Before Raúl Castillo was an actor, he was a writer. At 18 years old, he wrote a script at Boston University that got him in trouble. The production featured an all-male cast, save one woman. And the woman? On stage for just five minutes. No lines. And the other characters treated her brutally.
“I got a lot of shit for it,” Castillo says with a soft grimace over Zoom. He pushes a few big, dark curls back onto his head and adds, “Rightfully so. I got a lot of shit for it because the portrayal of this particular specific character was really inhumane. I was 18 years old, and I didn’t know much about storytelling. It was an eye-opening experience. I realized I really had to think about the characters that I put on stage, and I had to be thoughtful about who I put on stage and how I put them on stage.”
The brutality wasn’t so much the issue. Brutality is often an ugly evil. It’s those ugly evils–and how we portray them–that define a story.
That moment has been a guiding force for the projects Castillo chooses. His curls flop back down over his forehead as he gets into the details of his role in A24’s new marine drama, The Inspection. Directed by Elegance Bratton, the semi-autobiographical story follows a young man named Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope). Homeless, French enlists in the marines in an attempt to gain some stability in his life, but soon after fellow recruits and drill sergeants piece together that French is gay, boot camp goes from a grueling mandate to an insufferable hell. His saving grace happens to be a handsome, peculiarly warm sergeant by the name of Morales, played by Castillo.
Even over camera, Castillo’s natural warmth translates as he talks about his love of Whataburger–a Texas staple that he humbly submits as the best fast food french fry. His role in The Inspection is his second critically acclaimed turn of the year, following Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, which hit theaters early this summer. But The Inspection could be a career-defining moment for Castillo; he’s already been nominated for a Gotham Award for his performance, and The Inspection has high award-season hopes.
As the Looking actor evolves beyond the roles that helped him break into the industry, it’s the brutal gravitas of The Inspection that tests his mettle. A few days before the film’s release, Castillo joined The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over Zoom to discuss the role.
The Inspection is such a brutal, and deeply personal, watch. When the script first came across your radar, what were your initial thoughts on it?
I read it in one sitting. I love a good underdog story. I was rooting for French from the beginning. I was really taken by the story, first and foremost. Even before I’m thinking about character, I’m thinking about the overall project and who’s involved. And I know Elegance [Bratton] had done some documentaries before, so that was really interesting to me. And I read up a little bit on the story, about it being so personal to him, and that was really attractive as well. Of course, I’ve been wanting to work with A24 for a while now.
Your character Rosales is so interesting because the audience gets about 70 percent of who he is: kind to French, dedicated to the Marines, at odds with his wife. But there’s about 30 percent that’s missing, particularly when it comes to his affinity for French. We don’t know if Rosales might also be gay, or just empathetic. What do you make of him?
I leave it for the audience to interpret that. [laughs] I think that’s the goal with this character. What is the audience going to take away from him? Who exactly is this person?
Watching this, knowing it was based on a true experience, is a bit horrifying. Did you speak with Elegance about the development of this character or the man he was based on?
Rosales is absolutely fictionalized, but he’s a composite of several people that Elegance came across in his time as a Marine, not even just bootcamp. But there was actually a Rosales that the character’s named after that Elegance served with. But there was also a drill instructor that had shades of what the character is. So I think he drew from elements of different people he came across within his career as a Marine. But it wasn’t sourced from one specific person, which is very liberating I think. Even Jeremy [Pope] was given a lot of room to play. He wasn’t playing Elegance. He’s playing Ellis French. As an actor, it’s great to have source material that you draw from, but it’s also exciting when you’re given space to explore and play, and Elegance definitely gave us room to be creative.
In the most liberal sense of the world, there is a palpable intimacy between Rosales and French. How did you bring that to life with Jeremy?
We had a really fun time. Jeremy comes from theater, as do I, and I think we have very similar approaches to the craft. Jeremy was fantastic. He made my job very easy. I just had to be present with him. We had these fun scenes–there’s the reality and then there’s the fantasy scenes–and through them all we had a really great time.
We didn’t interact a whole lot before we started shooting, which was by design. Elegance really wanted to separate the drill instructors and the recruits. So he had Bokeem, Nick Logan, and myself separated from the recruits early on and we didn’t socialize with them a whole lot. Jeremy and I really got to know each other as we were working on our scenes, which was, I think, instrumental in the dynamic. We were like two feral animals getting a sense of each other.
I couldn’t help but notice that so many of the main characters playing servicemen are portrayed from groups that often aren’t taken care of to the fullest extent by our own government. Was there any kind of discussion about that when it came to telling the story?
That’s very emblematic with the military, I think. People only–mostly–turn to the military because they have to or because they feel compelled to for myriad reasons. And I don’t know if there was a discussion so much as there was an understanding. I love when the process mirrors the story, and it certainly did in this project. We landed in Jackson, Mississippi in July 2021. I think I had a mullet when I landed. I came a day later and had my high-and-tight fade, and they all still had their haircuts.
And then watching all the young guys get their heads shaved in the scenes–because they did that real time–we were all kind of coming together and getting to know each other. So although there wasn’t much of a discussion around it, there was this kind of intrinsic understanding that it was happening in real time. And I think Elegance was responsible for shaping that and creating an environment where it kind of mirrored the story we were telling.
We’ve mostly talked about The Inspection, but Cha Cha Real Smooth came out earlier this year, which was wonderful. You’ve been very consistently working since Looking, but this feels like a really big year for you. Are you feeling that as well, or is it more about staying focused and keeping up the hustle?
No, absolutely. It does feel like a really special moment where there’s this tidal wave of work that I have under my belt. I just did my first play in eight years called American (Tele)visions at New Theater Workshop, off Broadway in the East Village. And going back to the theater after eight years of not doing a play was a really special moment. There’s that, coupled with The Inspection starting to drop, and I’m here in LA working on something that’s really exciting. The thing about Looking was, it was so special to me, that project. And it set the tone. Even though I had a lot of work under my belt by that point, that was the most high-profile thing I’d done.
It set the tone in a lot of ways in terms of the type of artists I wanted to collaborate with. Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan, Jonathan Groff, Murray Barlett, everyone in that project is near and dear to my heart. And I just want to continue to work with people who bring out the best in me. I just want to continue to make smart choices, and hopefully build my arsenal of characters and collaborators who bring all the best in me.
I know we live in really divisive times, so I apologize for asking such a charged question at the end, but I have to ask you something that was brought up in the film. Favorite french fry. Do you have one?
I haven’t had a burger in ages, like an actual real beef burger. But I do miss… I’m from Texas, so I’ve got to give a shout out to Whataburger. I miss that, those fries and those burgers are just like… (chef’s kiss) With the jalapenos and everything? I miss those.