Some actors hit their stride right out of the gate, but Raúl Castillo’s progress has been a slow burn. The 41-year-old Texas-born New Yorker spent years honing his craft in off-Broadway productions before making his way into low-budget film productions a little over a decade ago. It wasn’t until he scored the role of Richie Donado Ventura on HBO’s LGBT drama series “Looking” that Castillo became a known quantity. Three years after that show, he’s finally settling into his groove as a respected movie actor.
“It took me a long time to get things going in this career,” he said, “but once it started to happen, it became a series of interesting projects with people I respect.”
Most recently, he scored an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor in “We the Animals,” as the passionate but flawed patriarch of a biracial home. Having survived a dearth of roles for serious Latino performers, Castillo may be a late bloomer, but he’s right on schedule to become a bonafide star. “By the time ‘Looking’ was over, I felt like a well-oiled machine,” Castillo said. “I’d received this immense amount of experience in a couple of years. I got to work regularly with a really interesting character in the best kind of environment for me to learn. I also wanted people to get to know other sides of me as an actor.”
With “We the Animals,” he found exactly that: The narrative debut of director Jeremiah Zagar (who wrote the screenplay with Dan Kitrosser) adapts Justin Torres’ intimate memoir into a poetic, emotionally resonant portrait of a young closeted child named Jonah (Evan Rosado) as he and his two older siblings contend with their parents’ unsteady relationship. While Jonah’s mother (Sheila Vand) provides a nurturing center, Pops veers from confident man of the house to a drunken, jobless wreck. Zagar’s delicate approach remains within the confines of Jonah’s perspective as he develops a deeper understanding of the adult world.
Castillo was drawn to the exploration of a mixed-race family in the rural upstate New York setting. “To see brown bodies in this environment was exciting to me,” he said. “Rural upstate New York could be anywhere in middle America.” The family history added to that appeal. “The parents being from Brooklyn, and Pop having Puerto Rican heritage, and the mom being white, makes it a quintessential American story,” Castillo said.
The role provided Castillo with the kind of sharp right turn that he needed after playing the sweet, musically talented love interest to Jonathan Groff’s character. “Richie became this somewhat iconic character for a lot of people,” Castillo said, referencing the representation of a gay Latino figure on mainstream television. “I wanted to take that audience on a journey and introduce them to other characters, other voices. That was really important to me.”
“Looking” showrunner Andrew Haigh underscored the need for Castillo to expand his range. “Like an old-fashioned movie star, Raul has a charisma that burns up the screen but he underpins this with fierce intelligence,” Haigh said. “He should be cast in everything.”
But with “We the Animals,” Castillo had to play the waiting game. He first landed the role of Pops in 2015, as “Looking” was wrapping up. The script, which was loaded with descriptive passages and room for improvisation, caught him off guard. “At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it,” he said. “I saw two white guys’ names on the cover, and then I read this Puerto Rican character and he was doing these things and I was unsure of it at first. But then as I continued to read it, it was clear that the world was so defined and so specific and so rich that I remember coming to the front cover.”
It took a year for the project to come together, as Zagar combed through hundreds of possibilities for the non-actors he wanted to cast as the kids in the movie. “We saw over 1,000 people for the roles in our film, and I can tell you that it a rare to find someone who grabs the screen the way that Raúl does,” said Zagar, whose previous directing credits were in non-fiction. “As a documentary filmmaker, what I loved most about working with Raul was his authenticity. He makes every scene feel immediate and true. Its as if he’s not just playing the role, but living it.”
Shortly after wrapping HBO’s feature-length “Looking” send-off, Castillo found himself in the dramatically new setting of Utica, New York, engaging in improvisatory acting workshops with his young costars, and preparing for a freewheeling 16mm production. “I knew it was going to be a special project with a character so different from the one on ‘Looking,’” he said.
By that time, Castillo had juggled a smattering of television projects, including Netflix series “Seven Seconds” and “Atypical,” but his interest in the medium had started to wane. “Television is art by committee,” he said. “I’m lucky to have worked on some really interesting shows, but in film, you’re there to fulfill the director’s vision. If you get to work with great directors, you become a vehicle for that work.”
Despite his roots on the stage — in addition to his various roles, Castillo he has written several plays himself — he was first drawn to the movies as a college student. While attending Boston University College of Fine Arts as a playwriting major, “I had a lot friends that went to film school at the time, and they would take me to Cassavetes films, Kurosawa films, Herzog films,” he said. “I became enamored with auteurs. I feel like directors are sort of the playwrights of the film world. They’re the visionaries, they’re whose voice you’re channeling. In TV, there’s so many cooks in the kitchen. It’s a miracle anything gets made, honestly, because there’s so many people whose opinions are a part of it.”
He has noticed an uptick in opportunities for Latino performers in recent years. “I feel like there’s more content now than when I was starting out,” he said. “There just wasn’t the quantity of voices from the margins. Now those voices are starting to come to the forefront.” He recently auditioned for a Spanish-language role that felt right. “It was written by non-Mexican filmmakers but took place in Mexico,” he said. “When I was reading it, it was so evident that someone Mexican had written the dialogue. That was such a relief, because so often [the translation] is awful, and then the onus is on the actor to do the translating or the cultural shifts. It’s so sloppy.”
He didn’t get that role, “but it was a great script,” and now he has plenty of offers to sift through. “When you’re starting out as an actor, it’s feast or famine,” he said. “I’m at a place now where I can be more selective now and I’m going to make 2019 all about that.” Haigh underscored Castillo’s intellectual approach to his performances. “He cares deeply about understanding his characters, always determined to find the thorny truth of a scene,” Haigh said. “He is a very subtle actor too, aware that sometimes a simple gesture is all you need to show what’s going on inside his head. It helps that he is one of the nicest guys imaginable, always collaborative, always emotionally generous.”
The release calendar is already dotted with several intriguing projects: Castillo’s currently wrapping production on Rian Johnson’s starry noir “Knives Out,” which also features Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans. Then there’s “El Chicano,” a Latino superhero movie that opens in March, and the quirky love triangle “iGilbert.”