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Why Looking and Vida Star Raúl Castillo Can't Separate Art and Activism

The Texas-born Mexican-American actor shares his thoughts for TV Guide's Hispanic Heritage Month series

Malcolm Venable

In terms of versatility and range, few actors working today bring to the screen the depth that Raúl Castillo has; over the years, we've seen him play a confident gay hairdresser on the beloved HBO series Looking, a face-eating serial killer on Gotham, a charmingly irresistible bartender on Atypical, and the sexy but kinda shady Baco on Vida. As such, the Texan-born, Mexican-American performer and playwright has become, in a very short period of time, a scene-stealing force in every project he takes on -- and one of the most recognizable Latino actors on TV too, (To say nothing of the many movies he's starred in.) 

Now 43, Castillo, who grew up on the border town of McAllen, played bass in a punk band in his youth and later took up theater -- a love that led him to Boston University's College of Fine Arts. Having grown up straddling cultures and learning to quickly adapt in environments where he was the only Latino person, Castillo is uniquely positioned to navigate the Hollywood machine and work to change it from the inside, largely just be being really good in every role he carefully selects. At a time when Latinx stories and people are woefully underrepresented on broadcast and cable, Castillo is sort of an unintentional torch bearer -- representative of the many more talented Latinx/Hispanic performers behind him who can point to him as an example of on-screen greatness. As part of an ongoing series throughout Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month (Sept. 15 - Oct. 15) TV Guide is talking with some of the most prominent Hispanic and Latinx voices in TV today, from actors to producers, writers, and other creatives, to talk about the state of the industry and more. Here's what Raúl Castillo had to say. 

My first question is pretty simple: there's a real dearth of Hispanic/Latino stories and people on TV now. How do we fix this, and how does it get better? 
: I feel like I've been fortunate to work on stuff that is Latino centric, and then I've also been the only Latino on a lot of sets as well, you know, and, and both [scenarios] are interesting to me for different reasons. I think I think it's important that we foster not only talent in front of the camera, but also behind, you know, in every aspect of our art form. I think we need to be fostering camera talent and costume talent and technicians-- all across the board. I think we need diversification of our crews. It's just as important as in front of the camera. And [we need] fostering other storytellers. I think it's really important. 

I know what it's like to be the only Black person in the room. What is it like being the only Latino person in the room? How does that affect you as an artist and the storyteller? 
I mean, I went to college in Boston in the '90s. So I was getting used to being one of the only one, or one of a few. The theater program is a very wide [diverse] program but then at the same time, I was part of a student group, the East Coast Chicano Student Forum -- I don't even know if that organization still exists -- but I was like dipping my toes in both worlds. I've always felt it important to do that, to represent the community, but celebrate with my community and to create with my own community as well. But to be the only one, I just feel like it's my job to go out there and represent and be seen existing and telling stories.

You've played a lot of different types of roles, from Looking to Vida but always characters with lots of nuance. What types of roles do you favor? Do you turn down stuff and why? 
You know, it's not so much roles for me but the story definitely. I know a role speaks to me when I read it. There's no there's no predetermined set of things that I'm looking for. What's important to me now is to collaborate with storytellers who work on the kinds of stories that I can get behind, like Looking and Vida, shows like Seven Seconds, Atypical. I want to collaborate with storytellers I can get behind. I think I'm learning to trust my gut more. I think when you're starting out as an actor, it's kind of feast or famine -- you take whatever comes your way. And I think one of the big lessons for me and certainly during this quarantine when everything's been stripped away, is that we have to really rethink what storytelling is, and we have to kind of come at it in a new way. It's trusting my instinct. When I read something and I respond to it. I don't I'm not trying to make things work that don't. Don't you know, not forcing things to work. It's just trusting my instinct.

With Vida, Grand Hotel, The Baker and the Beauty gone, why do you think it's so hard to keep Latinx-centric shows on air especially since Latinx people make up so much of the population? What do you think is missing or wrong that this is such a sort of pervasive issue?
 I think we're just not used to seeing ourselves...So that's a matter of continuing to try to tell our stories and to cultivate our own audience. I think we have to educate our community to support our stories, [to] develop that audience. I love the messages that I get on Instagram [about the roles I play]. It's really exciting. I'm so proud to be part of that. I almost passed on [Vida] because I was at a point in my career where I wasn't sure what I wanted to be next. [Vida creator Tanya Saracho and I] started collaborating when we were teenagers. So, you know, getting to watch her grow and develop as a storyteller has always been really exciting. So I'm really proud to be a part of that show for sure. The audience was small, but they're really passionate and they really care about the show. It's not the kind of show people forget about.

You said you almost passed on it. Why? Were you apprehensive about being pigeonholed? Is that something you consider? Like, I am a writer, I don't necessarily want to be looked at as a Black writer all the time, because that can feel limiting, but then, I am a Black writer. Do you ever get into that space, where you don't want to be pigeonholed like that?
I mean, definitely, but with that it was more about just being at a critical point in my career especially when it regards to television because it is such a commitment. I wanted to be one hundred percent sure before I became sort of a contractor to play. It was about wanting to make the right choice. 

You mentioned your Instagram. I think it's evident that activism is part of who you are. Why is that important to you? Do you feel it's risky career-wise or no?
 Well, you know, I was a young punk rocker and I came up on really political music. A lot of the music I was associated with was very political so even when I got into theater, I was always drawn to that. I don't know if I consider myself an activist just because I respect that term too much, but I have a platform and I try to use it as best I can.