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Q&A: Actor and Texas native Raúl Castillo talks Spider House, 'Wrath of Man,' 'Looking'

On working with Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham: 'When the script came to me and I had the opportunity to audition, it was a no-brainer'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Raúl Castillo stars as Sam in director Guy Ritchie's "Wrath of Man." The actor spent some time in Austin early in his career.

To answer a possible question in advance, which might occur when you're watching the latest Guy Ritchie-Jason Statham gangster flick: Yes, you did see actor Raúl Castillo at Spider House back in the day.

Castillo, 43, was born and raised in McAllen, and he made his way to Austin early in his acting career. He worked at the Fruth Street café for a bit, yes, but he also cut his teeth on the stage and screen while living here.

"Austin, I was only there for three years, but it really was very foundational in my life as a storyteller," Castillo told the American-Statesman over the phone earlier this week.

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Of course, you have plenty of other reasons to recognize the talented actor and playwright. Among plenty of other TV roles, he played dreamy San Francisco barber Richie in HBO's "Looking" for two seasons. The character, a gay man estranged from his father, romances series star Jonathan Groff's character Patrick in a starcrossed love story that was resolved in in the show's 2016 spin-off movie.

Then in 2018, he played Paps, the volatile father of three boys, in critically acclaimed indie drama "We the Animals," based on the Justin Torres novel. The role nabbed him an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Now, Castillo plays Sam in "Wrath of Man," another twisty and ultraviolent crime tale from British director Ritchie and action star Statham. Full of shifts in both timeline and perspective, the film finds Statham's character, called H, working on an armored truck crew. He soon proves himself mysteriously overqualified (and lethal) in the art of theft prevention. Castillo's character is part of a band of robbers that crosses paths with H ... and would you look at that, it seems not to be the first time.

"Wrath of Man," based on the 2004 French film "Cash Truck," is out in theaters on Friday. Soon, you'll also be able to catch Castillo in Zach Snyder's "Army of the Dead," which he was filming in New Orleans right as the pandemic struck last year. Filming finished in the fall, and it hits Netflix on May 21.

We caught up with Castillo to talk about Texas memories, past roles and working with a "cinematic legend." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Raul Castillo attends the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards. The actor was born and raised in McAllen and found acclaim for roles in "Looking" and "We the Animals."

American-Statesman: I thought we would start at the beginning — of your life. You're from Texas, that right?

Raúl Castillo: That's right. My parents are from Reynosa, in Tamaulipas right across the border. Me and my siblings were all born in McAllen. We all graduated from McAllen High School.

What was it like growing up there? 

It was wonderful. The Valley has grown a lot in my lifetime, but when I was a kid, it was very much small-town, a very tight-knit community. It's where I learned to be a creative person, early on through music. I played in various punk rock bands in McAllen. Then I discovered theater in high school, and that became another outlet for me, and eventually what would draw me out Texas when I went to Boston University as an undergrad.

But speaking of the border, the border was very porous, certainly more than it is now, so I grew up going back and forth a lot. Certainly being so close to Mexico was such a privilege, you know, that I cherish, now having friends who are also byproducts of immigration, but perhaps whose home countries are significantly further away. I've grown up with Mexico literally in my backyard. 

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I did see that you spent some time in Austin, and a birdie told me that you worked at Spider House. That was the place to be when I was in high school and college. 

Totally!

Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of impression Austin made on you as a person?

When I graduated from Boston University, I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go. A lot of my friends were going to LA, a lot were going to New York, and I was sort of a little undecided, a little unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I had friends that were producing theater in Austin at the time, and doing comedy shows, you know, all kinds of stuff. ... 

And so, I decided to move to Austin. My brother (Tony) still lives in Austin, so that was a big reason, to have family there. ... We started working on this theater company, and we started by producing works by Latino writers, writers like Octavio Solis and María Irene Fornés, doing plays at the Santa Cruz on East Seventh. (Castillo also says he worked on "La Pastorela" and "Blade to the Heat" at the Mexican American Cultural Center.) It was where I learned the kind of storyteller I wanted to be, I think.

It was also where I did my first short film ("Abuela's Home"). I saw an ad in the (Austin Chronicle for) casting a short film. ...  I went into audition for my now good friend, Miguel Alvarez. It was my first time acting on camera. They shot it on 16mm, so I actually worked with film, which I now realize was such a such a gift early on.

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With "Wrath of Man," it's the kind of twisty tale you'd expect from Guy Ritchie. What about this project specifically was enticing?

I mean, Guy Ritchie, at the end of the day. I'm such a fan of his films, from "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" to "RocknRolla" to "Snatch." I love what he does with actors. I love what actors do in his arena. So many of the performances in those films have been so influential in my own work. So when the script came to me and I had the opportunity to audition, it was a no-brainer for me.

I've done a lot of things that I'm very proud of — I want to work with the greats. I want to work with the directors that are out there and they're at the top of the game. I think Guy is one of those directors. He's a cinematic legend, and I decided I wanted to be part of that universe.

From left, Raúl Castillo as Sam, Deobia Oparei as Brad, Jeffrey Donovan as Jackson, Chris Reilly as Tom, Laz Alonso as Carlos and Scott Eastwood as Jan in "Wrath of Man."

And a "Jason Statham movie" has a very particular association with it. 

Completely! And to see the two of them come together after, like, 15 years. The public, we learned of Jason through Guy's films, in "Lock Stock." He became who he is, I think, in those movies. So to be a fly on the wall, to be able to watch those guys work, it was thrilling, for sure.

I loved "Looking." Richie is kind of the best person on the show, you know, he's a very likable guy. How did you go about creating that character?

"Looking" was a turning point in my life — both in my creative life, but also I think in my life just as a human being. I needed a character like Richie badly. I needed to have a muse, just for my creative health, I needed a character to kind of dive into that was special. That was such a great gift, that whole project. Those are friends of mine to this day. I see Jonathan Groff all the time. ... It was a small audience, but it was an audience that really cared. People were really invested in the show.

Now people are discovering it, like young people who have access to HBO for the first time and are old enough to watch the show. ... It's so cool to get messages from fans. You know, I was at the market the other day here in New York, and the guy behind the deli counter kind of waved me over. I got close, and he wanted to whisper something to me, and he said, "'Looking,' right?" And I was like "Yeah!" (laughs) And I had a mask on! I was so moved.

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In "We the Animals," you played a character who is so markedly different from Richie — much more macho, and has a much more aggressive energy, not the same but maybe a little bit closer to your character in "Wrath of Man." What do you access as an actor to tap those roles that have a rage?

I think coming from the border, being a kid who was born and raised on the border, and then that coupled with being a middle child. There was this incredible yearning to be seen and heard. There's something about being on a film set, working with a camera. I feel like I can show the camera every part of me and it won't judge. It will see me and embrace me. ...

Also, just to kind of bring it back to "Looking," I often wondered if Richie's dad was like Paps in "We the Animals." I thought about that a lot as we were making the film, because I shot that just after we wrapped the "Looking" film. 

Is that something you have found happens often, where you naturally find the connective tissue between the characters you're becoming?

It depends. ... I didn't study acting. I studied playwriting. So acting, I really learned by doing it. I learned through instinct and experience and watching people that I admire. I like watching other actors work, you know, and that's how I've always worked. I pick up the script. and I just know on a gut level level that it's the right thing for me to do, the right character for me to play. I know when I read something, and if I'm excited about it for personal reasons, I try to listen to what that is. I try to lean into that.

Raúl Castillo's next big movie: "Army of the Dead" on Netflix.

Anything else worth mentioning?

Yeah, I can't wait to be back in Austin. I love the city so much. Being a Valley kid, Austin was always like the big city for us. My sophomore year of high school, we got all the way to state in the UIL one-act play competition. I think it was my first time in Austin, and I remember being on the UT campus. It was my first time to be on a real campus, in a big city, and I think that always had the profound effect on me. I think it was one of the reasons I probably went off to school, was because I had that experience. 

I hope I get to go back and shoot something. I have a lot of friends that have worked on projects in town, and I have friends on "Fear the Walking Dead" and other shows that shoot in Austin. I'm really crossing my fingers that something materializes that I get to shoot there, because I just love that community. It's a wonderful film community, as well. 

Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at ewebb@statesman.com and follow him on Twitter, @webbeditor.