Eddie Sakaki

DIEGO LUNA trades the spotlight for a view from behind the lens with his English-language directorial debut, Cesar Chavez.

Fans remember him best as a fun-loving teen in the 2001 international hit Y Tu Mamá ­También or from watching him hold his own alongside Sean Penn in Milk. But these days, Diego Luna is spending more time behind the camera lens than in front of it while producing and directing films in his native Mexico. “I love acting,” Luna says, “but I love storytelling more.”

For his English-language directorial debut, out this month — a “labor of love” biopic called Cesar Chavez, centered on the life of the civil-rights activist and farm-worker-labor organizer — he found inspiration in one person, but it’s not who you think. “This film is connected to my son and our experience in the states,” says 33-year-old Luna, dad to Jeronimo, 5, and Fiona, 3. “The whole debate about ­immigration, representation, power in the ­Mexican-American community — the father-son relationship is a huge part of this film.”

In fact, the project came to life when Luna, living in California while shooting films like Elysium and the upcoming The Book of Life, met Chavez’s son Fernando,­ whose strained relationship with his force-to-be-reckoned-with father becomes a major ­subplot. “For someone who’s Mexican, it’s such an important tale,” Luna says. “But also, it’s a very American tale. The idea is that you don’t have to be a saint or a superman to change things. You just have to be honest and passionate. Chavez was a simple man, and he gave up time with his kid to change things for his kid and for the community.”

Luna initially signed onto the film as a producer, but he soon found himself “acting more than I ever had,” taking the reins as director. “I felt like a door-to-door ­salesman, trying to raise money for this project,” he says. “Trying to get the actors on board, trying to get it all together. I had to convince everyone that I was the best option.”

Luna says that, for his part, filmmaking is his way of focusing on family and community. “I can tell the stories I care about, and my work so far as a director is a direct reaction to my life as a father,” he explains. “I want my kids to be able to recognize themselves out there, on the screen. There’s a long way to go, but diversity is more celebrated in Hollywood than it ever was. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”