go through with his father. Running away from your family must be the worst thing.

"And then being not just gay but Mexican in this country, I'm sure it was tough. He had a very self-destructive personality, but at the same time he had a lot of love to give. I heard from people that met him that he was a guy that when he was happy, it was obvious that he was happy, he was giving love to everyone, laughing and enjoying and sharing that happiness. He was a guy who was ready to give himself. He had something there, though, that not even he accepted: when everyone tells you you're not who they want you to be, and you believe it, then you start to hate yourself in a way that's never going to let you really enjoy life. He had love, he had friends, he belonged somewhere, yet it was never enough for him."

David Lamble: There's a pivotal scene where you have barricaded yourself in an upstairs room (at a political party attended by Milk and

Diego Luna at the World Premiere of Gus Van Sant's Milk. Photo: Steven Underhill
Advocate publisher David Goodstein). You have a line, which becomes funny partly because of the way you say it, "Harvey, these are bad people!" It's funny in kind of an I Love Lucy way, but it's also funny because it's true: in some way, the political people are bad people because they stand between Jack and the more private relationship he needs to have with Harvey.

Diego Luna: What is boring for Jack is this world of movement and politics; he would like Harvey to be a guy that just cares about eating, sharing stupid things, talking about a soap opera. Jack wanted Harvey to just be there to see him dancing, to cook for him, to observe the simple things. All the other stuff was getting in the way. Harvey also needed that, someone who didn't take him so seriously. When you have such a weight on your shoulders, you want to go home and forget that people are expecting so much from you. That's why their relationship was kind of magic, but no one understood why Harvey was with this guy. There are a few moments I felt he needed to be funny. If you don't find humor in stories like this, you're not portraying life as it is, because even in the worst tragedies there are people laughing. That's normal, and I thought it would be a good chance to loosen things up a bit in some parts of the film.

I remember watching you kiss your childhood friend Gael Garcia Bernal at the end of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the film that made you guys an instant sensation here. That kiss for me brought home all the film's themes: two buddies experiencing the disturbing perplexities of modern adolescence while taking a bittersweet road trip through all the sublime pleasures and tribulations of their rather perplexing country.

These guys have shared everything: life, happiness, they find out they've shared girlfriends. The most powerful thing of that scene is that that love gets celebrated through a kiss. But it's not about how I see them approach sexual preferences and that moment when you're deciding what you like and what you don't, and who you want to be. It's just a celebration of love which these guys happen to do without even judging themselves. We've all been free, at least for a second, and I think these characters reach freedom at the end of the film. Life should be more about that freedom than anything else. In a way, I think what made Harvey special is that he was a guy who saw politics the way I see love: that the thing that mattered was respect, curiosity and sharing. That's what love is.

Milk is coming to the Castro Theatre, Nov. 26-Dec. 23.

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