McAllen actor, playwright talks Sundance award-winning film, playing Freddy Fender

Actor and playwright Raúl Castillo has a good problem — a booked schedule filled with roles not allowing the McAllen native time to write.

While his busy slate includes an eclectic range of characters, there is a legendary Rio Grande Valley icon Castillo fantasizes about portraying.

“I can play a couple of instruments and I can fake other ones,” he said about depicting a musician. “I think someone will make a Freddy Fender biopic and I can play (him).”

Castillo spoke to The Monitor last week following his third trip to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. The 40-year-old was promoting his new film, “We The Animals,” of which director Jeremiah Zagar tied for NEXT Innovator Award at the fest.

“I was blown away,” said Castillo of the script based on Justin Torres’ 2011 debut novel of the same name. “I love following Latino writers.”

The McAllen High School graduate said joining the project was a “no-brainer.”

“Animals” is a coming-of-age story featuring three children and is drawing comparisons to “Moonlight,” the 2017 Oscar winner for best picture.

“As with ‘Moonlight,’ Zagar taps into a cinematic toolbox for representing an outsider’s struggles, particularly as it pertains to a developing queerness within the confines of a world in which marginalization is baked into everyday life,” Eric Kohn wrote in a recent IndieWire review.

Castillo said Zagar was transparent about the six-week shoot and wanted to work with young non-actors — a prospect that intrigued him. As a volunteer with the 52nd Street Project, Castillo helps 9- to 12-year-olds develop and perform plays.

“It’s one of the favorite things to do. Working with kids is great because they don’t have the kinds of walls fully formed adult human beings do,” he said. “They’re very honest and present as actors.”

Castillo gushed about the experience he had, acting opposite his young co-stars, and complemented their work ethic.

“I’m so proud of the three of them,” he said. “They’re amazing. I feel like a proud parent watching the movie.”

Castillo considers himself fortunate that “Animals” is just his most recent project “saying something about society right now,” he said. “That’s the kind of work I always want to be doing.

“I’m thrilled about … everything I have coming out.”

The trailer for his new Netflix series “Seven Seconds,” inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, was released last week.

He describes it as a “crime drama (that’s a) dark analysis of racial tensions in Jersey City.” The show is available for streaming Feb. 23.

This isn’t the first Netflix project in which Castillo has been involved. He was a regular in the series “Atypical” and had a guest spot on “Easy.” Castillo was also featured on the streaming platform’s film, “Special Correspondents.”

He might be best known for his role on HBO’s “Looking.” Castillo was also featured on “Riverdale,” “Blue Bloods,” “Damages,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Law & Order” and “Gotham,” where he portrayed villain Eduardo Flamingo.

Castillo also had the opportunity to play an East-L.A. superhero in the soon-to-be-released “dark, gritty” film with an “entirely Latino Cast,” “El Chicano.”

He said the experience took him back to the playfulness and physicality of childhood.

“I think people in the Valley are going to love it,” he said.

Castillo attributes his success to his support system.

“I think it’s important to surround yourself with the best — with people that see the best in you and want the best for you,” he said. “It’s not easy being a kid from the Valley and make it out — not that you have to leave the Valley or anything. I’ve been lucky that my family has been supportive of me.

“I know not everyone has that.”

He sees certain advantages as a Valley native.

“My ego can’t get too big because someone will always bust my chops,” he said. “When I go home, I’m still that kid from McAllen that went to McHi and roamed those hallways.

“Hopefully, that keeps me grounded as things start to shift in my career.”