Raúl Castillo Depicts The American Dream’s Downside In Victor I. Cazares’ Chilling Play

In the eight years since HBO’s “Looking” put him on the map, Raúl Castillo has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most buzzed-about character actors. Any doubts about his on-screen charisma were put to rest this summer by the Apple TV+ dramedy “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and Netflix’s “Hustle,” in which he brought emotional texture to roles that could have seemed one-dimensional in the hands of a less supple performer. He returns to the big screen next month in Elegance Bratton’s semiautobiographical feature “The Inspection,” portraying a Marine Corps drill instructor.

Despite his marquee value, Castillo still considers himself a denizen of the theater. Last month, he returned to the stage after a seven-year absence in the New York Theater Workshop production of Victor I. Cazares’ drama, “American (Tele)visions.” He played Octavio, the stern patriarch of an undocumented Mexican family residing in suburban Texas in the early 1990s. Collectively, the family ― which includes Octavio’s wife, Maria (Elia Monte-Brown), closeted gay son Alejandro (Clew) and tomboy daughter Erica (Bianca “b” Norwood) ― learns that the pursuit of the American dream comes at an unspoken emotional cost.

While working on “American (Tele)visions,” Cazares ― who is nonbinary ― came to see Castillo as a mentor. In turn, Castillo said the playwright has given him “everything I ever wanted” as a theater artist.

“I’d been saying for a while: ‘I don’t think I will ever do a play again because no one’s writing the roles I’m excited about, and nobody needs to see my Stanley Kowalski,” said Castillo, referring to the role in “A Streetcar Named Desire” made famous by Marlon Brando. “Victor joked that they wrote my Stanley, which I love. Just to give birth to a new play is a teenage dream come true.”

HuffPost caught up with Castillo and Cazares to chat about “American (Tele)visions” before it concluded its acclaimed New York run last week.

Victor, the characters in “American (Tele)visions” are very representative of your intersectional identities. How much of your own experience informed the play?

Cazares: The show has autobiographical elements, but the story is not autobiographical. I’m a Mexican American person and I grew up on the border. I came out when I was 14 or 15, and my parents did not react positively. We were a religious family, so their reaction was: “Let’s give Victor therapy to stop being gay.”

But even if my parents had problems understanding, accepting and embracing my queer identity, they were acting out of what they felt was love. It was still not great, but it was love. I’m happy to say we now have a good relationship. The people that we were 15, 20 years ago, those parents are not here anymore.

Even though this family’s poor, they still look good. There’s a certain way in which poor Mexicans are depicted, and that was not my lived experience. If anything, we have to try harder precisely because of our socioeconomic status.

Raúl Castillo, Clew, Bianca “b” Norwood and Elia Monte-Brown in
Raúl Castillo, Clew, Bianca “b” Norwood and Elia Monte-Brown in “American (Tele)visions” at New York Theater Workshop.

Raúl, what was it about the show ― and specifically, the role of Octavio ― that resonated most with you as an actor?

Castillo: Initially, I thought I was going to pass on the play. Then I read the script and felt that it was absolutely beautiful. I was stunned by how moving it was, and I’d never read anything like it.

[Director] Rubén Polendo had such a clear vision in terms of how he wanted to make this play happen, in terms of how he wanted to stage it and how he wanted to conduct the process. Then Victor spoke about their inspiration for the play. These are two Mexican American artists, and I don’t run into Mexican American artists that are working at this level often, to be frank.

I remember thinking to myself: “I have to do this play.” There hasn’t been a day in the process that hasn’t reaffirmed my decision. There’s not a person in this company who isn’t working at their top level and giving it their all.

“American (Tele)visions” was originally set to premiere before the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think there are themes in the show that land differently ― more deeply, even ― because of the two-year delay?

Cazares: Because of the pandemic, we’re coming out of a period of mourning, of really intense grief and a distancing that we had to have with people. Not being able to see your family and friends … that’s daily life for undocumented immigrants. They’re separated from the people they left back home. So that isolation that they suffer as a result and that this family in the play suffers is more legible than it was before.

“The first night we performed the play for an audience, I was terrified. It was an out-of-body experience,” said Castillo, left.

Raul, the play is being staged shortly before the release of your new movie, “The Inspection.” As an actor, is it challenging for you to move between mediums?

Castillo: I love both mediums for different reasons, and it’s exciting to be back in the theater, [but] the first night we performed the play for an audience, I was terrified. It was an out-of-body experience because I hadn’t done it for so long. Now, it just feels like the most natural thing. I started in theater, it’s where I came up.

I just got to see “The Inspection” for the first time, and I was so electrified by Gabrielle Union’s performance as a mother who rejects her queer son. Because I’m living in this space [playing] a man who’s really broken by the loss of his son, it was heartbreaking to watch. But the film is beautiful, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I’m excited about these two stories coming to life at the same time.

Victor, what do you most hope audiences take away from “American (Tele)visions”?

I want people to be changed. I personally go to the theater to process. I go hoping to be changed and move to leave with some organ inside me displaced and maybe in a new area of ​​my body (laughs). And I want people to see themselves in this family. Either you see yourself, or you’re able to leave some trauma.

I’m focusing on just having this story [and] having more people see this undocumented Mexican family. I would love to inspire other Mexican American kids to see themselves, to engage and to know that their stories are worth telling and that people want to see them. We deserve human rights, and part of that human right is having our stories told.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

“I would love to inspire other Mexican American kids to see themselves, to engage and to know that their stories are worth telling and that people want to see them,” playwright Victor I. Cazares said.