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Raul Castillo's 'Maiden' voyage
NUNN ON ONE: THEATER Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2014-07-08

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Raul Castillo latest endeavor brings him to Chicago, starring in Death and the Maiden, in which he plays Gerardo Escobar. The co-star of HBO's Looking has appeared on several other television shows, such as Blue Bloods, Law and Order, and Nurse Jackie.

He's been in independent films like Don't Let Me Drown, My Best Day, and Cold Weather. His theater background is very extensive including The Way West, A Lifetime Burning, and Jesus Hopped the A Train.

This now leads him to Victory Gardens' most recent production. Death and the Maiden was written by Ariel Dorfman; it tells the story of Paulina Salas—a former political prisoner played by now-former Grey's Anatomy star Sandra Oh—who was raped by a doctor whose face she never saw. The doctor played Schubert's Death and the Maiden during the rape, hence the title.

Windy City sat down with the straight man to get the inside scoop on "Death" and Looking.

Windy City Times: Hi, Raul. Tell me about your background.

Raul Castillo: I am originally from a small border town in southern Texas. I went to [Boston University] for undergrad. I studied theater there.

WCT: Talk a bit about the show to those who are not familiar with it.

Raul Castillo: It's by a Chilean playwright but not necessarily is set in Chile. It could be any country that has just come out of a dictatorship. It deals with the lives of a couple, a woman who has dealt with some of the atrocities that have occurred under the dictatorship. The play was written in 1990, it was right after Augusto Pinochet had completely given up power. The country was now in the transition of a democracy. They were trying to make sense of what had happened. It is essentially what the play is about.

WCT: It's a heavy show.

Raul Castillo: It is not light fare, for sure! [Laughs]

WCT: What do you like about your character?

Raul Castillo: He's trying to do the right thing. He's been appointed to a commission that has been investigating murders that were committed under the dictatorship. He's dealing with the bureaucracy that is the government to try to look into the crimes that were committed, specifically the deaths that were committed during the dictatorship. He's conflicted because his wife who is a survivor and a victim of torture and rape. He's investigating these crimes so he feels he's very much in the middle.

I appreciate his strong convictions and he's very ambitious.

WCT: Are you an ambitious guy?

Raul Castillo: I think so. I go through bouts of both but when I set out to do something early on I think I stick with it.

WCT: I've heard about the theater companies that you have been [with] in New York.

Raul Castillo: I'm a member of a theater company called LAByrinth. It started in 1992 and was founded by 13 actors from New York.

It was right when Death and the Maiden was produced on Broadway with Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman. This was before my time but these Latino actors felt a little undervalued in the industry. Here comes a play written by a Chilean playwright and they couldn't even get into that play, so they created opportunities for themselves.

It started as a playground for Latino actors and has become very multicultural throughout the years. It was under the directorship of John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman for many years. They stepped down a few years back and it has gone through some changes. It is a huge multi disciplinary ensemble. There are designers, writers [and] directors, and everyone is encouraged to try different disciplines.

I'm a playwright as well. I came into the company right after I moved to New York. I first started with them as a writer. I got my equity card on a Jose Rivera play called School of Americas at the Public Theater that was a coproduction with Labyrinth.

I just worked with a Latino theater company called INTAR in New York that is a great institution. They have been around for a long time and doing great stuff right now.

WCT: That is important to have Latino-supportive theater companies around. They have a few in Chicago, also.

Raul Castillo: Yes; I did a play with Teatro Vista two years ago called Fish Men at the Goodman. It was a wonderful experience just being in Chicago. The audiences here are used to going to see theater. They ask intelligent questions during the Q&As. They really probe and listen to the plays. They are interested in what the playwright is saying. It is exciting to be an actor and play here.

WCT: Tell me about working with Sandra Oh on this particular show.

Raul Castillo: It has been a real pleasure. She is such a hard worker. I have learned so much from her every day just watching her with her process.

I actually met her when I was doing School of the Americas at the Public Theater and she was in a play called Satellites, also at the Public. We shared a green room. I was just starting out but I reminded her of that when we starting working together.

She is amazing, [as is] John Judd. He's an incredible actor. I enjoy watching the two of them.

A friend of mine gave me advice that I have never forgotten which is, "You always want to be the least experienced person in the room." I feel like that here. It is an incredible gift. I get to watch some incredible people and rise to the occasion.

WCT: Good advice. How long have you been in theater?

Raul Castillo: I have been doing it since high school. I started at 14. I used to play in punk-rock bands. I played bass. I didn't play sports and grew up in Texas so that was tough. I was transitioning to high school and needed an elective. People liked actors and they were popular so I hoped to make friends like that. It seemed like a fun thing to do. Getting up on stage already felt natural to me. I was playing in front of audiences when I was only 11 years old when I started music.

WCT: There are great bands across the street at Lincoln Hall.

Raul Castillo: That is good to know!

WCT: Did you see the film version of Death and the Maiden?

Raul Castillo: I saw it when it came out but not since. This was a very influential play for myself. My friend Tanya Saracho introduced me to this play. She is at the Goodman [and] Steppenwolf, and a staff writer on Looking. I have known her since we were in high school and, coincidently, we wound up working together.

As a writer people tell me that I write good female roles. Paulina in this play has been damaged but has incredible license and authority. She takes power into her own hands. I think it was exciting to see a female character like that because there aren't that many.

I did see the movie early on but I don't remember much and didn't want to re-atch it. I wanted to start fresh.

WCT: How did you get on HBO's Looking?

Raul Castillo: Michael Lannan, the creator of Looking, saw me in a film I did called Cold Weather and he reached out through mutual friends. He was doing a short film called Lorimer that was essentially the prototype for Looking. I read the script and thought the character was really great. It was a short film—only nine minutes. It was well-written and I liked Michael's aesthetic. We shot the film in a day in Brooklyn in 2010. He called me up in 2012 and asked me to try for Looking. I went and auditioned. I got passed on. I thought I didn't have the part then they called me a month later to tell me I got it.

There are two Latino characters with Agustin, which Frankie J. Alvarez plays, and Richie, the character that I ended up playing. I got a phone call from Michael asking to put myself on tape. I sent it on Friday and got a text on Sunday asking me to come in the next day to the New York casting office. They put me through the ringer! I got the part and it has been a real dream come true since then.

I've done my fair share of guest stars and independent film but this feels like the most high profile thing I have done and it is. I couldn't ask for a better character to take on.

WCT: I bet if you hit the gay bars people will recognize you.

Raul Castillo: [Laughs] I live in Hell's Kitchen in New York so it is fun.

WCT: I heard you wrote a coming-out letter to your family about the project.

Raul Castillo: Yes, when I shot the pilot I sent an email because I wanted to prepare them. I knew they would have my back and that wouldn't change but I wanted to have the dialogue to help them in the process, not that they needed it. I thought it was a good way to start the conversation.

They were so receptive and supportive as they always are.

WCT: There will be a season two?

Raul Castillo: Yes. We go back in August to San Francisco.

WCT: So you only have a little break after the 20th of July [when Death and the Maiden's run ends]?

Raul Castillo: Yeah; I will go to New York for a little bit and work on a film or two, then go and shoot the show.

WCT: Do you know anything about this season?

Raul Castillo: No, I don't. They are in the writer's room right now. I just saw everyone this past weekend. I flew out to L.A. I was given an award by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. It was for a breakthrough performance and dedicated to Lupe Ontiveros, the late actress who was in a ton of movies. She opened a lot of doors for Latino actors in the entertainment industry. She passed away in 2012.

The Lupe Award was created in her honor to recognize breakthrough performances. It was the second year they had given out the award and I got it. HBO bought two tables so I got to see Michael Lannan, producers, writers like my friend Tanya, who I mentioned. It was all very sweet of them. It is like a family unit just like this play where everyone is on the same page. People check their egos at the door and go to work!

Look for Raul at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., as Death and the Maiden has now been extended to July 20. For tickets, call 773-871-3000 or email tickets@victorygardens.org .


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