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Director Christopher Zalla and actor Eugenio Derbez on their film 'Radical'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When sixth-graders at the Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary School in Matamoros, Mexico, come into their classroom one day, they find all their desks have been turned upside down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RADICAL")

EUGENIO DERBEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

DERBEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMON: Their new teacher, Sergio Juarez, says their desks are actually lifeboats. Climb in. I'll help you. Then he flops onto the floor. It's the beginning of an unconventional lesson that leads the class through fractions, physics and philosophy. This real-life story is the basis for the new Mexican film "Radical," starring Eugenio Derbez. It is directed by Christopher Zalla and was the festival favorite award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Eugenio Derbez and Christopher Zalla join us now from Mexico. Thanks so much for being with us.

DERBEZ: Thank you very much. Thanks for having us.

CHRISTOPHER ZALLA: Thanks for having us, Scott. It's a real honor.

SIMON: When Sergio arrives at the school, the teachers are teaching students to prepare for a test, and they're - in addition to being fine teachers, I'm sure, they get a bonus if they're able to move up test scores. How does Sergio regard that kind of teaching, Mr. Derbez?

DERBEZ: After talking to him and when I was preparing my character, I discovered not just a great teacher but an amazing human being. He was telling me the story why he started this radical method, and it was because every single year at the end of the year, kids used to take a picture with him and hug him. And year after year, it was less and less kids who approached him. And then he realized he was probably losing the touch, and he had to do something radical to change it. So he ended up in this school that it's called, like, the...

ZALLA: Basural.

DERBEZ: ...Basural...

ZALLA: Yeah.

DERBEZ: ...Like, the trash punishment school.

ZALLA: (Speaking Spanish).

DERBEZ: (Speaking Spanish) - yeah. So he's been teaching since then, and he's still there. He thought he should stay there because in that school is where they needed him the most.

SIMON: Mr. Zalla, what spoke to you about this story 'cause, I mean, it occurs to me that sometimes on a film set, a director is a kind of teacher, too, aren't they?

ZALLA: I had become a father between my first film and this one. After that first film, which is actually where Eugenio and I first met, and everything after that went completely wrong for me, I kind of lost my way and decided I needed to pull out of the film world and reset. And there was something about this teacher, Sergio Juarez, who actually had a nervous breakdown and decided to start over that I really appreciated. But it was specifically the - his regard for the kids and this switch of mindset essentially, which was instead of to consider myself a teacher as authority, I'll stand next to you and look out at the universe with wonder and be your co-learner. And it's that sort of sacrifice of authority, but also that recognition of seeing this child as a full being that was both wonderful, I think empowering - I think it's the source of his success. When he was next to us on set - and he came to set for quite a bit, and it was one that we employed on the set, and I was constantly struck with how the production itself was, on some level, the proof of the story that we were telling - that genius is everywhere, and if you see the performances of these kids, you'll see what I mean.

SIMON: Well, both of you, please tell us what it was like to work with those youngsters.

ZALLA: Yeah, I'll pass it over to Eugenio in a second. But the first one was actually to talk to them like they were your equal, not like children. And you forget watching this movie that these are 11 and 12-year-old kids. I mean, they really are so sophisticated and mature. The other thing, though, was that they had the biggest star in the history of Latin America in the room with them...

SIMON: Yes.

ZALLA: ...Which kind of, you know - well, I'll let Eugenio talk about it, but it was certainly helpful.

SIMON: Yeah, that - Mr. Derbez, I mean, they must have gone - I can't imagine what it was like for them to be - oh, gosh.

DERBEZ: Chris did a lot of genius movements out there. First of all, he hired - he wanted nonprofessional actors. And that was very refreshing because they were never aware of the camera. I've been working with a lot of kids in movies, and I've learned a lot of kind of tricks to make them get to where you want because, you know, kids - they are not maturely ready to go into action, into the emotions, you know? But I think we did a great team between Chris and I with the kids.

ZALLA: Yeah. It was really about creating a family and doing everything we could on set...

DERBEZ: Yeah.

ZALLA: ...To cultivate that.

SIMON: I do have to ask, Mr. Derbez - I wonder if it adds a sense of responsibility to you and your career, knowing that people follow you and what they think of you - you know, that you want to do projects that are worthwhile.

DERBEZ: Absolutely. I grew up doing comedy. I was always, like, a television comedian, and I always wanted to start doing movies and things that had, like, something deeper. And when we talked about "Radical," I was so scared. It's probably three days before we start shooting. I was having cold feet, and I was having second thoughts. It was really, really scary to me. But Chris was very helpful. He knew what he was doing. I didn't. So I had an amazing director behind me, and that helped a lot.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Zalla, how do you handle a situation like this 'cause some people would say a director would be entitled to shake the star by the shoulders and saying, you signed a contract; get in there?

ZALLA: Not when they're your boss and they hired you.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, that's true. He's produced the film, too.

ZALLA: The needle to thread - and I think it's - you know, it's the relationship between a director and an actor in any case - is that you really have to get down into the depths and find the connection between the character and the actor. And in this case, I could see in Eugenio's previous work - I called it his costume. He was always doing something. He's convinced that everyone knows him. And I said, in fact, I disagree. I don't think we've really seen you. I think you're always hiding. I just went right at it with him and said, you know what? Sergio, this guy we're telling a story about - he came back and did something on a whim, flying by the seat of his pants. He had no training to do this, no really reason to be able to do it. He must have been terrified. And I think if we do this differently and we just let you be you, I think we're going to see something that in fact we haven't seen before.

DERBEZ: Yeah. I mean, I'm also the producer. So I was talking to my business partner about this, and my business partner said, well, you can - if you want, you're the producer. Just say no. And I was like, no, no, no, no, I can't say - I can't do that because I'm talking as an actor, and as an actor, I have to obey my director, what he - whatever he says.

SIMON: You are playing Sergio, the teacher, and he's still teaching sixth grade there in Matamoros, right?

ZALLA: Yes, he is. In fact, we just had a live Zoom with 75,000 teachers in Jalisco state just the other day, and he couldn't attend because he was teaching.

SIMON: Oh, my God. I mean, he doesn't need my advice, but, like, shouldn't he be working for one of these multibillion-dollar educational corporations?

ZALLA: I mean, we're here talking to you right now because this man had this idea to move back to the trash dump, essentially, that he was from and to try to change the world. And we're here now talking to each other because of that. It's an extension. That dream keeps growing. And I sat down with him a week ago with a bunch of educational people here in Mexico, and, well, what is your - let's say you can keep this going. What do you want next? And I thought precisely he was going to say, oh, let's replicate the model. We can create after-school learning labs. Like, I had all these ideas, but I wanted to ask him. And his answer just knocked the wind out of me. And he said, my dream - like, for this to keep going - is that we just value teachers more.

DERBEZ: Yeah. And you know something? Again, I asked him why he didn't move to another place, and he said that a lot of private schools was offering him better conditions, better salary, but he felt that he was betraying his kids. And he said, in this school is where they need me most, so I'm going to stay here because that's what I want to do. I told him you should be a priest instead of a teacher.

ZALLA: Actually, he's a living saint.

DERBEZ: Yeah.

ZALLA: That I'll agree with.

SIMON: Wow. Eugenio Derbez stars in the new film "Radical," directed by Christopher Zalla, in theaters now. Thank you both so much for being with us.

DERBEZ: Thank you very, very much.

ZALLA: Thanks for having us, Scott.

DERBEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.