On Looking, HBO’s hit dramedy following the lives of gay men living in San Francisco, Raél Castillo plays Richie, a onetime love interest of lead Jonathan Groff.
The actor was originally meant to appear in only two episodes, but viewers responded so well to his out-of-the-closet Mexican-American character that he became a series regular.
“Since the pilot episode and from that point forward, Richie is treated with a real sensitivity and a certain dedication – he’s a multilayered character. The writers had a real sense of wanting to bring an authentic person to the screen,” says Castillo, 37. “It was exciting to be able to take part in that, to be able to bring that character to life.”
PEOPLE caught up with the rising star ahead of the show’s season finale:
1. He had no problem playing a gay character, and neither did his parents – or girlfriend!
Though he’s straight, Castillo had no qualms about taking on a gay role. The actor grew up in a small town in south Texas with two traditional, conservative parents, but they’ve been nothing but supportive since he signed on to the show.
“They didn’t have HBO before, but they got it to watch the show. It was pretty incredible,” says Castillo. “I lost my father last year, but he got to see the entire [first] season, and he was very proud. He watched the first episode eight times, according to him, and then even my mom now, they have Looking viewing parties down at my uncle and aunt’s house in my hometown.”
And sorry, ladies and gents: He’s off the market, and his girlfriend’s also a fan of the show.
2. He can tell you what it’s like to kiss Jonathan Groff
Castillo’s Richie and the Frozen star’s character Patrick struck up a romance during season 1. So what’s it like locking lips with Groff? “He’s a little hairier than I’m used to – he has a little more stubble than I’m used to, but other than that he’s a complete gentleman,” says Castillo, laughing. “I couldn’t ask for a better scene partner. He’s really wonderful.”
3. Castillo and the Looking crew are friends onscreen and off
From adorable happy hours with Groff to viewing-party selfies, all it takes is a gander at Castillo’s Instagram to see they’re a tight-knit group on and off the small screen.
“It’s a really organic sense of camaraderie and community with us. A few of us live in New York, so we get to spend a lot of time between seasons hanging out here in the city,” says Castillo. “It’s effortless, and I feel really lucky.”
And get this: If they’re out of town, they still hang out with one another’s significant others!
“The boys have taken my girlfriend out a bunch of times when I was away doing a play in Chicago, and they would hang out. They do Barry’s Bootcamp and silly stuff like that,” Castillo adds. “It’s hard to find that, and the fact that we found it on our show is really special. I feel like I’m in good company and around people who make me want to work harder.”
4. Theater was his first love
Castillo caught the acting bug in a high school production of I Remember Mama and is still very active on the stage and behind the scenes after studying playwriting at Boston University. A play he wrote, the dark comedy Between You, Me and the Lampshade, explores a family’s life on the U.S.-Mexico border and opens April 11 in Chicago.
“It’s neat being able to use some of the attention that I’m getting because of Looking and being able to shed some light on these other projects,” says Castillo.
And the actor-writer adds he’s brought a lot of what he’s learned working on a big-scale show to this other medium: “It’s taught me about listening to actors and paying attention to where they’re at, and that it’s a collaborative thing,” he says. “You have to put your ego aside and serve the story.”
5. He takes his role on Looking very seriously
“More than anything that I’ve learned is, there’s a real demand, a real need for stories that represent the LGBT community,” says the actor and ally. “I don’t think we have enough of them. And it shows in the way that people respond to the show.”
He continues, “There’s a lot that people want from the show because it is a show about gay men, so there’s lot of expectation. I totally get that because I think it’s the same in the Latino world. People are hungry for more diverse representations of their communities.”
The season 2 finale of Looking airs Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.