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Raúl Castillo on The Inspection’s Unexpected Gallows Humor

Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for FLC

Spoilers follow for The Inspection. 

Raúl Castillo normally watches his own work in films like Hustle, We the Animals, and Army of the Dead with a critical eye: picking apart his choices, considering how else he might have played a scene or delivered a line. But when he sat down to watch The Inspection — in which he co-stars as compassionate Marines drill instructor Rosales — Castillo instead simply sank into the film’s portrait of young gay Black recruit Ellis French (Jeremy Pope). Director and writer Elegance Bratton pulled from elements of his own life and time in the Marines to craft his first feature, which follows French as he strives to win the love of his homophobic mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), endures agonizing training and relentless hazing, and ultimately finds himself.

The role of Rosales was written for Castillo. Bratton approached him in 2018 at a Tribeca Film Festival party to explain the movie he was working on and the role he intended for the actor. Three years later, after the meeting had faded from his memory, Castillo was reading a script he couldn’t put down. He realized that the author’s name rang a bell — then pulled up Bratton’s text messages from years earlier. (“I felt a little sheepish,” Castillo admits.) After auditioning and securing the role, Castillo reported to Jackson, Mississippi, for eight weeks of filming.

In The Inspection, Rosales is one of the few supporters in French’s corner after his class of recruits and the other drill instructors learn that French is gay. Rosales’s kindness fuels French’s crush on him, resulting in some of the film’s most memorable scenes — including fantasized hookups that center Castillo as an object of desire, and a third-act conversation between Castillo and Pope that imbues the Marines’ “semper fidelis” vow with humanism and vulnerability.

In the film, Rosales’s sexuality is slightly ambiguous. The film raises the question of whether he’s gay or queer, then doesn’t explicitly answer it. How did you help build that ambiguity?
That’s all in the writing — as a testament to Elegance. I love characters that live in the gray, that aren’t black and white, that aren’t one thing or another. This is a story that’s not told in primary colors. It’s told in very nuanced shades. I’m drawn to characters and stories that challenge traditional notions of masculinity. I was a really sensitive kid in a really macho environment. I’m from Texas, from the border, first-generation Mexican American, and come from a community where there’s a lot of machismo and a lot of bravado. I always got teased. I think I bring that now to the characters that I play.

You played a queer character on Looking, and in the recent theater production american (tele)visions, you played the father of a queer boy. I’m wondering if you have a guiding theme to the work you do that is connected to the LGBTQ+ community.
It goes back to the thing I said about stories that challenge traditional notions of masculinity. I like stories about underdogs. I felt like an underdog throughout my life in various spaces, and whenever I come into contact with underdogs, I try to lift them up or I try to reach out to the least powerful in the room. I hate hierarchies, like, with a passion. I come from an immigrant family — we were first-generation (my brother, my sister, and I) — and seeing my parents navigate this country and the way that this country at times treats immigrants, I knew that, as an artist, I wanted to be part of stories that give dignity and humanity to characters who are often ignored by Hollywood.

Did you work any of the machismo you mentioned into Rosales?
I did a play years ago called Throat, written by my friend Mando Alvarado. Mando wrote on Vida, which I was in. In Throat, I was playing a Marine who had come back from combat in Afghanistan and was dealing with these demons. Mando and I are from the same hometown, and he wrote the play based off a story in the newspaper about this guy, Jesus Bocanegra, who had served in the Army. Through doing that play, I connected with an organization called Vets for Vets. They did group-therapy work with former military men and women, and Jesus invited me to this retreat in Miami. I was a little intimidated. I’m an actor playing a part, and these are people who are actually living the life. The director of the organization at first was like, “He’s an actor. He can be in the group sessions, but he’s not going to be in the smaller sessions.” And the attendees were like, “Why not? He’s here. He’s willing to listen. Most people aren’t willing to listen.” I was really moved by that. They brought me into the fold.

We went out one night in Miami. We went to the bars, and it was all these guys who had just come home from service. This camaraderie comes up when you have a group of, especially, young men. This family dynamic starts to develop, and they were so funny. There’s a bit of gallows humor, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously, which, as actors, we do sometimes. It was a relief to not feel that I had to take myself too seriously, even though I take the work seriously. Just to be invited into that space was an honor. That was almost 15 years ago — when we did that play and I was invited to that process. I thought of those guys, and I heard some really private, intimate stories about the psychological ramifications of war and what they were dealing with. I cherish those moments. I keep them with me, safe, and I thought about them a lot when we were doing the film.

There’s a certain sense of gallows humor in the film too. It doesn’t invite a lot of laughs, but every so often, there is something really unexpected and amusing — like your wink to Jeremy during the gun-training session. Was that scripted? 
There were times when Elegance would throw things to us on set that were maybe not in the script. I forget if that wink was something he gave me to try on the day. I think it was scripted, because that kind of connection between Rosales and French is very much in the script. To your point about the humor of it, my brother watched the film. I wanted to see what he thought, because he’s not a storyteller, but he’s a musician and he’s very much an artist, and I always value his opinion on things. He said, “You know, I’m not big on drama” — he’s very honest, he doesn’t pull punches — “so I was a little uncertain going into the film, but it’s really funny. It’s really, really funny.” He found a way into the story through the humor.

In the scene where you turn down French, you’re explaining your ideology as a Marine and how the importance of someone’s racial or sexual identity doesn’t matter on the battlefield, because they are a person, a Marine, and your responsibility is to defend and protect. It’s a raw moment. Did you and Jeremy prepare that exchange before filming? 
We kept it to that day. We shot that scene at, like, three in the morning, while COVID was still very much in the Zeitgeist, and it was late in the process. We were shooting in Jackson, Mississippi. It was brutally hot, it’s a very physical film, and we’re shooting outside. I really cherish those scenes when it was just Jeremy and me, because it felt really intimate. Elegance speaks a lot about how before he joined the Marines, a lot of his relationships with other men were based in transactional expressions. That scene is based not specifically on something that happened to Elegance. But that line that I have about protecting the Marines to the left of you and the right of you — that was something that was said to Elegance early in his career as a Marine. The way that he learned to love and respect himself was by becoming the best that he could be, and that was by being able to protect the Marines to the left and the right of you. He found real value as a human. That scene was tough, because it was late. But I always felt with Jeremy that I had a great scene partner, and all I had to do was be present and listen and respond.

This conversation between French and Rosales takes place in the film after French has had some sexual fantasies and daydreams involving Rosales. Did you and Jeremy work with an intimacy coordinator? 
We didn’t have an intimacy coordinator. I’ve had my fair share of sex scenes with men and women. I always equate sex scenes to fight scenes, stunt scenes, because you want to keep each other safe, you want to tell the story. If I have a scene with a woman, I like to let the woman lead. “Is it okay if I do this? Is it okay if I do that?” Dialogue and communication is paramount. On Looking, I had quite a few intimate scenes, and we were always cracking up. There was a lightness to those scenes when we would shoot them, because you gotta have fun with it, you gotta learn to not take it too seriously. The way that Jonathan Groff and I would just crack up — you’re in these, what do you call them? Modesty garments? We would just laugh, because they could be so silly and ridiculous. Jeremy and I had a really similar approach. We were able to have a good laugh, then tell the story. And they are so sexy! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a military film that veers into these very different, very heightened fantasy sequences. Lachlan Milne, our director of photography, and Elegance really were intentional about how they shot those scenes and how they differed from the rest of the film.

The uniting theme in all those scenes is that the focus is on you. You’re gazing into the camera in one, surrounded by bisexual lighting. In the scene in the bathroom stall, the camera stays on your face. Is there additional pressure when a scene is very focused on your reactions? 
I don’t think so. I think they’re pretty straightforward. I love sex scenes if they’re moving the story forward. That’s when they’re the best. I’m fortunate that I’ve never had to participate in any sex or sexy scenes that weren’t there to push the story forward. If anything, they’re easy, because I don’t have any lines to memorize. [Laughs.]

To go back to the idea of underdogs, there’s a scene with you and Bokeem Woodbine, who plays a fellow drill instructor named Leland Laws. Your character confronts him about bullying and abusing the cadets. It’s not a big blow-up moment, but Rosales is very frank in the confrontation. What was it like working with Bokeem? 
I’m a huge Bokeem Woodbine fan. I was in high school when Dead Presidents came out, and Jason’s Lyric, which is a Houston movie. After Elegance offered me the role, he told me that Bokeem was playing Laws, and I lit up, because I was so excited to work with him. He was the veteran of this entire team, and he led with such grace and professionalism. I love when you work with someone you’ve been a fan of, then you’re on set together and you get to watch them do what they do. We had a lot of fun working together, and with Nick Logan, who plays Brooks, the other drill instructor. Especially in a scene like that, which can feel antagonistic, you want to be able to have trust. I always felt like Bokeem and I had a good rapport, so I could really rail into him in that quiet way that Rosales does. I was excited about that scene — about all the scenes with Bokeem but that one specifically, because it’s so one-on-one. We got to go toe to toe, and to do that with someone whose career you’ve admired for so long — what a privilege.

It’s interesting too that the character of Laws wasn’t written as Black initially. I think he was written as white, then they started to toy around with the idea of making him Black. To have two men of color in the military who are in this tricky situation — it felt really fascinating to have a Black man and a Latino man in this wonderfully written scene. We don’t get characters that are this nuanced all the time. When the work is intersectional without being showy, that’s the best.

You’ve done action before, but this performance is defined by how you carry yourself. How did you get into that mode? 
You said that, and I just straightened right up in my chair. I have horrible posture. I hunch a lot. My mom always got after me about that when I was a kid. I knew that I would have to live in a different physical life for the eight weeks that we were working on this film. My voice already runs a little raspy, but certainly, as we were barking orders at the recruits, I just lived in that kind of cadence and vocal pitch that whole summer. These guys and girls are at their physical peak. Getting into that mindset and physicality was challenging. But Elegance brought along Octaya Jones, who was our military consultant. She and Elegance served together, and she’s currently an active-duty drill instructor. She’s a badass. She whipped us into shape, and we had access to her the entire time.

Was your mom excited about your improved posture? 
[Laughs.] She still hasn’t seen the film yet, but I’m sure she will. She’s gonna love this character. She’s gonna love seeing me with my high and tight fade, in uniform, and with the great posture.

This interview was conducted at the 2022 Virginia Film Festival and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Raúl Castillo on The Inspection’s Unexpected Gallows Humor