For two seasons HBO’s Looking offered us two of most fascinating contemporary portrayals of queer Latinos on American television. Understandably, fans mostly fawned over Richie — Raúl Castillo’s bashful smile is pretty irresistible. But we might do better by singing the praises of the other Latino in the cast.
While initially conceived to be a Venezuelan guy with an accent struggling to get his green card, the role of Agustín was eventually tailored to be more like the actor who plays him. Frankie J. Alvarez, who is Cuban-American, previously told Remezcla about how he’d collaborated with the show’s creators to make Agustín a type of Latino character we rarely get to see on TV. Here he would be an unaccented artistic first-generation Cuban-American whose storyline would be informed but not restricted to his heritage.
Two seasons later, in a feature-length HBO special presentation that will double as the show’s farewell, Alvarez’s character feels all the more refreshing. Once an emotional mess who’d sabotaged his long-term relationship with his boyfriend — a breakup that sent him into a self-destructive spiral — the premise of the film finds him about to get hitched to his newfound love. It’s the type of role any actor would cherish and Alvarez is no exception – especially since, as he admitted to us, he’s still called in to read for parts that require him to put on an accent.
Ahead of Looking: The Movie’s premiere, and before he heads to Princeton as part of Nilo Cruz’z new play Bathing in the Moonlight, Remezcla chatted with Alvarez about the show’s amazing journey, how he coped with strong reactions to his character, and his hope for Latino actors in the industry. Find some highlights from our conversation below.
On Screening ‘Looking: The Movie’ During San Francisco Pride
We had a family and friends screening in April. And I was just floored. I thought everybody brought their A-game. And [director] Andrew [Haigh] is such an expert. I just thought the storytelling was just beautiful from start to finish. I cried several times. I loved it — obviously, I’m biased. But what was interesting is that we closed Frameline and it was on Pride and we encountered a few fans here and there who were so excited. But mostly here we were in San Francisco where the show began and where we had such a rich history with the show, and here they are with this huge Pride celebration.
I’ve been in New York for 10 years and I’ve been at Pride every year. I love it. But there’s something about it in San Francisco—it was just raucous. It kind of amped us all up. It gave us a jolt. So to have the premiere follow that was amazing. And most of our audience, most of the 1400 LGBT men and women who were our audience had been out and about celebrating that day. So I think they brought that kind of raucous, outdoor spirit into the Castro. So yeah, the screening was riotous and we had a few “Awww”s during the movie, so that was good.
On Revisiting The Film After Orlando
For me, after what happened at Pulse, to watch those couple of scenes in the club it hit me in a different way than when I’d watched it in April. Just thinking about what those guys were going through that night. Some of them were breaking up. Some of them were getting together. Some of them were meeting for the first time. Some of them were just there to have a couple of drinks and just dance out their worries. And to think that some kind of fucking lunatic can come in there and disrupt that show of love with tremendous hatred is horrible. It’s a scary kind of world we’re living in right now. And what’s so beautiful about the movie is that it is all about the power of love and generosity between friends and between lovers. And I think that’s the only way we can combat hatred is with love.
On Bringing Agustín Out of His Cocoon
“Frankly, after the first season I was really surprised by the vitriol from some of the fans.”
If I had known this is where the character was going to end up, I would’ve said, “Yeah, right!” Where he begins in the pilot, he’s so strident and so self-absorbed. And really, all that tough veneer was masking a lot of insecurities and a big fear of failure that he ends up, instead of dealing with it internally, just lashing out on his friends and on Richie. Through his love with Eddie, that sweet side of him — the guy that probably Frank fell in love years prior to the pilot — that part is reawakened and now he has a better sense of what his function is. Not only within a relationship but within his friends.
The thing that hasn’t changed about Agustín is that he is always bold and always lives his life to the fullest and makes bold choices. But to see him now where he’s at in the film is a tremendous growth process and it was exciting for me. It was pretty easy for fans to judge him in the first season. And I didn’t have the luxury to judge him. Because I’m trying to get into his psyche and figure out what’s going on inside. Frankly, after the first season I was really surprised by the vitriol from some of the fans. But I knew that through subsequent seasons he’d be able to shed that dark cocoon and emerge a beautifully bearded butterfly.
On His Favorite Scene To Shoot For The Film
That scene on top of Indian Rock with Patrick was one of my favorites. It’s kind of what Agustín is going through in the movie. I think it’s a crisis that we can all understand: who I thought I was going to be in my twenties may not be who I am in my thirties. Am I okay with that? That scene where you’re talking to your friend and sharing something that deep and personal and affecting it wasn’t only so relatable, but being able to play that scene with a friend like Jonathan, who has been such a rock for me, somebody who’s so experienced in the industry — this was my first TV show and he really showed me the ropes for a lot of things and really was a great mentor in that way. So to play a scene that mirrors how our friendship has been was a tremendous privilege and I’ll always cherish that day of shooting. Plus, as you can see, it was a gorgeous day in Berkeley.
On Finding Deeper Shades to LGBT Representation
It’s such a diverse community and I think people are hungry for the diverse stories that that community has. Looking was just one of the few of those TV shows that was featuring these characters. I think the demand is greater than the supply. It was totally unfair for us to be labeled [as a show about privileged white gays]. Patrick definitely has a comfortable job but Dom is struggling financially, Richie is struggling financially, so is Agustín. And that’s something that’s very real with twenty- and thirty-year olds who are battling student debt and who are living in San Francisco, which is now the most expensive city in the country because of the tech bubble. These are real problems.
And then within the Latin community, you never see [this type of storyline]; we’re talking about an upper-class Cuban American and a lower-to-middle-class Mexican-American. And usually, if you have two Latino characters, they have to somehow be friends. But here there’s no gangs, and their class and economic difference is a big part of that tension in that first and second season. And that’s just very real, and not many people spoke about that. There are frictions between different types of Latin communities and certainly class warfare happens between all kinds of cultures. I feel really privileged that we were able to tell those kinds of stories with that kind of special specificity.
On The Challenges of Being A Latino Actor (Yes, Still)
“I still feel like the ‘z’ on my last name puts me in a box.”
It’s all pretty new to me because this is my first big role. I’ve certainly, because of Looking, gotten into some rooms and auditioned for some great characters, but I still feel like the “z” on my last name puts me in a box. More often than not I’m auditioning for a character who has an accent. And that just hasn’t been my experience as a first-generation Cuban-American. I have a Cuban background and I have a Cuban name but I was born in America and I don’t have any sort of discernible accent. And yet, this is the box the industry has put me in.
I think that that’s my problem as an actor. Every actor at the beginning of his career gets put into a box, and then you either get put into that box because that’s all you can do or you have to break out of that box to show the range that you have. That’s my challenge now. It would be great to live in a world where a guy named Frankie Alvarez can play a guy named John Smith. I think we’re getting there. But, you know, there’s still more steps and if it’s not me, hopefully one of my brothers of my generation or the next generation will take up that baton and move it forward.
‘Looking: The Movie’ premieres July 23rd on HBO.