This past week was memorable for the military. We celebrated Veteran’s Day, the 247th birthday of the US Marine Corps, and the Houston premiere of Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” which opened the 2022 Houston Cinema Arts Festival. The film is an autobiographical account of Bratton’s life as a young, gay, Black man who enlists in the Marines after being rejected by his mother. Jeremy Pope delivers an emotional performance as Ellis French, the character modeled after Bratton, with a first-rate Gabrielle Union as the mother who would rather see her son homeless than accept his sexuality.

Actor and playwright Raúl Castillo, a Texas native born in McAllen, plays a pivotal role in “The Inspection” as Marine Corp drill instructor Rosales who never gives up on French as he faces adversity from his fellow recruits and commanding officer Laws (veteran actor Bokeem Woodbine) for being gay. This was during the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era.

The role of Rosales, according to Bratton, always belonged to Castillo, “It’s always been his part. I’ve never seen anyone else in that role besides Raúl.” Four years ago, the writer-director approached Castillo at the Tribeca Film Festival and told him that he had a role for him. The conversation lasted 20 seconds but when Castillo arrived on the set after being cast in the film, he told Bratton he remembered their conversation.

In 2018 I reviewed Jeremiah Zagar’s narrative debut “We the Animals” a beautiful yet volatile coming-of-age story that stars Castillo as Puerto Rican father Paps who walks out on his family while his young son deals with his emerging queer sexuality. LGBTQ themes are nothing new for Castillo who played a gay character in HBO’s “Looking” as closeted barber Richie Ventura, and will soon star opposite Gael García Bernal in “Cassandro” the story of the gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who became known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” Castillo, however, is not gay, in fact, he’s engaged to costume designer Alexis Forte, the two live in Brooklyn.

Earlier this year, Castillo appeared in Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” as a lawyer named Joseph who is engaged to Dakota Johnson’s character Domino. It’s a role not centered on the actor’s ethnicity, and there have been many, “Mother / Android” to name another. Still, I spoke with Castillo about roles for Latinos, growing up in McAllen, and playing Rosales in “The Inspection” which officially opens in theaters on December 2.

You’ve appeared in several mainstream films including Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” and Guy Ritchie’s “Wrath of Man” but you are well known for appearing in smaller independent films, human dramas with real emotional connections, such as “The Inspection.” Does being a playwright as well as an actor influence the roles you choose?

Absolutely. Coming up in the theater, I’m drawn to writers. I used to be an avid reader, but now I primarily read scripts, but I do appreciate authors whether they are playwrights, novelists, or essayists. I like a good story first and foremost and I’m drawn to original voices. Whether it’s on the scale of something like Zack Snyder or Guy Ritchie or acutely drawn projects like “We the Animals” and “The Inspection.”

I understand that you were drawn to acting at an early age but eventually found your voice as a writer. In fact, you started your career primarily as a writer. Why sidestep acting?

I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in the pantheon of storytelling as an actor. The writing process is very lonely. You’re very isolated as a writer and my favorite part of the playwriting process was always getting into the rehearsal space with the actors and director and the collaborative portion of the process. I’ve always been a storyteller in one form or another, I just didn’t think that someone like me, especially living on the Texas-Mexico border, being a first-generation kid, I didn’t see a place for myself in the film industry.

So, what changed your mind?

I found acting addictive and once I started, I couldn’t stop doing it. It was the connection with the audience, whether on stage or through films, that brought me back. I did my first short in Austin with my buddy Miguel Alvarez when I was 22 years old. I remember going to see it at festivals and when people would respond to the work in a positive way it reminded me of the connection you establish with audiences in the theater. I just wanted to continue acting whether it was on film or on stage. It was just addictive, that connection with the audience.

Getting back to your interest in acting at an early age, let’s talk about being a teenager in McAllen where you found yourself enrolling in the high school drama club.

I had to pick an elective my freshman year and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was already interested in performing, having played in local bands in McAllen, so I thought getting on stage to act would be a fun, and a great way to perform. I started doing plays and then monologues, duets, poetry, and prose, in school competitions. I traveled with the high school to Kingsville, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Austin, where I went my sophomore year for state competitions and one-act plays. I did a production of “I Remember Mama” that we took all the way to state. My drama teacher told me I was playing a role that Marlon Brando had originated on Broadway and I asked, “Who’s Marlon Brando?” “He’s the Godfather, right?” That special experience cemented my love of the craft.

In “The Inspection” you play drill sergeant Rosales, one of my favorite characters in the film. He’s a good person. He isn’t prejudiced and feels empathy for French, but at the same time, he must maintain a tough Marine exterior. Rosales is walking a tightrope by doing his job, keeping Laws satisfied, and holding the respect of the recruits while doing whatever he can to help French battle discrimination and prejudice. It’s such a complex character, what was going through your head while playing Rosales?

I wanted to honor Elegance’s story. It’s drawn from his own personal experience of getting kicked out of his home as a young man because of his sexuality, being homeless for 10 years, and then enlisting in the Marines after seeing no way out. The Marines gave him a chance at life, so this story is incredibly personal to him. I think it’s safe to say that I speak for the rest of the cast by saying we all wanted to honor and pay respects to his story.

Can you describe the actor-director relationship during the filming of “The Inspection”?

Elegance was great. I’ve never had this kind of experience. He brought his entire self as an artist to this process. He was very vulnerable during the making of the film. It felt deeply personal, and I could turn to him anytime for advice, being the greatest expert on the story. So that was an incredible honor. As an actor, you look for collaborators who will meet you halfway. That’s when you have the potential to make something original, really incredible. I read the screenplay and had no doubt that I wanted to be a part of it. I worked with Elegance, Booking, Gabrielle, and Jeremy every step of the way. This cast is just stacked. It’s an incredible group of people. We all wanted to tell this story. We became very protective of it.

How did you train for the role? Did you go through boot camp?

We had a military advisor on the set, Marine drill instructor Octaya Jones. We had a couple of weeks to train with her before we started shooting in Jackson Mississippi. It was a great privilege. She was on set working with Bokeem, Nick, and myself, getting us into shape. She also worked with the young recruits to get them ready for the weeks to come when we were shooting. We were running drills to make sure we would honor the physicality and vocal quality of these characters. Octaya was instrumental in helping us build our characters as drill instructors.

Is it hard for Latin actors to find good roles? You seem to be blessed to have played such wonderful complex Latin characters.

It’s certainly tricky because we must push the industry to think outside of the box. That’s what was so exciting about a role like my character in “Cha Cha Real Smooth”. Joseph is a lawyer. We don’t really know much more about him other than his profession. I did a movie called “Mother / Android” where I played a survivalist-scientist in the woods named Arthur. Those characters are not rooted in ethnicity. but I’ve also been on shows like “Vida” and in movies like “El Chicano” where ethnicity is very much a part of the character. I’m proud that I’ve been able to play roles that straddle those two things, but I think we need to continue to push the industry to think outside of the box when they are casting people of color and Latinos. We represent a huge number of the movie-going audience and yet we are not seeing that reflected in the roles that we play on screen. It’s time for that to change.

Agreed. Speaking of Latin roles, I’m excited about your next project, “Cassandro” opposite Gael García Bernal as the iconic exótico luchador. “Amores perros” is one of my favorite films and I think it will be exciting to see both of you together in the film.

We shot in Mexico City which was a dream come true. My family is from Valle Hermoso (Tamaulipas) right across the border from McAllen. My dad always talked about the stars of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and its rich cinematic history. So, going to Mexico to make a film was an absolute joy. I was just down at the Austin Film Festival supporting “The Inspection” a couple of weeks ago and it reminded me of seeing “Amores perros “when it debuted at the festival a little over 20 years ago. I was blown away by that movie and Gael García Bernal’s performance. I remember watching that movie and thinking, “I want to work with him someday” so I have to thank the director Roger Ross Williams for making that dream come true. Although we shot” Cassandro” in Mexico City, the story takes place in El Paso and Juarez so it is a Texas story. I’m excited for Texas audiences to see themselves on screen.

Raúl I’m going to leave you with this thought, El Santo. It’s up to you to bring the story of the Mexican luchador and actor to the big screen.

That would be amazing. [laughs] That would be so cool.

“The Inspection” was featured as the opening night film at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. The film officially opens in theaters on December 2.

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.