"The stories about masculinity that excite me most are written by women"

Raul Castillo, star of "Limbo" talks about short films and how they help Latinos evade the trap of typecasting

Published July 17, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Raul Castillo as The Man in "LIMBO" (Limbo)
Raul Castillo as The Man in "LIMBO" (Limbo)

In the engaging, provocative eight-minute short film, “Limbo,” (available online here) Raul Castillo plays a nameless man wandering the desert after receiving a text message from his girlfriend. When he unexpectedly meets a dying dog (voiced by Sam Elliott), and gives the dog some water, the dog offers the Man something in return.

The short, directed by Will Blank, and adapted from the graphic novella by Marian Churchland, depicts the Man’s decisions largely through an internal narrative. “Limbo” addresses issues of regret, desire, and time, using editing and voice-over to consider how we process thoughts and emotions. The magic of this “magical realist” short is how it prompts viewers to consider their own process should a similar situation arise in their lives.

Castillo, who was fantastic in Aaron Katz’s sleeper indie “Cold Weather,” and had a breakout role on HBO’s “Looking,” is a veteran of short films, having made a dozen in his 12-year screen career. The actor talked about the appeal of the short film format, his own decision processes, and making “Limbo.”

You have made many short films over the course of your career. I first saw you in a great one called “Kiss Me.” What is the appeal of this format?

I was a fan of short stories since I was a kid, and I like the short format. I am a playwright and I love one-act plays. I think there’s a lot you can get across in a short format that you can lose in a longer one. I love that Will [Blank] was drawn to this particular script and story. I wasn’t familiar with Marian’s story before we made “Limbo,” but I fell in love with her voice. I’d never seen anything like this particular short, and I was excited to be a part of telling this story.  

In “Limbo” you act mostly in voice-over. There is very little of you actually speaking on camera. Can you discuss performing voice-over?

That was an interesting process because on set we [Will and I] took into account the narration, the inner monologue. We thought about that a lot. In the voice-over booth, there were so many choices we could make in the inflection, and it’s very subtle. Even how Marian writes is very subtle; it doesn’t hit you over the head, it lets the audience make their own decisions about the story. We wanted to stay true to her story and this guy who is going through this particular thing. There’s something very lovely about how ambiguous it is. We tried to stay loyal to the tone of the original narration in the comic as well. I love stories like that, that put the onus on the reader or viewer.

The short is set in the desert, where your character has gone to sort out an emotional crisis. How do you weather a crisis? Meet it head on, or run away from it?

I run away from it like the Man. Definitely! What I love about the novella is that it speaks to a particularly masculine quandary. A woman gets to the heart of things. I identified with that in how the Man deals with this situation and escapes from it. The stories about masculinity that excite me most are written by women — like Kelly Reichardt’s films. Will [the director] is a man, but the voice is Marian’s. It’s true to the masculine experience.

How do you deal with decision-making and critical thinking? Are you rash or contemplative?

I trust my gut more often than not. I try not to overthink things. That leads me to bad decisions.

What about the film’s issues of regret and wanting to fix the past?

I come from theater where you do something on stage and you leave it on the stage. You can’t go back and examine it. And what I love and hate about film is you can go back and examine your performance. I have to talk myself off the ledge and there’s a process when I see something on screen where I obsess about it. Then I let it go and come to terms with the choices I made on set and enjoy the story. I got to see “Limbo” at a friends and family screening and it was nice to see it with friendly faces, but I definitely obsess over material I’ve shot.

Do you believe in fate, myths, and symbols? In “Limbo” the phone, the dog, and even the burrito and the tea, all portend things to me.

There’s a part of me that’s cynical and there’s a side of me that completely and totally reads signs. I have both of those qualities because I do what I do. As big as a cynic as I am, I look for symbols and signs.

Are you a dog person?

I am, but if you live in New York City, it’s tough to have a dog. We’re in love with a bulldog that lives on our floor.

The short is based on a magical realist graphic novella, and yet it has a very realistic feel despite there being a talking dog. What can you say about the way the approach to the material?

I think I reflect back to Beckett. There’s a “Waiting for Godot” quality to this character. We meet the Man in this particular moment and know a little of his past. I didn’t want to overthink it. I had to bring myself to the story. I indentified with this guy and what he was going through. Even the little I knew about him, I knew so much.

Even with painting and plays, where there are little bits of information, you bring yourself to the material. You bring your own experiences and project that on to the info you’re given. I try to do the same myself. I’ve never been in his situation, but I see where he’s coming from for sure.

Can you talk about how you approach your career, which includes shorts, TV shows, and indie films?

TV and feature films for a lot of Latinos and artists of color tend to get lost or they do the typical roles. Short films and indie films are where I’ve been able to create characters that wouldn’t otherwise be available to me on TV or in studio work. I’ve been lucky, and made myself available for these types of projects that are outside of the box and unique.

The Man in “Limbo” is not specifically a Latino character, and Will, to his credit, saw me in “Cold Weather.” Having come up in theatre and done work like that, these are the [projects] I get excited about. Will came to me, and it was a no-brainer. I hope that I continue to do work that generates more of that kind of attention. There is a market for it and people are slowly learning how to speak to the Hispanic market, with “How to be a Latin Lover” and other films.

On that note of hope, if you could have one wish, as the dog in “Limbo” offers the Man, what would it be?

Oh, that’s a tough one….

C’mon, you knew I was going to ask this!

To do it all over again, right?

That’s the regret talking…


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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