Late on a brisk September night in Hollywood, a group of entertainers huddle together around a large booth inside the softly lit 101 Coffee Shop. There, the Austin songwriter and guitar god Gary Clark Jr., along with Nicole Trunfio, a businesswoman and supermodel who’s married to Clark, plus Clark’s tour manager Michael Weed, and the Austin-bred actor Gabriel Luna place their respective orders. The Franklin Avenue diner sits underneath the Best Western hotel where Clark would stay during early tour stops in Los Angeles, long before his career took off. It’s also a place where Clark and Luna, two stars from Austin, often found themselves eating meals that were easy on their pockets.
Tonight is different, though. Clark has just played the prestigious Hollywood Bowl for the first time, and Luna is several weeks away from the premiere of Terminator: Dark Fate, a feature film that finds him playing the role of Rev-9, an evolved version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacing title character from the original film. But right now all everyone cares about is one thing: food. When our waiter brings out the final two plates, a stack of pancakes loaded with fruit and whipped cream, the weary, empty-stomached crew does a celebratory round of fist-pumping.
As the leading antagonist in the sequel to an international box office smash, and one that has found itself on multiple all-time lists, including preservation in the Library of Congress, Luna is enjoying the biggest role of his career thus far. His journey—to Hollywood, working with the likes of Texan director Robert Rodriguez, and to Dark Fate—has been anything but typical, though. And it’s his native Texas that has always given him a springboard.
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
When Luna’s mother, Deborah, gave birth to him in 1982, his family had been in Texas for at least five generations by Luna’s count. Luna and his mother lived in a small Austin apartment complex off Oltorf and South First (near the longtime dive bar G&S Lounge) that his grandmother, Lidia, inherited after her husband passed away. Eventually, the family would grow to include a half-brother, Timothy, and a half-sister, Megan, who also grew up in that apartment. Deborah never missed a single high school football game of Gabe’s, and she participated in the booster club.
Luna was raised amidst Mexican and American cultures. While his grandmother played Vicente Fernandez and Jose Alfredo Jimenez at home, Luna and his mother were just a few units over in the complex, spinning Prince records. As Luna came of age, he was drawn to nineties rap stalwarts like 2Pac, the Notorious B.I.G., DMX, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, along with Texas staples such as Devin the Dude, UGK, and old Swishahouse freestyle tapes. Selena, as well as Tejano acts like Grupo Mazz and Little Joe, were also a constant presence in his life. “Tejano music is such a great example of the way I grew up,” says Luna. “The way it combines so many different genres and styles.”
Luna’s father—his namesake—passed away before he was born. But his paternal grandfather, David Luna, walked into his life when Gabriel was fifteen and working at Finish Line in the Barton Creek Square mall. They’d met only once before, when Luna was twelve and serving as a pallbearer at his uncle’s funeral. Luna’s grandparents had split when he was young, and when his grandfather remarried, it seemed that his new wife had kept him from contacting the rest of the family.
“After his new wife left him, he decided he wanted to reconnect with me,” Luna says. “So, he just came up to me at work and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ My boss told me, ‘Take all the time you need.’” So Luna and his grandfather went to the food court, ate Chinese food together, and caught up for hours. “I learned more about my father in those three hours than the previous fifteen years of my life,” he says. The two became close over the years, taking frequent fishing trips and bonding over their love of sports. (Luna would even end up living with his grandfather, whom he affectionately calls “Papa David,” in his twenties.)
In high school, Gabe was a hard-working athlete who made good grades and never got into any serious trouble. Outside of his family, not many people had a better seat from which to watch Luna grow into a young man than Crockett High’s Coach John Waugh, who became the state’s youngest 5A head football coach when he was hired in 1997—the year before Luna entered high school.
“Gabe made the varsity team as a sophomore,” says Waugh, “Which, if you know anything about Texas high school football, you know how uncommon that is. It says a lot about his skill level.” Luna played strong safety because, as he puts it, “I was a fucking heat-seeking missile. My job was to stop the run off the edge and just blow things up.”
That same heat-seeking energy comes through his most villainous moments as Rev-9 in Dark Fate, particularly as his character chases down the film’s running protagonists—played by Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In one scene, Rev-9 carries half a dozen Border Patrol agents on his back as they (unsuccessfully) attempt to tackle him to the ground. In another, as a military cargo plane free-fall nosedives to the ground, he makes light work of Schwarzenegger’s character, slamming him down for a loss like the running backs he faced in high school.
In 1998, Gabe’s freshman year, the cult classic teenage slasher flick The Faculty was set to film in Austin. Directed by Texas legend-in-the-making Robert Rodriguez, the film sought out Waugh’s varsity players for the football scenes. Had it shot one year later, when Gabe achieved the rare feat of earning a spot on the varsity roster as a sophomore, Luna likely would have been in it. Instead, it would take him another sixteen years to cross paths with Rodriguez, for the El Rey TV series Matador.
A shoulder injury during a preseason game senior year ended Luna’s dreams of playing college football, so Waugh encouraged him to look for other outlets. “I’m pretty sure he was depressed about it,” Waugh recalls. “I remember telling him that there were a lot of other career paths that playing football had already prepared him for.” Waugh also happened to be good friends with Gil Sharp, Crockett’s theater director. Following the injury, he suggested that the young man audition for the school’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Luna initially rejected Sharp’s idea. But as fate would have it, when he came home that same day, his grandmother handed him a box of his father’s belongings she’d just found. Luna, eager to learn more about the man he never got to meet, rummaged through the box and found a VHS that he popped into the family’s VCR player. What he saw next left his jaw on the floor: it was his father, acting in a play put on by their church. “It was the first time I’d heard his voice and the first time I’d seen a video of him,” Luna has said of that moment.
He went back to school the next day, told Sharp he was going to audition for the play, and landed the role as Chief. “While I would never wish an injury on anyone, ever,” says his high school sweetheart and future YouTube yoga celebrity, Adriene Mishler, “I was absolutely thrilled when Gabe started to spend less time in the gym and more time in [Sharp’s] room nineteen, our thespian headquarters.” Luna quickly realized theater wasn’t that unlike football. “It’s all about trust and teamwork and perseverance and being detail oriented and disciplined,” he says. “You learn a lot about life on the football field.”
After the school’s production of Cuckoo’s Nest, Luna and Mishler acted opposite each other in another play, Horton Foote’s 1918. “At an age where everything feels so heightened already, the work we did together was so meaningful for us, and intense,” Mishler adds. “We each had a cherished relationship with [Sharp], who served as a confidant and father figure to us both.”
But Luna then temporarily ditched theater and finished high school doing more straightforward speech competitions. He and his friend Nick Saenz went on to state championships for Duet Acting, delivering their performance of Is There Life After High School? “That was a big deal because it was the first time anyone from Crockett had gone to state in a long, long time,” remembers his speech teacher, Lee Bergen. “Gabe had this sad, kind of hangdog expression that people would cry watching him do.”
After graduating from high school in 2001, Luna attended St. Edward’s University on a full theater scholarship along with Mishler. Shortly after he enrolled, Luna made it into the cast of the 2005 indie drama Fall to Grace, his first feature film role. The movie premiered at SXSW that year, and would go on to win the Best Narrative prize at the New Orleans Film Festival. Luna and Mishler split up after sophomore year, which prompted Luna to drop out of college. “Once we were no longer together, though, I found it very, very difficult to have to see her every day,” Luna says.
Luna felt that he had to get away, so, with no particular plan or final destination in mind, he decided he would travel the country in his dilapidated Volkswagen. “I hit Kerrville Folk Festival with my buddy Garland and then we went on up to the Oregon Country Fair and all these other hippie festivals,” Luna recalls. “Since I had decided that acting was the thing I wanted to do, the last stop we made before heading back home to Austin was in Los Angeles.” There, he stayed with a friend from college, and stayed up all night playing writing games. It proved to be impactful, and helped Luna set his sights on eventually making the move to Los Angeles to act full time.
When Luna returned to Texas, six months and no haircut later, he moved in with Papa David and delivered flowers to help make ends meet. Luna fell into Austin’s music scene with his old friend Zamarron, who had been rapping under the moniker Zeale. He quickly became an acclaimed freestyle MC, and Luna was along for the ride. Zeale’s freestyle nemesis at the time was J.J. “Phranchyze” Shaw, and the two would regularly place in first and second at statewide (and eventually nationwide) freestyle battles.
“Gary Clark Jr. and Phranchyze went to Austin High, and me and Gabe went to Crockett,” Zeale says. “But we all didn’t really clique up until after college.” Eventually, according to Luna, Zeale and Phranchyze wised up and, knowing they’d be facing each other in the championship rounds, decided to alternate who would win and split the pot. Outside of freestyle battles, the two made music and would tour around Texas, often times bringing Luna along to contribute the occasional rhyme.
“My rap name was Mowgli the Feral Child,” laughs Luna. “We opened for artists like Too $hort and Raekwon. That was a very fun time in my life, running around with those goddamn scallywags.” Gabe’s crew repped “the 4-5” (short for South Austin’s 78745 zip code) and used to hang at the now defunct ATX Records, owned by their friend Vardon “Haps” Williams. There, they would record songs in the shop’s studio after hours. One of those tracks, “Never Shall I Stop,” ended up on Zeale’s 2004 album, Zeale32, and finds a 22-year-old Luna rapping (as Mowgli), “Either fight for your dreams or your dreams you let die.”
Their crew would perform at house parties, too—events that became the stuff of legend. “I remember one night it was Gary on the drums, Alejandro [Shakey Graves] on guitar, and Zeale and Phranchyze on the mics rapping,” says Luna. “It was a magic moment; that might have been the night we all really gelled for the first time.”
In the summer of 2010, Luna met Smaranda Ciceu, a professionally trained actor and comedian from Romania, who was entering her final year at the University of Texas at Austin’s graduate theater program when she was cast alongside Luna in a Paper Chairs production of Black Snow. “I came to find out she was one of the best actors I’ve ever known in my life, bar none,” Luna says. “One of her teachers once called her ‘an emotional Ferrari.’ She can go zero to one hundred real quick, in any direction.”
Ciceu felt similarly about Luna. “I knew he was going to be a star from the first time I saw him act,” Ciceu recalls. “Because when I would improvise during our scenes, it wouldn’t throw him off. He actually loved the challenge. That’s rare.” But right as the show was set to open, both Luna and Ciceu got news that they’d been cast in another play for another company. “Knowing that we were going to be seeing each other for many more months, I figured I should just make my move,” he says. So at the opening night party for Black Snow, Luna approached Ciceu, who was DJing from her iPod and said, “So, when are we going back to your place?” Ciceu yanked the aux cord out of her iPod. “Right now,” she answered.
“He would come to my shows, I would go to his shows, we were both doing films, and we were always going to see Zeale or Phranchyze or Gary’s concerts,” says Ciceu. “Gabe was very easy to be around, so it didn’t matter what we did, it was fun.” They’ve been together ever since, and she is now Smaranda Luna.
That same year, Luna directed a music video for the Phranchyze song “Dolo” (featuring a cameo from a pre-fame Gary Clark Jr.) and helped him land a supporting role in Mike Dolan’s Dance With the One—sporting a cameo from an actor named Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves. Meanwhile, Papa David had been keeping a scrapbook of clippings from the Life & Arts section of the Austin American-Statesman—“a collection of people from Austin who were finding creative success,” as Luna recalls. It was his way of creating a vision board for Luna, and arming him with the knowledge that Texans could make it in Hollywood, too. One day, Papa David opened the scrapbook, showed Gabe a picture of Robert Rodriguez, and told Luna: “This is a guy you gotta work with.” “I told him, ‘Yeah, Papa, but some other things have to happen first,’” Luna says.
Three years later, after moving to Los Angeles with Smaranda, he finally landed a meeting with Robert Rodriguez. At the time, the veteran Texan director was working on a series called Matador and needed an actor for a leading role that was described as “the Latino James Bond.” Along with efforts from his manager, Melissa Breaux, as well as his new agents, Luna scored an audition. He then got word that Rodriguez was coming to Los Angeles to meet with actors who had been chosen to screen test for each role. The only instructions were that he would receive a call with the time and location of the meeting the day of.
“I woke up at 6 in the morning, made breakfast, sat down in my chair, and I didn’t leave that chair all day except to eat and piss,” laughs Luna. “They didn’t call me till 6:05 p.m.” Rodriguez was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “How fast can you get there?” said Breaux over the phone. Thanks to his side hustle of delivering flowers, Gabe knew the streets of Los Angeles better than almost anyone. “I’ll be there in seventeen minutes,” said Luna. So he hopped in his Land Rover (which he affectionately calls “an absolute death trap”) and arrived in exactly seventeen minutes.
“All Robert and I talked about was music,” Luna says. “We were just two Texas boys enjoying our iced tea and talking music.” Luna landed the role of Tony “Matador” Bravo, a major tipping point for his career. The athlete turned actor was now turning himself back into an athlete for the screen, for a film helmed by a Tejano director—the very director who had once filmed a movie at Luna’s high school.
Luna and Rodriguez have since built a great friendship; the night before Luna calls me, he and Smaranda were guests of Rodriguez at the opening of his new Las Vegas show, R.U.N., a live collaboration with Cirque du Soleil. It’s safe to say Papa David would be happy to know that his grandson had forged a friendship with the budding director he’d once spotted in the pages of the Statesman.
Walking out of that 101 Coffee Shop at just after 3 a.m., Gary is tired and leaning on Nicole’s shoulder for energy. He has to be up early for a performance on The Late Late Show With James Corden. Zeale and Phranchyze—not physically with us in the moment, but there in spirit—are now in a rap group called Blackillac. Luna needs rest; he’s about to embark on a massive, international promo tour for Terminator: Dark Fate.
He knows what his roles as Rev-9 (and Ghost Rider on the ABC drama Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) mean for the Latinx youth of Harlingen who might be in line waiting for an autograph and a picture. “Their first experience with the Terminator franchise might be this movie,” he says. “So they may only know Terminator as a Mexican guy. I can’t wait to meet those beautiful brown kids.”