Frankie J Alvarez of HBO’s ‘Looking’ on Playing a Latino Character That Doesn’t Have an Accent

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Twitter: @infoCinelandia

Not since Queer as Folk has there been a prime-time television show centered on the lives of a group of gay men. That puts a lot of pressure on HBO’s new San Francisco-set series Looking. Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, the creators behind Looking didn’t attempt to make a gay show and don’t want it pigeonholed that way. Haigh told Hollywood Reporter:

“It’s an inevitable thing. People like to define things and pigeonhole things. For me, it’s absolutely about these three gay people, and we’re not embarrassed or ashamed of that; we want to explore those things. But obviously, it’s more than just about being gay. I don’t mind if someone calls it a gay show, but I wouldn’t want that to limit the audience because it offers a lot more than just that. It’s just a show with gay people, which is slightly different than calling it a gay show. It doesn’t necessarily put people off, but it does make it sound like it’s all about being gay. And we never wanted it to be an issue-based show — it’s just about the lives of these characters.”

Got it people? It is not a gay show. It’s not a gay Girls and it’s not a gay Sex and the City like it’s been called. It’s so much more than that. I previewed two episodes and I’m hooked. It’s more authentic than Queer as Folk, it’s more diverse than Girls, and it’s got more depth than Sex and the City.

Looking focuses on three friends living in San Francisco: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer with adorable blue eyes, Dom (Murray Bartlett) a mustachioed waiter in his late-thirties and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a Cuban-American artist who is considering moving across the bridge to Oakland because, duh, the rent is cheaper (and his boyfriend lives there.)

Whether they are grabbing drinks at El Rio, walking past the historic Castro Theater, riding muni, talking to a cute bouncer at Esta Noche or lamenting that, “This whole city is overrun with overrated cupcakes and kimchi tacos” the city of San Francisco gets its time to shine too. Shots of the Bay Bridge lit up at night and panoramic views of fog rolling into the city are a testament to why people still live in S.F. despite its dot-com-fueled gentrification and skyrocketing rents.

The incredibly beautiful (and foggy) backdrop together with likable characters and writing that is grounded in realism make Looking a breath of fresh air. And it’s funny! When Patrick sends a potential date a winky face emoji via chat his co-worker asks him, “What are you a Japanese teenager?” (His co-worker is Japanese.) When Agustin gets called racist he retorts, “I can’t be racist, I’m Latino.” His roommate responds, “You’re from Coral Gables.” It’s a dig that subtly brings up the intersection of race and class.

Hot off the show’s premiere this past Sunday, I chatted with Frankie J. Alvarez who plays Agustin. We talked about Hollywood stereotypes, going out to gay bars and eating burritos as “research,” and how he convinced the show’s producers to let him play a Latino character that doesn’t have an accent.

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Where are you from?

I am from Miami, Florida. I’m first-generation American; both of my parents are from Cuba.

What city do you call home?

I’ve called NYC home for the past 8 years.

When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?

There were several “aha!” moments for me that were signifiers that I should make a career out of what was just an acting hobby, but I think the clearest for me was during my sophomore year at Florida State University. I was a Creative Writing major and I was working on my second show as part of the School of Theatre’s season: Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “The Illusion”. It’s a beautiful play about the power of theatre as catharsis. That personal rehearsal process, coupled with observing and learning from the stellar work of my older cast mates, was so rewarding and inspirational for me, and I realized then that I wanted to make the theatre my home. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Bachelor of Fine Arts program there, and I never looked back.

How did the opportunity to work on Looking come to you?

I graduated from Juilliard in 2010 and bounced around in the regional theatre, working with some exceptional artists around the country. In the winter of 2012, I found myself working on “The Whipping Man” at Actors Theatre of Louisville in KY. In a crazy twist of fate, it turns out that Carmen Cuba, Looking‘s casting director, asked her friend Boaz to ask his dad to recommend some young actors who’ve graduated from Juilliard recently. His dad Moni Yakim was my movement teacher at school, and he put my name on the list. I originally sent in tapes for Richie, Patrick’s boy as the show begins, but then I got asked to send in tapes for Agustin. After those tapes, and a few chemistry reads and screen tests, I was cast. It was a tremendous blessing to start 2013 by working on my first TV show!

It’s totally refreshing to see varied portrayals of Latinos on the show (versus the Hollywood stereotypes.) How much input did you have on the development of your character?

It’s very refreshing to see these varied portrayals of Latinos; I agree. We are blessed to be surrounded by such willing collaborators on the show; while Michael and Andrew are in charge, they are incredible listeners and are open to ideas. In fact, all 3 friends were based on people that Michael knew. Early on, Agustin was Venezuelan, had an accent, and was trying to figure out his green card situation. After they cast me in the part, Michael and I had a chat about using some of my innate personal characteristics to our advantage in the show. I am an articulate, well-educated Latin man, and I thought it would be interesting to tell that story; we don’t get to see it often enough in TV and on film. We have seen so many stories about Latinos trying to learn how to be American, or learning to survive despite the cultural divide, but there are a lot of us who classify ourselves as bicultural and have thrived in America by embracing both sides of the coin, thanks to the position of success afforded us by the sacrifices made by our immigrant parents. I identify as both Cuban and American, I listen to salsa and alternative rock, I speak English and Spanish. So, it made sense for us to have Agustin represent a new generation of Latino. Plus, you’ll come to see that both Richie and Agustin’s various feelings toward race and class will come to a head as these two are a big part of Patrick’s life in season one, and intersect in exciting ways.

Any funny or memorable stories from the set?

There are tons of funny and memorable stories from the set; the cast and crew were very close and we found ourselves hanging out at various hot spots in SF on our nights and weekends off. We went to Karaoke at the Mint several times, and our incredible Director of Photography Reed Morano does the most captivating version of Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”. She elevates karaoke into high art; it’s surreal.

I am going to assume you fell in love with San Francisco while shooting there (I’m from the Bay Area). What is your favorite part of the city?

I adored SF: the architecture, the delicious food, its citizens and their commitment to fitness and living productive, healthy lives. I lived in the Lower Haight and I loved every second of it. The people are so open and alive, and there is a brilliant sense of community – I can’t wait to go back!

Did you do any “research” and head out to bars in the Castro before the shoot or to watch drag shows at Esta Noche in the Mission?

Sure! Jonathan, Murray, and I spent a lot of time together in the city, grabbing burritos or Blue Bottle coffee. We found ourselves at a lot of gay bars in the city (Esta Noche, El Rio, The Stud) and some of it was conscious on our part in terms of building chemistry and becoming more familiar with the city, but mostly we just love each other and the city, so it never felt like “research” or “work”.

When the trailer was first released by HBO there was some push back from people who thought the show lacked diversity. What was your reaction to that initial criticism?

My reaction to that criticism, honestly, was utter shock. This is an incredibly diverse cast and our show deals with various issues of race and class in an engaging yet natural way. People were making a rash judgement based on 1.5 mins of footage, yet we filmed 4 hours of solid storytelling. I think they’ll see the folly of their critical ways as they invest in the show throughout the season.

What’s next for you?

I’m in NYC, hoping to continue working on exciting projects. I haven’t done a professional play in NY so that’s a big goal of mine. In the meantime, my best friend Nick Choksi and I are collaborating with some exciting artists in the city on a part-play, part-concert theatrical event about an indie band who made it big 10 years ago and are now reuniting for a one-night only event. We are in the process of development with Ars Nova and are stoked to share it with people this year. Our band is Those Lost Boys; check us out on twitter: @thoselostboys5