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Enrique Castillo: An Artist Who Honors Legacy

Hope for the best but prepare for the unexpected, says the award-winning actor, writer and director

By Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: May 30, 2010


Enrique Castillo: An Artist Who Honors Legacy


Actor/writer/director Enrique Castillo can be seen on Showtime's wicked television series Weeds playing the lethal and nefarious "Cesar." This year marks his third season on the hit comedy/drama which was nominated for a SAG Ensemble Award and received six Emmy nominations.

Enrique is an accomplished and multi-facted artist who began his career with Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino in 1969. In the early 70's Enrique traveled to Paris with the Teatro when they represented the USA at the World Theater Festival.

In 1978 Enrique moved to Hollywood and was cast in the hit play Zoot Suit (created and directed by Luis Valdez) where he played one of the lead roles opposite Edward James Olmos. Since then he has appeared in over fifty television shows and feature films.

Enrique is recognized for his film role as "Montana" in Taylor Hackford's "Blood In Blood Out" where he played the leader of the Mexican prison gang. In 1993, when the film was released, the New York Times singled out Mr. Castillo's performance as one most notable in their review. In Japan, a film critic remarked on his performance as Montana by saying, "He plays the role with the wisdom of Torquemada and strength of a Sandinista warrior."

Mr. Castillo was one of the founding members of The Latino Theater Company in the mid 80's, where he starred in a variety of the company's productions and was also a writer on two of the company's plays, Stone Wedding and the multi-award-winning play August 29.

In the mid 90's Enrique adapted and directed the award-winning play The Last Angry Brown Hat, written by Alfredo Ramos, which toured to rave reviews for over four years. He then wrote and directed Veteranos: A Legacy of Valor, a theater piece honoring the military contributions by Latinos in America's defense. This garnered critical acclaim; Veteranos was awarded a special recognition by the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and received the prestigious Imagen Award for Best Live Theatrical Production.

Enrique has written various screenplays including Yo Solo (I Alone), The Cobra, Valley of The Dead, Deer Dancer, and the screen version of The Last Angry Brown Hat. Valley of The Dead, a crime suspense thriller, has been recently optioned by Concrete Images.

Enrique is currently in pre-production on the film The Last Angry Brown Hat in which he will star as well as direct.

Contributing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, had an opportunity to converse with Enrique about his body of work and how he views his life as an artist:

AC: What kind of a childhood did you have that gave you the inspiration to pursue a theatrical career? Who was your greatest supporter and role model?

EC: I grew up in a farm worker family. No one in my family had ever been involved in the film or television industry. What I knew of the industry was through the films I attended growing up in a border town. As a family we saw films in English at the local Fox Theater and around the corner of the same block was the Azteca Theater where we saw Spanish language movies. I was nurtured on films with Marlon Brando, John Wayne and other English speaking film stars, as well as Luis Aguilar, Pedro Infante and Cantinflas as Spanish language film stars.

That changed though. As a family we were regular moviegoers. But one day, as we pulled up to the movie theater, one of my sisters had been nagging that she wanted to go to church because she had attended a service across the border with our grandparents. My father asked, "Do you want movies or church?" My sister blurted out her preference and from then on it was church three times a week and no more movies.

When I began to pursue acting I would have to say that Luis Valdez offered the greatest support in his continuing to see my potential. Also my acting coach, David Alexander, who told me I would have no problem having a career in Hollywood and strongly encouraged me to move to L.A. Now of course, my wife and kids are the first line of support and encouragement and have been a constant through everything. I owe them, especially, a tremendous amount of gratitude.

AC: What kind of social, familial, and/or cultural obstacles did you have to overcome in order to pursue your artistic dreams?

EC: Having a strong faith-based upbringing was a definite obstacle in that any form of entertainment, whether film or television, was discouraged. Not having an elder to rely on for advice on a career in acting meant everything I encountered would be a trailblazing effort. I'd had acting training but there was no instruction on the "business" of acting. Also, no acting class taught the set lingo or terminology used on a set. There is a caveat though. I was eventually able to look back and understand something regarding filmmaking and my family, which I may describe later.

AC:What was the Zoot Suit experience like? Do you sing and dance?

EC: Zoot Suit was my first acting job in Los Angeles and it has been an enduring experience. I met many actors during the run of the show who became friends and remain so to this day, Edward Olmos, Lupe Ontiveros, Evelina Fernandez, Pepe Serna, Sal Lopez, Rudy Ramos and, of course, my most important friend: my wife.

I never had formal training as a dancer, only a couple of modern dance classes in college. Most of the dancing I learned during the production of Zoot Suit. As for singing, I had trained with church choirs and in elementary school and later sang a lot with Teatro Campesino. When I moved to San Jose I learned to play a variety of instruments and was a co-founder of a music group called Flor Del Pueblo. We recorded an album and one of our signature songs, Soy Del Pueblo, is now part of the Smithsonian collection from the Chicano Movement titled "Rolas de Aztlan; Songs of the Chicano Movement."

AC: Some say that you are "well known" for playing gang members. As an artist, how do you bring dignity to a stereotypical gangster character without becoming a caricature?

EC: Actually it is a misconception that I'm "Well-known for playing gang members." While I'm most recognized as Montana from Blood In, Blood Out. I have actually played very few gang roles. And that is by design. Those roles comprise maybe one percent of the total of roles I've played.

If you look at my career you'll see that I've played mainly doctors (Angel, Stones for Ibarra), lawyers (My Family), police officers (the TV shows L.A. Law, In the Line of Duty), soldiers (Sgt. Eddie Ramirez as a guest role in The Waltons) and other upstanding members of our Latino culture.

My own personal experience has been the antithesis of theirs. In bringing those characters to life I've approached the task as I do every other character I've played - that is without personal passion or prejudice. I begin building them as any other professional builds something, whether it's a house or a car. You build from the inside out. Choose an archetype, whether real or imagined. Build a foundation, do lots of due diligence and layer upon layer to complete the image you want, then you execute. If you're half successful and give the effort the dignity that it deserves then you're close to the outcome that is not a caricature.

AC: What kind of parts are there for middle-aged Latino character actors? Do you think Latinos are limited because most writers are 30-something non-Latinos?

EC: Fortunately movies are being made all over the world and many more Latinos are part of that growth. Given the new technology, films can be made more affordably and with less equipment. As more Latinos enter the process, more roles are available and a wider scope of the Latino experience is being put forth. In a twist of irony, we have the film industry to thank for that.

Our experience has always been kept on the fringes of the film industry and so we have a myriad of stories that Latino filmmakers can draw upon for inspiration. Now it's important for Latino investors to jump into the fray and build a partnership with filmmakers and begin to build a Latino film community. Then none of us will have to worry about a lack of roles or the quality of them.

AC: What was the philosophy behind founding The Latino Theater Company. What was the good and bad about that experience and was this the first time you began writing for theater?

EC: The idea of the Latino Theater Company, as I understood it, was to establish the first "all equity" theater company where Latino actors could work on important projects with compensation on parity with other traditional rep companies. The goal was to present an image of Latino culture in contrast to the image portrayed in films and television. I think we were very successful. The good is that, as a close-knit group, it included some of the friends I had met during Zoot Suit (Lupe Ontiveros, Evelina Fernandez, Sal Lopez, and Jose Luis Valenzuela who was the director) we were able to write and work on several award winning plays like Stone Wedding and August 29th , the latter based on the life of the late journalist Ruben Salazar. As for the experience of the effort, I will always look at that experience as a great one.

AC: What about Veteranos: A Legacy of Valor? How important was that work to you? Does the work have a legacy?

EC: Veteranos: A Legacy of Valor is a play which I call a musical tribute. Writing and directing this play was personally fulfilling for me on several levels. I'd often encountered Latino veterans who wondered when the stories of the Latino contribution in the defense of America were going to be told. Many of us don't realize that Latinos have fought and died for this country since the American Revolution and in every armed conflict in which the United States has been involved. I also know that many Latino actors would rather portray a war hero than a gangbanger. Thirdly, most Latino families have members who either served or are serving in the military, yet those servicemen and women have never been thanked for their service or recognized for it. Veteranos provided the opportunity to address those issues.

On a more personal level, I was at Cal Berkeley during the Vietnam War. All deferments had been rescinded and I was reclassified 1-A, but I was never drafted. My older brother was serving in the Air Force and I was the sole surviving son. Years later, I realized that I had never thanked him for his service and for that service being the reason I had not been drafted. Veteranos became my "Hallmark card" to him.

Lastly, all of us Latinos need to know the history of service of our families in defense of America. We need to know that we don't have to ask for permission to do anything we want in this country and that we are free to fulfill all of our dreams and aspirations. That privilege has been bought and paid for with the blood and sacrifice of those that came before us. Hopefully, we'll all learn that history, acknowledge it, and pay respect to that legacy.

I founded a production company, Four Brown Hats, with two other friends Danny Haro and Ernesto Quintero and together we produced and toured the play across the country on two national tours. When we did the play in Washington, D.C. we were invited to a special reception thrown in our honor by the Hispanic Congressional Caucus. There Congresswoman Hilda Solis bestowed upon the production a special commendation.

In 2003 Veteranos: A Legacy of Valor won the prestigious Imagen Award for Best Live Theatrical Presentation.

AC: Tell as about your feature screenplays.

EC: To date I have completed five screenplays. One is a super hero movie titled The Cobra centered on a war hero. He is empowered by a Nahualli by being given the power to morph into a cobra with the mission of ridding his community of illicit drugs. Another sci-fi story is titled Valley Of The Dead. It's about a sheriff who is on the trail of a rapist and murderous Border Patrol officer. The twist is a supernatural element in that the actual murders are committed by a vengeful demon that is on a reckoning against the border patrolman.

There is also Deerdancer. Its takes place in the world of folkloric dance and is about an assimilated Chicano living in San Francisco. He finds the true meaning of his life through the Deer Dance and folkloric history that he experiences on a summer dance excursion in Mexico. Yo Solo is based on the true story of Bernardo de Galvez. He was the governor general of Louisiana during the American Revolution and he led an army of over three thousand men and an armada of over forty war ships. He defeated the British in crucial battles of the American Revolution with an army that consisted of Espa??oles, Indios, Blacks, Puerto Rique??os, Mexicanos and many other peoples of color. He also provided Washington's continental army with much needed materials and millions of dollars in treasure. Then there is The Last Angry Brown Hat.

All of the stories feature Latino protagonists.

AC: I am a former Brown Beret, Tell us about The Last Angry Brown Hat. Is this your first directorial experience? What is your hope for this production?

EC: The Last Angry Brown Hat is based on a play by the same name which was written by Alfredo Ramos. I directed the play and toured it across the country for about four years.

I've directed plays and a short film entitled The Challenge Coin, but directing The Last Angry Brown Hat would mark my first feature film directorial. Making the film is an effort directed in the same spirit as Veteranos. That is, to honor the legacy of those that sacrificed during the fervent years of the Chicano Movement to better the lives of those in the Latino community. Also, to dispel the perception that the Brown Berets were a subversive group bent on destruction. It is an effort directed at bringing attention to the fact that they and others of the Latino community were vital participants in the period we know as the Civil Rights Movement.

Much like Latino military veterans, the Brown Berets have also never been appreciated, even by some within their own families, for providing Latinos with many of the civil liberties we enjoy today: free breakfast school programs in elementary schools, free clinics, and the ability to learn about Latino history in our schools. Even the method with which we as Latinos are judged in our judicial system is thanks to the efforts of the Brown Berets and other Latinos who struggled with them.

AC: What about Weeds? How did you get the role and how do you like series TV? What do you love and hate about your character?

EC: I auditioned for the role of Cesar in Weeds along with many other Latino actors. It was listed as a possible recurring role, meaning that if all went well the character might surface in other episodes. I'm now into my third season on the show. I've gotten tremendous response from the production and the public about my role as Cesar, the mayor's right hand henchman, and my portrayal of him. As a result, the production has expanded the role and he has yet to be eliminated.

I prepared for the role in the exact way I build the other roles I've played. For Cesar I chose an actual person from the Mexican Revolution period as a foundation and layered him with personal and professional choices. I love the character in that he could have been written as your run-of-the-mill thug, but he has been given a contrasting humanity that gives him greater emotional depth and a perception of truthfulness.

Working on the series has been extremely rewarding, not just for the public recognition it has brought me, but also it has provided me with an opportunity to work with other talented Latino actors like Demian Bichir, Rene Victor, Hemky Madrea and Kate del Castillo, and with a great crew on the set and of course with Jengi Cojan, the creator. None of it would be possible without terrific scripts coming from a group of lusciously demented and creative writers.

AC: How would you like to be remembered and what would you like your legacy to be?

EC: I don't really worry about how I want people to remember me. I worry about how I conduct myself as I go along. Some day when I leave this mortal coil I may come face to face with many Latinos who have given much more than I have. I don't want for them to ask me, "What did you do so that others would appreciate what we've given you?" while I stand there mute in my shame.

AC: What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists about pursuing their dream? What does it take to make it?

EC: What I say to young aspiring Latino artists is, if you want it, go for it! Prepare well and enjoy the process. Hope for the best but prepare for the unexpected. I don't know that anybody really "makes it." I rather think that we all just go from moment to moment and we should enjoy every one of them. Financial success doesn't always provide you with the happiness we all hope to enjoy. That has been proven time and again as we've seen with not just celebrities, but in every sector of our society. It is the process we must enjoy and if you can't enjoy it without economic privilege you won't enjoy it.

COMMENT 1:

Al;

My friend you constantly surprise me with your choices...Enrique's article was incredibly inspiring! I found myself enthralled with every word, because I know Enrique, but obviously I didn't. He has so much to say & his career speaks for itself of course but his humanity & Chicanismo makes him my hero!

Both of you keep up the good work & maybe Enrique & I will work together soon on the big screen!

Big hug to you both!

Richard Yniguez

COMMENT 2:

One of my favorite actors!! I love him in Weeds!!! Isn't he getting an award sometime soon? Thank you for writing this!

Ms. Mina Alonso

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About Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor:
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