Raúl Castillo Is Building a Career on Breaking Barriers for the Latinx Community (Exclusive)

Raul Castillo
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The former 'Looking' star talks to ET about his latest film, 'We the Animals,' and finding projects that speak to the Latinx community.

Raúl Castillo never liked his voice. It was loud and clown-like as a child, and he thought the deep, gravelly mutter he developed as a teenager was too unpolished for the screen.

And yet, after captivating audiences as Richie on HBO's Looking, Castillo is bound for the kind of Hollywood clout he once considered inconceivable. This year, the 40-year-old Manhattan-based actor's roles -- a psych ward patient in Steven Soderbergh's thriller, Unsane; narcotics detective Felix Osorio on Netflix's racial drama, Seven Seconds -- emanate grit, range and his own passionate convictions.

Castillo’s latest is the compelling, rough-hewn drama We the Animals, which opens in theaters on Aug. 17 and has garnered acclaim and comparisons to Moonlight and Beasts of the Southern Wild since premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Innovator Award. Based on author Justin Torres' 2011 debut novel, director Jeremiah Zagar's coming-of-age drama illuminates the heartbreaking effects of a fraught love on three siblings (portrayed by Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian and Evan Rosado) with a dreamy sense of escapist serenity amid familial havoc. Castillo plays the flawed father figure, Paps, with Sheila Vand starring as Ma.

The film's surrealist interpretation of parental complexities adheres to Castillo's longstanding proclivity for stimulating and meaningful storytelling. "That was the most important script that I had come across,” he tells ET of Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser's screenplay. Certain they’d pass on him, the actor says that "once they showed interest in me for the role, there was no looking back.”

To inhabit Paps, an abusive, working-class man with a hot temper and a tender heart, Castillo reflected deeply and personally on fatherhood. He thought about his own father, Raúl H. Castillo, Sr., who died in 2014, and his dad's dad, who, like Paps, was known to be complicated. Castillo drew upon those personal relationships, and his own desire to become a father, to create what is a complex portrait of a troubled but loving father.

"Empathy is one of our greatest assets as actors," he says. "People are capable of doing horrific and benevolent things, but at the same time, we're all complicated, so I think it's my job not to judge this character."

Growing up in the Texas bordertown of McAllen, Castillo hoped to be an actor one day. It was during high school that he befriended Tanya Saracho, who is now a TV writer (Looking, How to Get Away With Murder) and creator of the Starz drama Vida. Teachers "never pushed me like Tanya did," Castillo says, recalling she was "a boss before she was a boss.” Saracho encouraged him to pursue playwriting at Boston University College of Fine Arts.

As an Off-Broadway playwright and stage actor -- his sonorous voice particularly well-suited for a large theater, he notes -- Castillo regularly wrote plays for student-run playwright festivals and later produced work that explored his cultural background as a Mexican-American, including two personal plays focused on life at the U.S.-Mexican border: Border Stories and a 2015 dark comedy called Between You, Me and Lampshade.

Castillo never planned on acting off-stage, at least not with that voice, which made him "very insecure.” Furthermore, he didn’t think there was a place in Hollywood for a Mexican-American immigrant, until other Latinx storytellers, such as John Leguizamo, George Lopez and playwright-actor Miguel Piñero, demonstrated otherwise.

“When I heard George Lopez’s comedy, it meant something to me, because he was talking about a family like mine,” he says. “It gave me -- and us as a family -- something to rally around, and a real hope and a sense that we belonged, and that we are part of the fabric of this country.”

Raul Castillo with Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian and Evan Rosado in 'We the Animals.' - The Orchard

His breakthrough came in 2014 on HBO’s short-lived gay dramedy, Looking. For two seasons and a TV movie, Castillo played the love interest of Patrick (Jonathan Groff) on the show about a group of friends in San Francisco. Castillo's character, which introduced the actor to a larger audience and LGBTQ icon status, eschewed stereotypical media portrayals of gay Latinos and “revealed me to the industry in a really wonderful way,” he says.

In the years since, he’s become a recurring player on Netflix series -- Atypical and Seven Seconds -- and appeared in the films Special Correspondents and Permission. Originally slated to join the third season of Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time, Castillo confirms without explanation that he’ll no longer be joining the Latinx-led comedy.

“Bigger and better things are coming is the only thing I can probably say about that,” he says. One such example is joining Vida season two as Baco, a handyman with a questionable past, allowing the actor to reunite with Saracho on her hit Starz series.

The biggest and best -- and, for the actor, the most groundbreaking of his purposeful career -- just might be El Chicano, featuring an all-Latinx cast including Emilio Rivera, Aimee Garcia and Castillo’s childhood hero, George Lopez. Set to premiere at the L.A. Film Festival in September, the brooding, urban-inspired noir, is stuntman and TV director Ben Hernandez Bray's feature directorial debut.

"I'm really proud to be a part of a project that is hopefully gonna be at the forefront of that change,” Castillo says, adding that the expansion of minority-driven TV and film “needs to happen more.”