BEVERLY HILLS — Actor Gabriel Luna’s father died before he was born. But it was his father who persuaded him to become an actor.
When he was a senior in high school, he got a call from his paternal grandmother. “She’d found a bunch of items in the attic that had belonged to my father,” he says, seated at a small table in a noisy meeting room here.
“She wanted me to see them. She thought I would appreciate them, which I would. Anytime anything happened, or I met anyone who knew my father or anyone who had something of his, every little bit was a piece of the puzzle that would help me not only understand who he was, but it would make sense of why I operate the way I do,” he explains.
“Having been raised by my mother and grandmother, I always looked externally for a paternal figure. So any time I could draw a straight line from my father and me, I jumped at the opportunity.”
His grandmother handed him the box. “And it was full of items. There were football trophies, a soccer trophy, of course, his yearbooks and a VHS tape. I popped it in, and it was my father in a play that he wrote, starred in and directed for our church for Easter. I watched it and was weeping, of course, because there he was alive. It was the first time I’d ever seen him when he was alive.”
At the time, Luna was already an achiever. He was class president and student council president, member of the trig club and a dedicated athlete. He played strong safety on the football team in his native Austin, Texas. He ran the 300 hurdles in track and was a forward on the basketball team.
“I was playing tackle football since I was 6 years old. I was very shy, but I don’t know if you can be shy and gregarious at the same time — but within my neighborhood I loved everybody. I made friends with everybody, even the bad kids — the kids who stay in the corner and smoke cigarettes,” he says.
When one of this teachers asked him to try out for the school play, Horton Foote’s “1918,” he refused. I explained, ‘I just can’t do that, man.’ I was thinking in my head, ‘What would my football team think? Am I supposed to get up in front of everybody? I just couldn’t possibly do that.’ I was too shy. I went home.”
That’s when he received the call from his grandmother and opened the Pandora’s box his father hat left. “After I’m done (watching the video) I start to think, ‘Oh, man. My teacher just asked me to do just that. And here was my father singing a song in front of people for Easter. The song was called ‘Rise Again,’ a Christian song, really popular. So I went back the next day and said, ‘You know, I’ll give it a shot.’ I wasn’t doing anything after school. I didn’t have football practice because I’d hurt myself. I went up and gave it a shot, and he gave it to me, the lead,” he says.
“The opening scene is me standing at a couple of unmarked graves asking this old lady which one belongs to my father — which was a weird synchronicity at the time.”
Luna sees the same synchronicity in the role he’s playing now in “Matador” on the El Rey Network. He portrays a professional soccer player for an L.A. team who lives a secret life on the other side of the field. In reality he’s a CIA operative, a duality that often leaves him adrift in two different worlds and plunges him into unknown territory. The show airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. with catch-up marathons Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Sunday at 10 a.m. and Oct. 5 at 1 p.m.
“It runs an eerie parallel to my actual life,” he says, leaning forward. “I’ve always admired people who could do this (acting). I wasn’t the person who could when I was young. It just took time and practice to overcome my fearfulness, and now it’s brought me to a good place in my life.”
Luna is married to an actress from Romania. They met when she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin. “Her family is all academics. Her mother’s a geologist, her father’s a mechanical engineer and my family, we’re all working-class people. The fact that we’re both artists is just an anomaly, and the fact that we found each other across the world. . . there’s no reason either of us should really be here,” he says.
When they met, she told him she wanted to write poetry and become a millionaire. “She was absolutely serious about it. She wants to become a millionaire writing poetry. I understood that was a farfetched thing. But now I’m the lead in a television show, so magic happens.”