The city of Corona is home to Diego Tinoco and nearly 158K other residents. So, it might be a little difficult to weigh the odds of exactly who may emerge as the “Favorite Son” of the desert township someday. But if the criteria involved talent, a heartwarming sentiment, and the intent to give back to the children of his community, it may not be long before the young actor’s name is ringing bells all throughout the Inland Empire for generations to come.
Diego Tinoco’s inevitable rise up the ranks of the acting world feels like it happened about as fast as an immaculate conception—unbeknownst to everyone…except the producers at Netflix. “It didn’t just happen overnight,” said the 24-year-old as he chuckled at the notion. “It took a good while. When I was sixteen, I got my driver’s license and my dad got me a little car. So, I decided to make my way out to L.A. in order to take classes at 3-2-1 Acting Studios. That was back in 2016. I was still in high school. But eventually, I moved out to L.A. for good when I was eighteen and a half. And then, I booked ‘On My Block’ when I was nineteen.” Not one for immaculate misconceptions about his road to success, Diego’s detail-oriented observations in the face of an inquiry undoubtedly endeared him to the casting directors that tabbed him for the lead role of Cesar Diaz. A Mexican American teenager from South Central Los Angeles who is caught up in a life of gang affiliation, childhood economics, and an eternal battle between morality and Lil Spooky—the character’s alter ego. The show’s plotline hit close to home for Diego because he is a second-generation Chicano who was born and raised in Southern California. A cultural sentiment that served as the centerpiece for the English-speaking Latinx television series. Which marked the first time ever that a concept like that had been implemented into a teenage dramedy. It also became a springboard for the show’s main cast members; many of whom are of Latino descent.
“On My Block” won a Teen Choice Award during 2018, in route to becoming the most binged TV show of the year—on Netflix. The inaugural season of the hit series has since launched the acting career of Diego Tinoco into another stratosphere. His newfound notoriety even prompted face-to-face encounters with two of his biggest inspirations: Brad Pitt and Robert Rodriguez. But perhaps the most important encounter that he’s ever faced was his childhood battle with Vitiligo. Fittingly enough, the emotional and physical scars from his adolescence began to subside during his late teens, which was right around the time that the future heartthrob of a fictional town called Freeridge began to pursue an acting career.
Today, Diego Tinoco is an advocate for children’s health with aspirations of someday forming a non-profit organization focused on helping underprivileged kids overcome the same challenges that he once faced. The transformation of Diego Tinoco has been nothing short of an inspirational story. But, when you’re an extreme sports enthusiast and an avid skateboarder, a nice little feel-good story in your early twenties is no way to end an adventure. Diego has more transforming to do. He has an epic feature film on the horizon and a laundry list of Brad Pitt’s accomplishments to chase down as he enters his prime. So, just like the days of those two-hour drives, from his hometown of Corona all the way to his acting classes in Los Angeles—Diego has a destination to reach. But this time, he has millions of fans in tow and a prospering acting career, already in progress.
We talked to the award-winning actor, fresh off of a successful four-year run as Cesar from “On My Block” about filming the final episode of the show that put him on the map, the importance of representing his culture in Hollywood, the future film that he has in the works and much more.
MOOD: The first season of “On My Block” debuted on Netflix back on March 16, 2018. Initially, there wasn’t a huge promotional push behind the television series. But it quickly became a cult classic within the Latino community. It even garnered crossover success in the mainstream and nationwide acclaim. As a relatively unknown actor at the time, what were your expectations for the show, when it first began streaming on Netflix?
Diego Tinoco: It’s funny you asked me that, because I remember talking about my expectations with my brother. I was like, “Man I just shot this Netflix show and I had an amazing time. The script is really good but I don’t know if it’s going to be a hit or if it’s going to get buried. I’m not sure.” Then I told my brother, “At most, I’ll get a few thousand followers on Instagram and I’ll get some footage to pull for my demo reel so that I can send it out to some directors that I really want to work with.” I never expected for the show to kick off that big! I got to meet a lot of my idols because of the show. I got to meet Robert Rodriguez down in Washington D.C. at the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Gala, because I won the (Horizon Award for Outstanding Newcomer) that night. It was cool to have the show become recognized by people of his caliber.
MOOD: You just mentioned that Robert Rodriguez is one of your idols. Did you get to have a conversation with him at all while you were both attending this Award show?
Diego Tinoco: I said hello and we got to meet briefly. At the time I think his movie (Alita: Battle Angel) was coming out so I think he was doing press. So, I didn’t get to chop it up with him as much as I would have wanted to. But if I ever see him again, I’d want to pick his brain about cinema, directing, and writing.
MOOD: That’s cool. So, would you like to become a director like him at some point?
Diego Tinoco: I want to write but right now, I have no desire to direct unless it’s for a project that only I could envision. Plus, I’ve seen the stress that my directors have gone through. Could I direct? Yes, but not at this point in my career.
MOOD: Let’s circle back to the beginning of your career. Once “On My Block” became an instant hit, you yourself became an instant star with over two million followers on Instagram. How did your family and friends handle your sudden rise to fame? And what type of adjustments did you have to make to your everyday life?
Diego Tinoco: It was pretty surreal, to be honest. We a lot of calls out of the blue from family members that we hadn’t talked to in a while and friends that I had never even heard of. It was a little complicated at first. I even had some incidents on the street happen with fans too, that weren’t necessarily the best. We had some altercations and it was a little scary if I’m being honest. One time I posted my location on Instagram and sure enough, we got swarmed by a crowd at the mall and their security got really upset with me. I had no idea because I thought I was just a normal kid but you don’t realize the impact that you have until you see it in person. It’s pretty scary though because you hear about all these stories of people chasing down their idols. Look at what happened to Selena (the iconic singer who was murdered on March 31, 1995) for example—it can be very scary. So, you never know. But most of the fans that I do encounter on a daily basis are super sweet. I love them. They always ask for photos and I never say no to a photo. Never.
MOOD: This is a three-part question: How did you prepare for the role of Cesar Diaz in seasons one through three of “On My Block?” How did you prepare for the character’s transformation to Lil Spooky in season 4? And where did you draw your inspiration from for the portrayal of a character with such a dynamic personality?
Diego Tinoco: For seasons one through three, I did a lot of research on (kids who dealt with) abandonment, growing up in foster care, growing up with single parents, and growing up with no parents. I also watched this documentary called “They Call Us Monsters” by Scott Budnick. It’s about kids thrown in “Juvie” at a really young age from mistakes that they made when they were little. So, I did a lot of research trying to get in that headspace. I also dove back into my past, my emotions, my mind, and my journals from when I was a teenager. I honestly just drew a lot from my own childhood and my own teenage years for seasons one through three.
Season four was really complicated if I’m being honest. I feel like I didn’t have the preparation that I wish I could have had because I shot a lot of the flashback scenes of season four with my hair, on the first day of filming. But on that same day, I had to shave my head and go out and start the transformation (to Lil Spooky). Which was really weird. I wanted to shave my head as soon as I got the script so that I could get into the zone of the character. But I think everything happens for a reason, I still got enough time to prep, mentally. I joined a boxing gym, I started training with Miguel Diaz and I did Jiu-Jitsu down at the Gracie Academy. I was working out a lot. I put on like fifteen pounds of muscle. And I studied some classic films like “American Me” and “Blood In, Blood Out.”
MOOD: While we’re on the topic, I feel like you and your co-star, Julio Macias, applied a very similar accent for the portrayal of the characters known as Spooky and Lil Spooky. Did the two of you work together to create the deep raspy voices that became the signature for the on-screen brothers?
Diego Tinoco: (laughs) You know, I saw a lot of criticism about that on Twitter. I do read the responses. I probably shouldn’t but it’s nice to see what works, what doesn’t, and why. I can’t really speak for Julio but I grew up (while filming this show). My character started off as a 14-year-old and he ended the show as a 17-year-old. And then in my real life, I started the show around 19-years-old and I’m 24 right now. So, my voice naturally got a little deeper. As far as the accent goes, I didn’t want to go too hard on the accent because I thought it would have been too distracting. Two years is enough time for my character to pick up a slight accent but not enough time for him to pretend to be a completely different person. You still have to keep the character rooted and centered. If you noticed, I purposely put the accent in certain parts. With people that he was above, the accent and the confidence are more there. But when he’s talking with his older brother, the accent comes and goes, because I feel like Oscar was the last connection between Cesar seasons one through three and Cesar from season four. So, my character comes in and out of that Chicano gang-banger style accent. I had fun with it. I thought it was fun and creative. I ran it by my acting coach, the producers, and the writers. I did my part and it all worked.
MOOD: Speaking of Lil Spooky, when his older brother, Spooky, gets killed in a drive-by, during season 4, the writers never actually revealed who his killers were. Even though your character had been searching for them. Why do you think that is?
Diego Tinoco: I think it creates mystery and it leaves the viewer’s questions about the show open-ended. But I also think it completes the story in a mature way because Cesar (aka Lil Spooky) doesn’t go after the people who killed his brother. After Oscar got shot, he wanted to die in a mature way, because he understood the consequences of the lifestyle that he had been living. Oscar chose not to tell his brother who killed him, because he didn’t want his brother to avenge his death. He wants his little brother to forget the gang life and leave it behind. Because at the end of the day, there’s no winning in it. If you win one day, you’re going to lose the next. If you lose one day, you’re going to try to come back and win the next. It’s a never-ending loop of violence. So, if the question is: “Why?” Because there’s no winning in that life. And I think that’s what the writers wanted to show with Lil Spooky and Spooky. They wanted them to make a clear-cut decision to walk away. But…I will say this though…there was a great opportunity for a plot twist at the end! I thought it was going to happen when I was reading the script where a random person comes up to Cesar at Abuelita’s party (during the last scene of the series finale) and says: “Hey, are you Spooky’s brother? (Pause) I know who killed your brother!”
MOOD: Woah! That would have been crazy!
Diego Tinoco: (Laughs) That would have been epic! It gives me goosebumps just saying that!
MOOD: So, in your personal “alternative ending” the show’s final scene would have just ended like that?
Diego Tinoco: That would have been great. But I like where the writers ended the show.
MOOD: Speaking of the writers and creators of the show, Lauren Lungerich, Eddie Gonzalez, and Jeremy Haft all did such a great job. The comedic interplay between the characters was witty and the roles were all very well researched. What did you learn from those three, while working with them for four years on the show?
Diego Tinoco: I learned so much about leadership. I learned about keeping things professional on set- yet making everyone feel like a family. I also learned about to handle stuff and execute properly. They’re great people and they’re so kind and so sweet. They know how to work with their actors. And they know how to get the best work of out them. They really are there to help. For a lot of us, this was our first big show and they were there cheering all of us on from day one. They never made us feel uncomfortable or pressured. It always felt like a team atmosphere. That sort of chemistry and comradery is what really separates a great show from an average show. And that’s why we had the success that we did.
MOOD: As a Mexican American, what did it mean for you to play a pivotal on-screen role in the “On My Block” series? A groundbreaking show focused on a Chicano family from Los Angeles and one of the first teenage “dramedies” of its kind.
Diego Tinoco: It was such an honor, to represent my community. I’m Mexican and I’m Ecuadorian. You don’t really hear about these kinds of TV shows too often. So, it was such an honor and such a privilege. I was glad that the fans got to see themselves on the show and in my character and other characters. For anybody who watches the show, the lesson learned is hope. Because you can come to this country with dreams and you can achieve them. Never in a million years did I think this would happen for me to be honest. It’s so surreal. My dad lived on a farm in Mexico, he crossed the border and he came out here. So, I just want kids to know, whether you’re first-gen or second-gen, or wherever you’re from, know that you can make your dreams come true. You just have to work hard and keep pushing.
MOOD: The success of “On My Block” has opened up doors for other Latinx dramedies like “Gentefied.” How does it feel to see Netflix shows like this gain notoriety, immediately after the successful run that your show had?
Diego Tinoco: I think it’s amazing. I read an article somewhere that mentioned how “On My Block” was a trailblazing show that opened up the doors for other shows like this. That was nice to see. It feels good, just knowing that the doors have been opened for a lot of other shows. For our community, for other communities and so many other multi-ethnic shows. For example, “Never Have I Ever.” The lead actress from that TV show (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) isn’t your average blue-eyed girl and she’s killing it right now. That show is having a lot of success right now. So, it’s good. I think we’re headed in the right direction in Hollywood with representation and diversity.
MOOD: Would you mind telling our readers what the last day of filming was like, for you and your co-stars? On a personal level, what kind of emotions were running through your head when you stepped onto the production lot of “On My Block” for the very last time?
Diego Tinoco: We shot the final scene for “On My Block” on the last day. We had only done that once before. The only other time we did that was when we shot the last scene of season one, when Ruby gets shot. So, it was really cool, because usually, in film, you shoot completely out of order. You might shoot the last scene first and the first scene last. So, it was nice to shoot the last scene at the very end because it gave us all closure. We were all there—the entire cast. It was nice to see the whole family there, from the people on screen to the people behind the scenes…and even the kids from the new spinoff called “Freeridge.” For me, it was a joyful moment. It gave us all a chance to look back on the last four years, what we’ve created and what we’ve all done together. We all teared up of course. Because for most of us, this was our first show and our first love.
MOOD: Wait, did you just mention something about a spinoff?
Diego Tinoco: Yeah, there’s an “On My Block” spinoff called “Freeridge.” I’m excited to check that out.
MOOD: That sounds cool. Will you or anyone from the original cast of “On My Block” be making a guest appearance in this upcoming spinoff?
Diego Tinoco: As of now, I can’t really say much…so we’ll see…
MOOD: The final season of “On My Block” premiered on Netflix back in October (2021). As an actor, what’s coming up next for Diego Tinoco?
Diego Tinoco: Man, I’ve got a lot of exciting stuff coming up. I just partnered up with a great creative team out in New York and we’re working on a clothing line called “Sangre Mia.” The store will open up in March. I’m really excited because the words Sangre Mia (My Blood) have always stuck with me. Because it represents who we are and who I am. I wanted to create a brand that empowers the individual to wear items and feel proud. So, I’m working on that with my team, I also have a few scripts that are in the works and I also just signed a deal with Sony for a few movies. The first one is coming out in 2023 and it’s called “Knights of The Zodiac.” It’s going to be huge. It’s a Japanese anime turned live-action film. I think this is going to be a trailblazer for a lot of anime-to-live-action projects in Hollywood.
MOOD: In regards to “Sangre Mia,” we heard that you shot a promo for a merchandise release and that it had a lot to do with your passion for skateboard culture. Would you mind telling our readers how that went?
Diego Tinoco: I used to skate in contests and at skateparks all the time. So, the other day, I tried bombing a hill for a clip that I was shooting for “Sangre Mia” and I just went flying straight to my knees (laughs) and I was like, “Man, I’m too old for this.” I got speed wobbles because I couldn’t handle the hill and I just jumped off the board. I just fell to my knees and said, “Damn, I should have filmed that part of the commercial for Sangre Mia.”
MOOD: You’ve always been a pretty active member of the skateboard community in Corona, California. Which begs the question: Who’s your favorite pro skater?
Diego Tinoco: I really like P-Rod (the professional skateboarder known as Paul Rodriguez). He and Julio Macias (Oscar from On My Block) played in “Selena” together. It’s been cool to see P-Rod make the transition from skating to acting. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to meet the guy because I’m a huge fan.
MOOD: Speaking of Netflix shows like “Selena.” We heard that you’re a pretty big fan of another series on Netflix called “Narcos: Mexico.” What would the ideal role be like for you on a show like that?
Diego Tinoco: Dude, I love that show! I really liked Diego Luna as Miguel. I like roles that are complicated and dark. I grew up watching tormented characters who have a hint of goodness. It’s more of a challenge to play because I’m not a villain in real life. So, I would want to play a character that is far from myself so that I could be challenged. But they’ve already cast the main narcos.
MOOD: So, would you want to play a journalist, a DEA agent, or a member of the cartel?
Diego Tinoco: Damn, let’s see...I don’t think I’d want to play a DEA agent. I’d probably want to play someone from the cartel. Because I’d get a chance to hang out with Bad Bunny and I’m also a huge fan of Manuel Masalva. They both did a great job of keeping the show exciting. The whole entire cast killed it. I’d love to be a part of that show.
MOOD: What if an opportunity presented itself for you to be a part of a live-action series that combined your love of acting with skateboard culture? Like something along the lines of “Animal Kingdom,” where you could also perform your own stunts as a skater. Could you see yourself playing a character in a show like that?
Diego Tinoco: One hundred percent! Yes! I would do my own stunts and I would definitely do that type of show. There’s a show called “Lords of Dogtown” getting produced by Catherine Hardwicke (the director of Twilight) for IMDb TV. I think I could play Tony Alva! I really want to be a part of it, because Lords of Dogtown (a full-length movie originally released in 2005) literally introduced me to skateboarding. After that, I went to a shop and bought a skateboard. So, I want to do that project if they’re still working on it.
MOOD: In an interview with Seventeen you mentioned that you had a lot of medical problems as a kid. The fact that you’ve become who you are today has to be very inspirational for your fans. Would you mind sharing with our readers the kind of health problems that you had to deal with, the way in which it impacted your family, and what motivated you the most to overcome those obstacles?
Diego Tinoco: Yeah, I had vitiligo growing up—on the left side of my body. I just had patches flair up out of nowhere. So, I had to go see a lot of doctors. I saw doctors in Mexico, Ecuador, and all over California. Everybody gave me some kind of different type of treatment. I remember this one doctor gave me oils to put all over my skin, in order to burn it. And then, I had another doctor give me anxiety pills because all of this stuff gave me anxiety. So, I was taking anxiety pills at the age of nine. I went through a lot trying to get rid of (Vitiligo). But after a while, I just started to accept it for what it was. But eventually, the spots just stopped growing. In fact, they disappeared a little bit. But I wore long sleeve shirts, literally, from 3rd grade to 12th grade. I remember…it just felt super embarrassing. I never saw the sunlight and I was pale white from trying to cover up my skin all of the time. People would come around and I felt like a monster, to be honest. It’s really sad because when you’re a little kid, you don’t have a big world. You don’t understand how big the world is. School is your world and I felt really isolated as a little kid. I think that’s why I related to a lot of movies. I really related to Tim Burton movies. I would watch his movies and say: “I like the monsters in his movies. I’m like a monster in my movie.” So, I found an escape in cinema. I also found an escape at Santana skatepark in Corona, where I hung out with an older crowd. They didn’t care about the marks on my skin, they were just my boys and they just wanted to skate, have a good time and laugh.
So, I had to deal with that growing up and it really took a toll on my family. But right now, I’m happy and I’m good.
MOOD: In that same interview, you also said that you wanted to form your own organization someday. That’s wonderful! Would this organization have a focus on charity, children’s health, or something completely different?
Diego Tinoco: I would love to develop an organization, in time, where I can fully focus on kids and give back to kids who haven’t had the best health and medical luck. Just talking about that right now, hits a soft spot in my heart. Because when I was little, I got some really shitty news and I didn’t really think I was going to make it. I remember saying, “F*ck, this is it. Why is God doing this to me? I’m only twelve.” But luckily my circumstances turned out differently. I got to see some more years and I’m still here. So, I definitely want to do something for kids somewhere down the line. Or if an organization approaches me and would like to collaborate, I definitely would love to work with them. I think right now, I’m really trying to build right now so that I can give a lot more, somewhere down the line. Because, what good is working for yourself if you’re not going to give back? So, it’s definitely in my plan. I’ve got it all written down.
MOOD: Back in 2020, you became the youngest juror on a panel at the 35th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. While you were there, you had the chance to meet your idol, Brad Pitt. Can you tell us about that encounter? And did you have the chance to ask him for any career advice?
Diego Tinoco: That was insane! I was literally, so starstruck that I was shaking. I heard that he was going to be in town and as a juror I knew that we had backstage access and we’d get to hang out with him and all that. So, we saw his movie (Ad Astra) and we did a cross Q&A with him and David Fincher (Fight Club). And then afterward, we got invited to go and hang out with him. So, I got to meet him briefly, we shook hands and I asked him about “World War Z.” I love that movie, so I asked him if there was going to be a second one because I saw in an interview of his where he mentioned that it was coming. It was a surreal moment, seeing my idol, being able to shake his hand and listen to him tell stories. It was crazy!
MOOD: Since we’re talking about Brad Pitt, if you could insert yourself into an iconic role that he’s played, which one would you choose and why?
Diego Tinoco: Probably, World War Z (laughs). That would be cool.
MOOD: Hey, you never know, maybe you’ll be in the sequel that you asked him about.
Diego Tinoco: (Laughs) Exactly! That would be cool…I’ll put it out in the universe like that…
MOOD: As an entertainer, what are you most excited about this year?
Diego Tinoco: I just want to see all of the cinemas open back up again and see people enjoy a night out at the theater and have it done safely. I just want everybody to be good, like the way it was before Covid hit.