Raúl Castillo has the kind of enviable resume that signals he’s about to break out big. Known to many (within the gay community) as Richie in HBO’s Looking, the Texan actor has quietly been making a name for himself across screens both big and small. He’s guest starred in his fair share of television shows, worked with A-list directors like Steven Soderbergh, and even earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination earlier this year for his work on We The Animals. This month alone he finally got to live out his dream of starring in his very own action movie, El Chicano, as the titular Latino superhero vigilante (the first time he was number one on the cast sheet), and got to join the critically acclaimed show Vida as the laconic Baco, one of the few straight cis male characters in the unapologetically queer Starz series that’s setting the standard for Latinx storytelling on television.
If that one-two punch suggests anything about Castillo it’s his current stature as one of the most visible and lauded Latino actors on the scene. Over the course of his career and even as he’s worked on a number of different projects, he’s been showcasing a knack for softening roughened characters and for giving an edge to those who depend on his effortless charm. It’s what made everyone hop on #TeamRichie on Looking and why even the young protagonist of We The Animals can’t help but be drawn to his drunk and abusive father, played with wounded charm by Castillo.
His role as Baco, which finds him sporting plenty of tattoos and a gruff demeanor, taps into that hardened softness the actor has so mastered. It’s a character so well-suited to his talent that it’s surprising to hear him admit he initially turned it down. It was a tough decision to make, made all the tougher because Castillo has known Tanya Saracho, the show’s creator, since he was a sophomore in high school. He was immediately drawn to her confidence and her magnetic energy. “She was really funny, gregarious, and even a bit fiery,” he remembers. “She’s always been unafraid of confrontation. I don’t know that I knew it logically, but I think I understood that I could learn a lot from her.” In between school plays in Texas and later still a stint a Boston University, the two became as close as brother and sister, supporting each other in their respective endeavors. They even got to work together in the show that arguably helped further both their careers in Hollywood: Saracho was a writer on Looking. She had sole writing credit on “Looking for Truth,” an episode that centered on Richie’s vexed relationship with his Mexican-American family.
But when she called to offer him the role of Baco, the actor found himself uneasy at the prospect of joining a television show. He was, he admits, in a bit of a rut, frustrated by the process of making television; two separate opportunities about joining TV projects had recently fizzled out. “I was at a place as an artist where I was having to make important choices, having to be more thoughtful about the choices I make and the projects that I take on. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do. You know, oftentimes, as Latinos in this industry, we’re operating from a scarcity mindset,” he told Paste. Even the prospect of saying ‘No’ to a project felt novel, as comforting as it was daunting. It proved that he’d arrived at a place where such decisions could finally be driven by artistic and not merely economic ones.
At a time when trade publications wonder out loud where the Latinx movie stars are, and when global streaming corporations pat themselves on the back for their commitment to telling Latinx stories in the same tweet they bemoan the cancellation of their banner US Latinx series, Castillo’s cautious hesitation about what path to follow feels emblematic of a larger systemic issue. Here is a Latino actor not taking his recent success for granted, and yet apprehensive about what that may mean down the road.
Acting, after all, never seemed like an achievable dream when he was growing up. “I was such a little runt who’d mumble; I wasn’t particularly handsome at the time. And I never thought I could be an actor because I wasn’t eloquent. I couldn’t do accents. I couldn’t sing so I couldn’t do musicals. They’d put me in the background.” It’s why he gravitated towards writing instead. He discovered Miguel Piñero, who wrote about Latinos in the Lower East Side in New York; he read August Wilson, who offered empathetic portraits of African-Americans in Pittsburgh; he devoured Tennessee Williams, who so captured the South in his plays. Castillo yearned to emulate their cultural specificity.
“When I started writing, it was a no-brainer that I’d write about where I grew up. I knew that I wanted to be known as a writer who wrote about the border, specifically the Texas-Mexican border. Those are the stories that I was interested in telling. I was interested in putting people on stage that were normally not seen on stage.” This he shares with Saracho, whose plays almost exclusively deal with the Latina experience, and who has brought that very same mentality to bear on Vida.
In the end, that’s partly what convinced him to take the plunge and join Saracho’s creation. Vida is, above all else, a celebration of the sheer diversity of the queer and brown experience. In the very first scene when we meet Baco, for example, he calls out Mishel Prada’s Emma for being able to pass. If she hadn’t told him she was Mexican, he never would’ve guessed, he tells her — particularly given her penchant for dismissing the way things are done in his neighborhood. When Emma asks him for a contract and a quote, she all but earns a scoff from Castillo’s blunt contractor, who’s more familiar with verbal agreements that keep guys like him away from paper trails and needless bureaucracy.
The show’s ability to stage conversations about ‘Whitinas’ (aka “White Latinas”) amidst storylines about gente-fication (gentrification courtesy of an upwardly mobile, college-educated Latinx contingent) exemplifies Saracho’s commitment to giving voice to the kind of characters Castillo once hoped to put on the stage. “I always saw it as my responsibility to represent brown people on the screen and to do it accurately, because you’re so frustrated by the things that you see when they do it wrong. As a Latino in this industry — and I’m bilingual, I’m binational, I grew up alongside the border — I was raised to respect and honor my heritage and to revere my culture. That’s just a part of me. I can’t deny it.”
Which is not to say he wants to be defined by it. After so many years of only reading for certain kinds of characters in audition rooms during pilot season, he’s found it refreshing to be going in for parts that aren’t ethnically-specific (“There were a couple of doctors, and even like a forensic anthropologist!”). Above all, though, he’s driven to find characters that are defined by their humanity. Casting directors, critics and audiences may want to box him into just one thing, but he’s now at a place where he’s hoping to challenge himself and continue carving out a space in the industry that’s of his doing.
“I just trust my gut, because I know when I read something, and I know what I’m excited about something I know when I’m like, Yes, I can put my entire being into that thing. And I know that when I’m half-assed about it, and I’m tempted by the paycheck, or some, you know, shiny diamond in the process, I’m ignoring what my gut is picking up. And it’s not the right thing for me and I and I don’t do my best work in those circumstances. I do my best work when it’s a character that I’m really excited about. Or it’s a story that I’m really excited to tell. Or it’s a director I’m excited to work with.”
That’s definitely true of his next big project. The Rian Johnson-directed Knives Out has Castillo being part of an ensemble that also includes Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Chris Evans. As he looks at what’s ahead, Castillo remains as level-headed as always. Even as we spoke he nervously chuckled away some reviews that had poured in on the wake of El Chicano’s release. There are added privileges, he knows. But also added drawbacks. “You’re under the microscope in a whole different way. But that’s okay. That’s what I was working toward.”
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter. His work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla, where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and has monthly film columns at Electric Literature and Catapult.He has a Ph.D. but doesn’t like to brag about it. Follow him on Twitter: @bmanuel.