Raúl Castil­lo on his next glow up

“It was a crew of fully clothed people and there I am in my tighty whiteys hanging around.” The actor and playwright talks us through his new film We The Animals based on Justin Torres’ acclaimed novel.

Raúl Castillo’s big break came when his char­ac­ter on a tele­vi­sion show blew up. 

Richie, the hand­some Lati­no hair­dress­er on HBO’s Look­ing, broke through in a major way. Castil­lo begs to dif­fer. He didn’t blow up enough because we still got can­celled,” the actor laughs in his husky voice, down the line from home in New York. 

As fans and those who tuned in to hate watch know (it was that kind of show) Look­ing got the chop in 2016 after two sea­sons and a fea­ture length finale. Peo­ple are just like unfor­giv­ing in a lot of ways because they don’t see them­selves on screen,” admits Castil­lo, still some­what bruised by the expe­ri­ence. It was tough.”

Look­ing did, how­ev­er, launch Castil­lo into the big league. The 41-year-old, born to Mex­i­can par­ents in a Tex­an bor­der town, had long been work­ing as a play­wright and actor in Man­hat­tan. His minor role on Look­ing, as a young Mex­i­can Amer­i­can gay man at ease with him­self, became a fan favourite and he was upgrad­ed to sea­son reg­u­lar for series two. Cast as the internet’s newest crush, the The New York Times declared him a heart throb. Film star­dom, it wagered, beckoned. 

After appear­ances on a num­ber of TV shows since, from Netflix’s Easy to Atyp­i­cal, it is cin­e­ma where Castil­lo gets his next glow up. His new film, We The Ani­mals, is based on Justin Tor­res’ acclaimed debut nov­el about a cre­ative young boy, Jon­ah, played by Evan Rosa­do, com­ing into his queer­ness in a Puer­to Rican house­hold in upstate New York. 

The role played by Jonah’s father, Paps, is cen­tral to the child’s dawn­ing under­stand­ing of him­self. Paps, played by Castil­lo, is a com­pli­cat­ed man: bru­tal then lov­ing, feck­less then ful­ly com­mit­ted. The film’s explo­ration of mas­culin­i­ty has earned it com­par­isons to Moon­light but doc­u­men­tar­i­an Jere­mi­ah Zegar’s first fic­tion­al film has a woozy, organ­ic mood of its own, with the three young broth­ers all played by non actors.

It helps to have a lead­ing man like Castil­lo in the fam­i­ly mix, demon­strat­ing an on screen mag­net­ism that marked him out as one to watch in Look­ing. He also spends plen­ty of time in his under­wear, which is where the heart­throb bit comes in. And Castillo’s back­ground in the­atre – he ini­tial­ly thought him­self more play­wright than actor – comes into play in a major way too, as we dis­cov­ered when we got on the phone with him.

How did you feel about this mate­r­i­al at first?

When I first read the script, I saw two white guys’ names on the script and I saw this Puer­to Rican char­ac­ter. Flags start to go up. If you look at it on page, my role is so stereo­typ­i­cal. He’s a wife beat­er, he’s a neglect­ful father but when you start to read below the sur­face the three dimen­sion­al­i­ty comes through. He’s a bru­tal guy but he’s so com­plex. I read the nov­el and it was clear to me the writer was trans­form­ing trau­ma into a work of art. 

How did you see your character’s rela­tion­ship with his son? 

There’s a chap­ter in the nov­el, where Paps takes Jon­ah on a work trip up to Nia­gara Falls in Upstate New York. We couldn’t include that in the film itself. It’s such a beau­ti­ful por­tion of the nov­el where Paps and Jon­ah have a lit­tle time to them­selves. To me, that’s fair­ly rev­e­la­to­ry to their rela­tion­ship. Paps can be incred­i­bly bru­tal but he has moments of grace and ten­der­ness to him and that was impor­tant for me to find and explore.

There’s a moment that real­ly speaks to that in the film where Paps says to his son, God­damn, I got me a pret­ty one”. I thought it was the most piv­otal line. 

It’s fun­ny you should men­tion that line because that’s actu­al­ly from that chap­ter. For me it was impor­tant to include that line as it’s the first time that Paps recog­nis­es that his son might be queer, in my inter­pre­ta­tion of it. But how he [Paps] han­dles it is very unique, there’s no answer, there’s no judge­ment, he’s just recog­nis­ing that his son is spe­cial. That line struck me when I read the nov­el and I asked Jerami­ah if we could find a place for it in the film, which I was real­ly excit­ed about.

Was there a lot of improv in that way?

Absolute­ly. The major­i­ty of the dia­logue is direct­ly from the script but the boys were giv­en a lot of time to play and explore. When you are work­ing with non actors like that, it was impor­tant for them to have that kind of space. We spent six weeks film­ing in that house in upstate New York. It became so com­mon­place for me to be hang­ing out in my under­wear. So it was a crew of ful­ly clothed peo­ple and there I am in my tighty whiteys hang­ing around. 

Did you draw from your own expe­ri­ence of masculinity?

I just kind of under­stood. I grew up around guys like Paps. I knew guys like him. We’re already liv­ing out that explo­ration of mas­culin­i­ty [on set] because these boys are look­ing up to me to a cer­tain degree, I’m the father fig­ure, I’m lead­ing the charge in that respect. 

How did you learn how to be a man? 

I mean I didn’t. No one’s teach­ing you. You want to be like every­one else so you’re look­ing to the boys, to the men around you for clues for what it is to be a man. 

Was Look­ing in any way infor­ma­tive, con­sid­er­ing gay men have very spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences of mas­culin­i­ty grow­ing up?

In some ways I wished I’d had the expe­ri­ence of We The Ani­mals before Look­ing because in a lot of ways, I feel that Paps could be Richie’s father. My char­ac­ter in Look­ing had a sim­i­lar, frac­tured rela­tion­ship (his father is nev­er real­ly men­tioned in the script) but I feel like there are these bones sur­round­ing his own sense of his mas­culin­i­ty. Jon­ah is a lot more relat­ed to Richie than I’d anticipated. 

How do you feel about Look­ing now?

Peo­ple respond­ed to Richie and I recog­nised how much peo­ple iden­ti­fied with his jour­ney and just need­ed to see their own sto­ries expressed on screen. It’s not hap­pen­ing quite as much as it could be. Look­ing was, in a lot of ways, ahead of its time. Peo­ple were so mean to that show and it so scru­ti­nised, so under a micro­scope that in a way I don’t think it would be today. I think peo­ple would be a lot kinder to that show, possibly.

Giv­en your back­ground in writ­ing, do you hope to tell your own stories? 

Writ­ing is such a tax­ing endeav­our and it is sort of eas­i­er to tell oth­er people’s sto­ries in a lot of ways than tell my own. But there’s a cou­ple sto­ries I’m inter­est­ed in see­ing through on the film or TV side, for sure.

We The Ani­mals is in UK cin­e­mas from 14 June

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