I think they see their own fathers, their own grandfathers, and their own uncles in this character.
On HBO’s cult phenom Looking, Raúl Castillo broke out in his role as Richie, with his earnest depiction of the Latino gay community. The 40-year-old heartthrob has since scored an uninterrupted chain of barrel-chested projects—surprisingly many for Netflix—including the anthology series Easy, Ricky Gervais’s satiric comedy Special Correspondents, Atypical, and Seven Seconds. The actor and playwright also starred in Steven Soderbergh’s “iPhone movie” Unsane this year, which he’s following up with Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, the NEXT Innovator Award winner at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
An impressionistic adaptation of Justin Torres’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, We the Animals parachutes onto the world of three barely pubescent, mixed-raced brothers and the state of their rickety lives under the watchful eye of their squabbling but undeniably loving parents in rural upstate New York. Ma (Sheila Vand) works at the local brewery, while Paps (Castillo) is a night watchman who frequently, frustratingly finds himself in-between jobs. In terms of surface plot, relatively little happens outside the fleeting moments of life—that’s the source of its unassuming power.
Jonah (Evan Rosada), the youngest sibling—the central protagonist and the voiceover guiding us through the journey—is marked by a number of formative experiences that we come to know in pieces. The boys’ combustible father leaves home for several days following a physical altercation, leaving them to care for their battered mother. On a weekend family outing to a nearby lake, Paps attempts to teach Jonah how to swim by dragging him to the deep end and leaving him to drown. Jonah attaches himself to a local farmer’s teenage son, exposing him to the homosexual urges he didn’t know he had while watching porn together. Following yet another altercation with Paps, Ma takes the boys on the road, attempting an escape to who knows where with no viable plan, offering an affectingly candid confession to her children that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Growing into his otherness, each moment contributes to Jonah’s developing perception of the world around him, coming together like stanzas in search of an elusive final picture.
Next up for Castillo is Season 2 of STARZ series VIDA and filling the void of previously non-existent Latino superhero movies with El Chicano, which is set to premiere at the LA Film Festival next month.
We the Animals is in select theaters on August 17.
We the Animals is intimate, immersive, and experiential—you can really feel the makers touch with this one. You feel like a fly-on-the-wall as opposed to being shuffled from one explicit plot point to another. What did all of this look like in your head when you read the screenplay for the first time?
I was a little perplexed when I started reading the script. I didn’t realize that it was an adaptation of a novel when I started reading it. It had such a kooky and off-beat form to begin with that made you go, “What is this?” It was so different and unique. When I learned that it started out as a novel, it started to make sense. Then I continued on reading the rest of the script and I started to fall in love with it. It blew me away. It went to places that I didn’t realize it was gonna go to. It started as this child’s narrative and evolved into a deep reflection on masculinity.
It also sounds like one of those rare filmmaking experiences. I understand that Justin [Torres] spent every day on set with you guys as an unlimited resource. You shot this on location, close to where Justin grew up in upstate New York. You also shared a house with Sheila [Vand] and continuously built the chemistry. Was any one particular aspect of the making-of super helpful to you personally?
I think having access to Justin was an incredible asset. It’s based on his life, but loosely—it’s fiction. Having access to him, to be able to ask him questions about his own family, and to see photos of his father and mother really helped to humanize the character beyond just what we can gather in the novel. The novel does a beautiful job of it, but having access to Justin really rounded out that experience.
It’s clear that the Paps you wanted to portray is someone who’s simply human, in spite of his glaring flaws. He’s no villain. It’s not a black or white situation. Still, did you have some reservations about playing somebody who might be unlikeable? Is that a consideration for you when choosing projects?
You know—with the script, when I read some of the scenes in which he does some of the more horrific things, I was a little bit nervous at first. As an actor, it’s my duty and my responsibility to be aware of the kinds of roles I take on and the kinds of stories that I help bring to the screen. But once I finished the script and put it down, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do this film because I understood it to be a much more complex representation of life. Certainly, it’s a much more complex representation of masculinity than what we normally see on screen. It was a more honest depiction of it, through the lens of this very complicated man.
In what ways do you think the depiction of masculinity in film and TV is changing on the whole? You’ve helped break down barriers, with Looking especially. What do you think would be revolutionary to see tomorrow?
I’m a writer as well and I’ve written plays in the past. I’m not a woman, but I’ve written for women. If I had these two women on stage in a particular scene, I would think, “If I was an actress, what would get me excited about doing this scene?” Normally, it’s typical to wonder: “What would get an actor excited to approach this scene?” I would think it’s something they haven’t done before and something audiences haven’t seen before. I don’t know specifically what would be revolutionary. There are so many stories to tell. I’m excited that TV and film are paving the way in a sense—starting to at least.
There’s a scene where Paps leaves his son to drown in the lake as a way of teaching him how to swim. It’s transformative for Jonah. It also tells you exactly what Paps expects out of his children to face the world, which in his mind is unforgiving. Have audiences reacted in different ways to his actions?
More than anything, it’s surprising how much people have connected to the character because he’s more than just a villain. I think they see their own fathers, their own grandfathers, and their own uncles in this character. I ran into someone at Sundance when we premiered the film and she told me, “I kept thinking about my brother. I kept thinking about him.” I think she was intimidated by her brother, having gone through similar things growing up and also coming up as an adult. She seemed so moved by the story. Audiences just continue to connect with it in that sense. I hope that we were able to say something about Paps—something about this man that’s new, beyond your typical wife-beating tyrant.
There’s a curious moment in the film where Paps tells Jonah, “God damn—I got a pretty one. How’d that happen?” It wasn’t clear to me whether Paps was doting on his son or if it was actually more telling: that he knew his son was gay.
That’s great that you picked up on that. This is a testament to Jeremiah’s [Zagar] commitment to being a true collaborator on this film and bringing us all—our incredible DP Zak Mulligan, our production design crew, and everyone—in as collaborators. Everyone conspired together to make this project. That line is actually in the novel in a different scene that’s not in the movie, where Paps takes Jonah to Niagara Falls. It’s vaguely a work trip, I think, and it’s a line that’s in the chapter called “Niagara.”That line really spoke to something. I don’t think Justin quite answers what it means or ties it up in a neat answer in the book. I just thought there was something in there that was very pertinent to our story and we found a place for it. I don’t know if I have the answers for it either, but it spoke to something. I’m thankful that Jeremiah was open to me wanting to put that line in that scene.
It struck me because it’s a tender moment between father and son. Looking back now, I actually quite like that I don’t know what Paps’ true intentions were in saying that. There’s a magic in not knowing.
Yeah, I agree. It had the same effect on me as you’re describing it when I read that line in the novel.
Did you find that the novel—even the scenes that weren’t adapted for the screen—was very much swimming in your head during the shooting process and informed your performance?
Absolutely. The novel is so beautiful. When I read the script, I had yet to read the novel. Jeremiah called me up and wanted to have coffee so I went to meet him in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. He said, “Justin and I’m interested in having you play this role.” At the audition, I didn’t even know that Justin was in the room. It was after the fact that I was like, “Oh my god—I’m so glad I didn’t know you were there in the audition because I would’ve been so nervous.” It would’ve been terrible. I have so much respect for writers. So he loosely offered me the role and I went from that meeting to a bookstore on Court Street in Cobble Hill and bought a copy of the novel. I read it in one sitting. I was immediately drawn to it. I read more scripts these days than I do novels, and I had missed this one. It was such a revelation. As you said, having access to Justin on set all summer was really incredible. I’ve read the novel a couple times now and every time I read it, it makes me cry and it makes me laugh. It’s just a beautiful work of art.
You sold me on this book.
Yes! [Laughs] Read it! I wanted to stay loyal to the book. Jeremiah’s approach to adapting the novel helped to preserve the spirit of the novel, I think. And the experience of working with these kids, these non-actors, was incredible. Sheila and I were the only “actors” in the family, but these kids were just brilliant. I’m so proud of them. They really kept it honest.
El Chicano is premiering at the LA Film Festival next month. What struck you about that experience?
That was about having a 100% Latino cast all across the board. That was new for me. I’ve experienced that in theater, but never in film or TV. Everyone who came to work knew that there was something more important, and something bigger, than our collective egos. We all checked our egos at the door. I respected that and our director [Ben Hernandez Bray] so much. A lot of the crew had worked with him before on other jobs—these veterans, coordinators, and second unit directors—and Ben was a second unit director for David O. Russell and Michael Mann. He directs a lot of TV so a lot of the cast had known him as well. We knew there was something more important, doing something that hadn’t been done before with a Latino superhero. We as a community haven’t had that. To have the opportunity to do it, there was a kind of reverence to the way everyone came to work. It was really special. It proved to me that it’s possible to all come together and be unified in something and do a collective effort making something really great and exciting and, hopefully, the community will rally around behind it.
I think we sometimes forget just how important it is to have El Chicano, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians… The lack of representation is blinding when it’s you. We have to see ourselves on the screen.
That’s right. Absolutely.