Rio Grande Valley punk rocker makes it big on the silver screen

After growing up near the border in McAllen, Raul Castillo developed a lifelong love of acting and writing plays.

click to enlarge McAllen-born actor Raul Castillo shows off an autographed copy of journalist and writer Maria Hinojosa's latest book. - Instagram / raulcastillo
Instagram / raulcastillo
McAllen-born actor Raul Castillo shows off an autographed copy of journalist and writer Maria Hinojosa's latest book.
This article was originally published by the Texas Observer, a nonprofit investigative news outlet. Sign up for their weekly newsletter, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.”

When Raul Castillo saw Elegance Bratton’s name on the script for The Inspection, it sent him back in time to their last meeting.

Based on the true story of its writer and director, it revolves around Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a young gay Black man who joins the Marines where, despite his obvious physical attributes, he’s subjected to a brutal hazing by instructor Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) and other recruits. 

Seeing Bratton’s name attached to the film sent Castillo on a trip down memory lane. 

“Elegance isn’t the sort of name you forget easily. I went through my texts. I found some from him in 2018. He’d cornered me at a party at the Tribeca Film Festival and told me, ‘I have this script and character that I wrote for you!’ So I gave him my number,” said Castillo, who then never actually responded to Bratton’s messages. 

In Castillo’s defense, he’d been extremely busy during this period. He’d received critical acclaim as an actor, especially for his performances in Cold Weather, We The Animals and El Chicano, as well as for his work in the television shows Looking and Atypical

At the same time, the McAllen-born-and-raised actor had also written various plays that had been performed across the country, too.

Rather than texting Bratton with an apology, Castillo decided to put his audition for The Inspection on tape and send it through the normal channels. Hopefully the filmmaker would still think that he was right for the character of Rosales, even though A24 was now financing the film, and Bratton “probably had access to a lot more talent.”

Bratton only had eyes for Castillo, though, and soon the pair were reminiscing and discussing the script, the character, and his ambition for The Inspection over Zoom.

The Texas Observer recently spoke with Castillo about the timeliness of The Inspection, what he wants audiences to take away from the film, his own writing, as well as his deep connection to our state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you get involved in The Inspection?

I got sent the script in May, 2021. It was really compelling. It was so beautifully written. The character of Ellis French is very universal. I connected with that character first and foremost. He’s really inspiring. Then with my character, Rosales, I’m really interested in characters that defy expectations of masculinity and he really fits into that spectrum. In a unique way, I’ve never played anyone like him.

What stood out about Elegance as a filmmaker?

It was an energy thing. If I feel like this is someone who is going to bring out the best in me, and someone that I can open up with and be vulnerable with, that’s when I do my best work. Even over Zoom, I could sense the sort of person he is. Even from our time at Tribeca, I remembered his energy. When you meet Elegance, he has this very vibrant spirit. It’s really palpable and really infectious. Especially because the story is so deeply personal to him. It’s not strictly autobiographical. But it’s based on his experiences as a recruit in the Marines. It’s based on his experiences of being kicked out for his sexuality at a young age and being homeless for many years. We all felt, as a cast, that we had to honor and protect the story and honor and protect Elegance in the process.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

I hope they’re inspired. It’s a very inspirational story. It is a heavy and dramatic story. But it is also incredibly funny. To me, it’s in the spirit of movies like Rocky. It’s about an underdog. About a person who has everything stacked against them, and then they overcome all these odds and adversity to achieve their goals. It’s even a story about this young man searching for the love and respect of his mother. In the end, though, he learns to love and respect himself. I think that’s incredibly universal.

Talk to me about being from Texas.

I was born in McAllen, Texas. My family still lived in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, right across the border. When I was born, my parents knew they wanted to raise my brother, my sister and I in the United States, so my dad was already working in Edinburg, Texas. He’d commute there every day. I always equate it to living in New Jersey and commuting into Manhattan. We lived a very cross-border life. My entire childhood and adolescence. I went to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic school and later to McAllen High School. Go Bulldogs. 

What do you remember about getting into movies and first becoming interested in acting and writing?

I was playing in bands from 12 years old. I played bass. My brother played guitar. So I was playing local punk rock shows. There’s a bigger music scene down in the Rio Grande Valley now than when I was a kid. Now it’s quite sophisticated. Then, when I was transferring from Catholic school to public school, I had to pick an elective. I chose drama. I thought it was a good opportunity to get on stage and act like a maniac. I was already doing it in the punk rock scene. There were a couple of films that were really influential, especially The Outsiders. There was talk about my high school doing it as a play. I wanted to play Dallas, the Matt Dillon role. That’s what got me into theater.

Film was actually something that I never imagined myself doing. That came later when I went to Austin. I actually went to college in Boston. To Bridgewater State University, to study playwriting. I started writing plays because I didn’t think someone like myself could be an actor. After that I went to Austin for a few years. I saw an ad in the Austin Chronicle, looking for an alt-type Latino for a short film. We actually went to a bunch of festivals with it that summer. Then I moved to New York and became obsessed with film.

What did you want to achieve as a writer?

The first writer who had a profound influence on me was Miguel Pinero. He wrote about his experiences in the New York incarceration system. His play Short Eyes and his poetry electrified me. They opened my eyes to the fact that you could put Spanglish in a play. I was reading Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams, and the sort of typical high school theater fare. I’m a huge Tennessee Williams fan, but that’s what I was reading at the time. So when I started writing plays, I knew I wanted to write about what I know. Every playwright that I love, whether it’s Williams, August Wilson, Langston Hughes, Anton Chekhov. They all write about their location so specifically. I wanted to write about South Texas. I wanted to write about the border. I wanted to write about characters that you don’t see on the American stage often. That was really interesting and important to me.

How has being from this state impacted your creative voice?

I come from a really tight-knit family. My parents instilled into me and my siblings a real work ethic and a real value system. My dad was always adamant about us having respect and treating everyone the same, no matter what their position in life was. I think that you can say that for the people of the Rio Grande Valley as a whole. People are very hard working down there near the border. It’s a very unique place. It took me leaving to really appreciate that. When you come from a small town, you just want to get out. You just want to explore, see, and learn about the world. Throughout my life, I’ve never stopped appreciating how special it was to grow up there. I feel like the border, and their communities, in the United States are so often ignored by the rest of the country. They’re often marginalized. That makes us scrappy. I have a lot of friends from the Rio Grande Valley who are in the film and entertainment industry. Being from down there gave us a lot of character. It taught us to fight for what we want.

What are you working on next?

I have a film coming out in the New Year, called Cassandro, by Roger Ross Williams. It’s based on a short documentary that he did for the New Yorker. It’s about a lucha libre, who was called the "Liberace of Lucha." He’s the first out queer lucha libre, who actually wins. He’s got a really fascinating life story. There’s a film called Miguel Wants To Fight, which will be on Hulu. It’s written by Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion. That’s a really fun, wacky comedy.

No matter what the genre is, no matter what the style is, I want to continue to work with directors who are here to tell stories that are saying something about the world that we live in. I think we need those.

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