Before landing his breakout role as Jaime on Broad City, Arturo Castro often had to choose between buying a Metrocard or a meal. The Guatemalan-born actor hustled for years in New York City, booking parts in commercials and in theatre while deciding on whether or not to keep his day job. Castro was so set on becoming an actor that he left his native country to move to New York with a willingness to audition for anything. He eventually secured the part of Ilana Glazer’s endearing roommate (and drug dealer) on the hit Comedy Central show.
Doors then opened for Castro and roles he never expected to be offered became available. Now he’s working alongside notable names that include Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, and Ang Lee. He’s also created his own sketch show for Comedy Central called Alternatino, which recently premiered its second season. The show infuses some of Castro’s comedic experiences with race, gender, and family into each episode. The actor is still surprised that he’s successfully turned his acting dreams into a reality. I spoke with Castro about struggling to make it as an actor, race’s role in comedy, and that time he went salsa dancing with Ilana Glazer at a Jewish wedding in Guatemala.
What do you think landed you the role of Jaime on Broad City?
I feel like Jaime and I have a lot in common. The way I play Jaime, he’s based a little bit on what I was like when I first moved to New York. I had a thick accent and everything kind of blew my mind. And Jaime has this kind of genuine honesty, heart-on-his-sleeve type of quality. I feel like if anything made me stand out it was this sense of genuine wonder and gratitude. I focused on that. When you feel happy to be somewhere, it’s contagious. If there’s one phrase for Jaime, it’s happily contagious. You know those people who just walk into a room and they’re so comfortable there and it makes you want to smile? That’s what I was aiming for.
You’ve said you weren’t going to take a day job because you considered acting your day job. I think a lot of actors and comedians struggle with the decision to dedicate their lives to pursuing their passions. How did you decide this? Is that something you recommend for struggling actors?
When you move to a different country you have to move for a purpose. I left everything I knew behind because I knew this was what I wanted to do. I tried being a waiter for about a week but I was horrible at it. Later on I realized that the only way I was going to make it was if I worked harder at this than I did everything else. Every day I woke up with a plan and every day I knocked on doors until eventually they opened.
The reason I decided that is because I’m a true believer that when you want to do something, especially something as fickle as media, you can’t just want to be a guy that survives. You want to be the person getting to the height of the career you want. There is no plan B. For me there was never a plan B. There are many other things I could have done. It was really hard not to take a day job to be honest. I was really broke for a long time. There were moments where I had to pick between a Metrocard and a meal. But I chose the Metrocard every time because I knew that eventually it would be pay off. For me a day job would have been distracting.
Did you face any difficulties being stereotyped in roles?
Oh, for sure. I never did something that was completely against my moral code. There’s a sense of responsibility. I’m from Guatemala and because of the society I grew up in I wasn’t aware of the stories of Guatemalans going through monetary struggles. Those are usually the people who immigrate to the United States. When I started reading those stories it was never demeaning to me to take an immigrant role. I figured those stories have to be told and I’ll tell them with a sense of responsibility. But if I had a dime for every time somebody offered me a character named Pancho or Pepe, I don’t know, I’d have thirty cents.
Did you expect that to happen when you started auditioning?
It was a surprise when I first moved to New York. Growing up in Guatemala you don’t really face any type of discrimination or stereotypes because everybody around you is Latin. When I moved to New York I realized that people like putting people in circles. Everybody has an image of themselves as just being a regular person, just kind of a color blind image of yourself. It took me a long time to go for romantic leads or get in the room to be just be a regular guy.
Race is a clear theme that runs through Alternatino. There’s a sketch called Borderline Racist Girlfriend where characters all discuss race in relation to their relationships. What was your intent in writing a sketch show with these themes?
There are too many shows about what makes us different and not enough shows about what makes us the same. A lot of my friends are international and we laugh at the same things even though it’s in different languages. One of the big parts of Alternatino was I wanted to address stereotypes that are hard to talk about. Race is hard to talk about it. As soon as you hear something has the word “race” in it there’s a certain hesitancy to check it out. I wanted to be able to open a dialogue about it. Once you talk about the elephant in the room it’s not the scary elephant anymore. It’s just conversation. I wanted to take these stereotypes we have about each other, put them on the front line and see how ridiculous it is for us to think this about each other. We try to get every culture represented, especially in that sketch.
And are these ideas coming from your life or other influences?
“Borderline Racist Girlfriend” was based in large part on when I first moved to New York and I started dating. I had a group of friends that would tell stories. Like, “She actually made me read her grocery list in Spanish. Isn’t that strange?” It was just us kind of realizing what was happening. A lot of these stories come from real life.
In one of your sketches you play a late night host who informs the audience that a woman might fill in for him and the crowd boos at the idea. Was this addressing the “can women be funny” argument?
Most people that have given me a chance in this business have been women. In my life I grew up with women. I have three sisters. I grew up with my mom. I’ve always been around really strong, empowered women. So when I hear, “Can women be funny?” I think, “When have women not been funny?” My sisters can run circles around me in comedy. I watch a lot of late night, but there’s some really antiquated notions about what can or can’t be. We’re breaking through that, Samantha Bee has an awesome show. Trevor Noah is doing a really good job. But there’s still shit that’s kind of far behind. I figure if we can just laugh about it, talk about it, maybe it could eventually spark an idea.
You said Broad City gave you validation as an actor and that the quality of work you’re being offered now is more along the lines of what you always wanted. What type of work are you being offered now?
I did this film with Aya Cash in March. The role was written for a schlubby white dude. And the director met with me and we really got along. She gave me the lead role and we didn’t change a thing about it. You meet [my character’s] family, but my family is well-to-do and they don’t have an accent. They’re just regular people who happen to be Latin. Those are the types of roles coming across my desk now where being Latin has nothing to do with the character’s struggles or wants or needs. It’s just a side effect of who he is.
You were described as being the Carson Daly of Guatemala, hosting your TRL-like countdown music show called Conexion. What was that experience like?
It was awesome. I was in law school while I was doing the show. It was my first experience getting paid professionally to do what I like to do. I think that’s where sketch comedy started to seep in. I never wanted to just count down like, [professional voice] “numero cinco.” I didn’t want to be that guy. In order to fill the time I thought I’d bring something more unique to it. And that’s when we started playing with [sketch]. The Blair Witch Project was big at the time so we did a parody of that. It was wonderful. I didn’t know at the time how it affected my life until I started writing sketch comedy and I was like, “oh this feels familiar.”
Did you once crash a wedding with Ilana Glazer?
Well, we were invited. Two of my best friends were going to get married in this beautiful place called Antigua in Guatemala. And Ilana and I had been talking, we just finished shooting the first season. And she wanted to take a trip somewhere exotic. So I was like, “Come to Guatemala.” She came down. We met in Antigua. It was also a Jewish wedding. That’s rare in Guatemala because there’s not a huge Jewish community there. We were doing the chair dance. It was awesome. She and I blended in pretty well. And you have to remember we didn’t know what Broad City was at the time. We just knew we created a show that was close to our hearts. It was a very interesting calm before the storm moment while dancing salsa at a Jewish wedding in Guatemala.
Any exciting projects coming up?
I just came back from shooting a new movie with Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer which is coming out Mother’s Day.
That must have been thrilling to work with them.
It’s a story that’s been told before, but I was just a kid from Guatemala that really just had the hopes of being able to do something. And when you walk into a set and you’re shooting films with people you’ve admired your whole life it’s very surreal. Sometimes I feel so grateful about it that I feel like my chest is about to burst. I get the chance to write my show, I get the chance to go out there and act. It’s hard to believe. It’s also very humbling.
Is it hard sometimes to act across from people you admire so much?
Not when we start acting. I did a movie with Susan Sarandon and when I met her for the first time I was completely star struck. But I take my job super seriously. Once the cameras are rolling, it’s just a person I’m doing a scene with. The admiration for them comes before and after the cameras roll, but when I’m in it I owe it to myself and I owe to them to be completely present and not star struck. But yes, when you show up and you see Goldie [Hawn] you’re like, “Oh my god!” You have to keep your cool.
When you talk to them you realize they’re just people too.
Sometimes this business can feel like The Wizard of Oz, just these magical things happen, but once you look behind the curtain it’s just people who happen to be very good at their jobs. You’d be surprised to see that the most successful, the most talented are usually the most humble ones. If anything, Abbi and Ilana taught me you treat your staff like your family. Everybody is there putting their time in.