If Rio Grande Valley residents want to watch McAllen native Raúl Castillo act, Netflix is usually their best bet. The streaming service hosts multiple recent projects, like “Atypical” or “Seven Seconds,” in which Castillo is featured.
But this weekend, Valley residents can see the 41-year-old on the big screen in his Sundance Film Festival award-winning film, “We The Animals,” with Castillo in town to attend select showing Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The McAllen High School graduate is hosting question and answer sessions at AMC Edinburg 18 after 7:50 p.m. screenings on Friday and Saturday, and also following the 3 p.m. show on Sunday.
“It’s not easy to bring a small, arthouse film down to the Valley,” Castillo said in a phone interview with The Monitor Thursday. “I’m so thrilled that it’s playing there.”
The 41-year-old actor has been in “constant communication” with the film’s distributor, The Orchard, about “the importance of playing it down there,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s a Latino story and I think there’s an audience for it. I think people are going to connect to it.”
While Castillo has lived in New York City for the last 16 years, he said his upbringing in the Valley still informs his perspective. He called that lens “vital” to who he is and his approach to stories.
“I’m really grateful to be from the Valley and I’m proud to be from the Valley,” he said. “It’s always a part of me.”
Castillo said he “cut his teeth in high school theater in the Valley,” and remembers “discovering” the Puerto Rican poet Miguel Piñero at McHi.
“He used bilingualism in a way I didn’t know you could do on the American stage, and he was doing it on Broadway … and The Public Theatre,” he said. “That had such an effect on me.
“It made me gravitate to storytelling because he made it seem possible, because … he was bilingual like me. He was brown like me.”
Representation is important, he said, and cited Piñero’s writing, John Leguizamo’s one-man shows and the comedy of George Lopez for their influence.
Castillo reminisced about his “pre-internet days” in the Valley, when locals had less exposure to the creative arts.
“We couldn’t Google anything, so we were further isolated because we didn’t have access … (which) is important, especially for young people,” he said. “So, to take a story like this down there, I feel like it’s full circle.”
There was initial uncertainty about whether “Animals” would have a Valley release, at least until early this week.
“Thankfully, they heard me out,” Castillo said of the distributors, who were eyeing the returns in American and Canadian theaters. “The film is so universal I have no doubt that it’s going to find an audience wherever it goes, because at the end of the day it’s about these great universal themes.”
Castillo describes “Animals,” the adaption of the 2011 novel of the same name penned by Justin Torres, as an “honest, raw portrayal of family.”
“We need that now because there are so many curated and manufactured stories that paint a pretty picture of what reality is,” he said. “And this is a really raw, authentic look at a family that’s broken and this healing.”
Director Jeremiah Zagar earned the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Innovator Award for the film.
“I was blown way,” Castillo told The Monitor early this year of the script. “There’s so much in the book, and ultimately the movie, that resonated for me that felt familiar or something like the world that I grew up in.”
“Animals” is a coming-of-age story featuring three children growing up in a fraught parental environment. Critics compared the acclaimed film to “Moonlight,” the 2017 Oscar winner for best picture.
“El Chicano,” Castillo’s Latino superhero film, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last week to a sold-out audience. He plays dual roles as brothers in the movie with George Lopez and Kate del Castillo.
He gushed about playing the lead in an all-Latino cast.
He echoed the sentiment of inclusion for Starz’s “Vida,” in which he has recurring roles. Showrunner Tanya Saracho was a high school friend.
“Tanya has made sure to staff that writer’s room with Latino, Latinas and Latinx people,” he said. “She’s gotten Latinx directors, and it makes a difference when we’re telling our own stories.
“I know it did for me as a young person. It’s the reason I’m here today.”
Castillo said that over the last few years, he’s gotten to “work with amazing people … that I’ve been fans of for so long and I get to call them my peers.”
“For me, it always goes back to the work and when I work with people that have been in the business for so many years and have this body of experience,” he said. “I feel really fortunate to work on some great projects in the last couple of years.”