The Austin Chronicle

Gabriel Luna for the Gooooooaaaaaal!

Soccer and Spy games collide in El Rey's 'Matador'

By Richard Whittaker, July 18, 2014, Screens

Gabriel Luna is taking a break to watch the World Cup. In the background, the cast and crew of his show Matador are watching the U.S. team take a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Belgium. He said, "If you hear the boys screaming, that's what it is."

They're not goofing off. It's research for their new drama for Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network, created by Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Fringe). Luna plays Tony Bravo, an undercover DEA agent blackmailed by the CIA into trying out for soccer team the LA Riot. They want him close enough to club owner Andrés Galan (Alfred Molina) to find out whether the mysterious millionaire has more dirt on him than just the mud of the pitch. What they don't plan on is Luna being so good that he makes the team. As a player by day and spy by night, Luna said, "I'm either running toward the goal on the pitch or running down bad guys."

That's a long stretch from how producer Rodriguez offered him the part – over iced teas ("because we're a couple of Texas boys") in the genteel elegance of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Luna said, "I'm doing the scene with Robert, who's reading it off his laptop, and the waiter's coming in. It's really loose and relaxed, and that's the way I like it."

Pitched as a Hispanic James Bond, Matador is El Rey's first completely original narrative programming (its other drama being the serial adaptation of 1996 horror-crime-comedy From Dusk Till Dawn). The network may be Rodriguez's collaboration with Univision, but it's really the original Troublemaker's brainchild. When they met in L.A., Rodriguez explained to Luna his goal for content on the Latino-flavored network. "He just wants to put the true face of America on the screen," Luna said. "His only question is, is it cool?"

The pair had crossed paths before, but informally, like any two people working in Austin's film community are bound to do. A native of the 512 and a St. Edward's University alum, Luna is a local stage regular; he received an Austin Critics Table award in 2010 for the hat trick of leading roles in Orestes, Black Snow, and Endgame. That same year he delivered a breakout performance in SXSW pot-dealer drama Dance With the One, the first project from the University of Texas Film Institute's Feature Film Lab (see "'Dance' Fever", March 13, 2010). He's no stranger to knockaround sports either, playing high school football as a strong safety. That helped more in his upcoming flag-football comedy Intramural than in Matador. He said, "I didn't really make my introduction until college, when I played true football recreationally with a bunch of friends."

His athletic background was as important to Rodriguez as his acting chops. Luna said, "Robert himself isn't a big sports guy, but he did want someone who was, and capable of handling the extreme amount of physical activity." He learned quickly that soccer can be as brutal as any sport, as Bravo doesn't necessarily play the most elegant version of the beautiful game: In the first episode, he puts one of his future teammates on the injured list during tryouts. Luna said, "I start out, not a full-on goon, but definitely an enforcer."

The show allows him plenty of opportunities to improve his ball control. His teammates on the fictional Riot combine actors, former professional players from teams like the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas, plus trick players who add a fantasy element. With that kind of talent around, he said, "I've made it a point to continue my training even during episodes where there isn't any fútbol." In part, that's the raw necessity of the schedule. "Football shape is one thing, and then fútbol shape is a completely other thing. It's a whole other level of fitness that you have to work to maintain." Tough as a regular game can be, the cast faced the challenge of maintaining the energy of a 90-minute match over a whole day of shooting. Luna said, "You make a 40-yard run, and then you've got to do it again. And that's in Balboa, where our practice field is, which is in the [San Fernando] Valley, super hot. Of course, I'm from Texas, so I'd jokingly say to the crew, 'Hey, suck it up, this is a nice fall day.'"

Matador airs Tuesdays, 9pm Central on the El Rey Network.

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