After moving in 2002 from his native Texas to New York City, where he soon became a member of the prestigious off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, playwright and actor Raúl Castillo spent a decade or so playing supporting roles in film and television. Then came HBO’s Looking, in which he starred as the boyfriend of the neurotic lead character played by Jonathan Groff. Castillo’s soulful performance as Richie brought the actor a new level of attention. This year, the actor made a notable appearance in Steven Soderberg’s Unsane, and last fall he finished work on what he calls “the first Latino superhero film,” El Chicano, in which he has his first lead role.
This week, you can see Castillo in director Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, a Malickian tale of a loving but volatile family told from the point of view of one of three young boys (played by Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian). Castillo is magnetically tender and explosive as Paps, the young father of the family and the sun around which his wife, Ma (Sheila Vand), and children revolve, even when he’s an absent presence.
I recently spoke with Castillo about working with young nonprofessional actors in We the Animals, finding his character in Looking, and what Groff taught him about being number one on the call sheet.
I read that you were initially attracted to acting and playwriting because, growing up in South Texas, you didn’t see your world reflected in popular culture. That made sense to me, as I lived in Laredo for a couple of years and found out how ignorant I was about Mexican and Mexican-American culture. What did you want to say about that world as a young man?
Before theater I got into punk rock music. I was in bands, playing shows in South Texas when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. There was something about punk rock that you could get on stage, you could be seen for an hour or so and entertain and be recognized. I think theater and film does a similar thing. It sort of forces people to look at you and to see you and to hear your story. I don’t know if there’s any one particular story I wanted to tell, but if you lived in Laredo you know how, especially at that time, how provincial and marginalized that part of the world was. The border is often not seen in popular culture, other than in stereotypes or tropes.
Then I started paying attention to the Latino artists out there and they inspired me. People like John Leguizamo and writers like Miguel Piñero, who were trailblazing and were telling stories that reflected a little bit more the world that I came from. Even though they’re from New York City, you know?
Right. Which is very different than MacAllen. So it wasn’t so much that there were issues you wanted to write about as it was you wanted to kind of say, hey, we’re human beings too, and nobody recognizes that?
We the Animals is about people—especially your character—expressing themselves in primal, often purely physical ways. How did the director talk to the actors about what he wanted?
I think Jeremiah being a documentarian and this being his first narrative film, he wasn’t hindered by any preconceptions. You go to school to study theater and you’re taught to experiment and play, and then you’re out in the industry and there’s no time for experimentation and play. It’s all, like, you have to get it in the can. And consequently, there’s all these films that are just pre-packaged and uninspired. I think Jeremiah wanted the process to be different, because if the process is different then the film’s going to be different. We went to upstate New York for six weeks and all lived in houses together, and we rehearsed a lot with the kids. He was committed to having non-actors in most of the roles. Sheila and I are the only quote-unquote professional actors in We the Animals. The kids brought this really raw, natural intensity and they kept Sheila and I honest, I think. Because they weren’t acting, you know? They were just being, they were just living and breathing. They understood this story on very visceral levels. He created a safe environment where we could all go to those dark places, go to those raw and wild places, and yet we were keeping each other’s best interests in mind. Which you have to do, especially when you’re working with young children like that.
I love the scene where Paps hangs over the edge of a truck while sitting in the bed in back with his kids, so he can watch the road rush by with his head upside-down, and they all follow suit. That sums up Paps as a father: the impulsivity that can put his kids in danger and the charisma and ability to be in the moment that make them want to follow his lead. Was that something you came up with during rehearsal or was it in the script?
I think that was in the script, if I’m not mistaken. A lot of stuff [in the film] was accidental while we were filming. We shot on film, on 16mm, and you feel a lot when you’re shooting on film that you gotta get it on your first take, but Jeremiah really let us play and let the camera roll quite a bit. But I think that particular sequence was scripted. We had to be very careful because it was a moving car and young lives hanging out. You gotta be really careful.
Your character in Looking is the opposite of Paps, so stable and emotionally mature that he becomes the moral center of the story. When I interviewed Andrew Haigh earlier this year about Lean on Pete, he said he prefers passive characters to active ones because he thinks most of life is reacting to things, not making things happen. Were you conscious of playing a more passive character than usual when you played that role?
I don’t think so. Andrew, like Jeremiah, has such a way of making you feel like a collaborator. Sometimes [as an actor] you come and you punch in, you punch out, you do your lines but nobody’s getting personal. But Andrew was all about getting personal. He was all about us being vulnerable and ourselves. He didn’t throw too much at me. He let me find the character in a beautiful way. He has a way of trusting his actors and making you feel like you have ownership of the character. And the writing was just so good. My character was always reacting to [laughs] Jonathan [Groff]’s character’s sort of colorful personality. Jonathan was such a great scene partner, all I had to do was respond to him. I just had to listen and respond.
Which is actually just what Andrew was talking about in terms of passivity.
Is Richie [in Looking] still the role you’re recognized for the most?
Oh yeah. Definitely. Sometimes people project their feelings of the role onto you. When my mom met Jonathan after the first season, she was angry at him. [laughs] She said, “You hurt my son!” I said, “Mom, that’s Jonathan. That’s not Patrick!” I got really lucky because my character draws such tender feelings out of people. I think a lot of people connected to that character because he does have a real strong backbone and he’s really clear about what he wants. He symbolizes, for a lot of people, maybe what they want or what they want to be. I don’t know what it is, but when I meet people who are fans of the show, I have such warmth and tenderness projected at me because of that character.
Do you feel like you’re more of a sex symbol in the gay community than the straight world at this point?
[laughs] Yeah yeah yeah. I’m always surprised when I meet fans of the show, who are so loyal. We weren’t Game of Thrones, but people really cared about the show and the characters. I think it had something to say about our culture. It was maybe perhaps a couple years ahead of the times. It got a lot of flak. It couldn’t do everything, and I think there were a lot of expectations for the show, because it was representing a community that was underserved. I think if it came out today, it’d have a different kind of reception.
Do you feel like you’re entering a new phase of your career? It seems like you have a lot of work coming out this year or next.
Looking helped to open a lot of doors for me. Richie, when all is said and done, is a romantic lead. There’s not a lot of romantic leads out there for Latino actors, and it allowed the industry to sort of see me as an everyman. I did this film last fall called El Chicano, which is playing at the LA Film Festival next month. I’m El Chicano. It’s the first Latino superhero film. It’s my first time being number one on a call sheet. I texted Jonathan because I thought of him a lot while I was doing it. He taught me a lot about what it is to be number one on a call sheet, to lead a cast and to rally everyone around you, how you can do that through your grace and your warmth and your work.
You’ve always played a pretty wide variety of roles. Is that something you’ve done intentionally to keep from being typecast, or are those just the roles that you happened to have gotten?
Honestly, I just take whatever comes along. Now I’m able to be a little more selective, so I’m starting to be a little bit more thoughtful about the projects I take on. But I worked for many years in New York theater and independent films trying to make it, and you just condition yourself to take any and every job that comes along. It’s just been coincidental, I think, that they have the kind of broad range you’re talking about.
What are you zeroing in on, now that you can be more selective?
I come from theater, and I have a profound respect for playwrights as visionaries. When I started getting into film, I fell in love with directors the way I fell in love with playwrights. I love auteurs. I’ve gotten to do a lot of really great TV series work in the last couple years. Atypical is a kind of family comedy about a boy with autism, and I’m proud to be part of a show like that. Then there’s Seven Seconds, which is about what’s going on today in America, and it has an incredible cast. But film is what I fell in love with at an early age, and I’m really interested in working with directors who are visionaries. Sometimes in TV there are so many cooks in the kitchen that it gets complicated, whereas in filmmaking you have one person who’s largely calling all the shots. Usually it’s like that. And that shows itself in the unity and the ultimate vision of the project, like We the Animals. Cinereach really gave Jeremiah a platform to make his film. No one meddled with it. I want to continue to work on projects like that, where there’s a singular vision behind them.
You’ve already worked with Steven Soderbergh and Andrew Haigh and Aaron Katz, who are all pretty special directors.
Absolutely. Working with Soderbergh—Sex, Lies and Videotape, that really transformed modern cinema in many ways.
Was Unsane really shot in one week?
Two weeks and two iPhones. What was great about working with him is that he demystified himself for me. He was such a name in my head, and now I’m having to work with so many more names [laughs]. It’s intimidating when you work with someone whose name you’ve been saying for years, but he really blew me away in how down to earth and approachable he was.