After actress Kate del Castillo met with El Chapo, "they tried to destroy me"

Salon talks to the Mexican star about politics, her new play about femicide in Juarez and the day she met El Chapo

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published July 29, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Kate del Castillo (Salon Talks)
Kate del Castillo (Salon Talks)

Mexican actress Kate del Castillo is an international star. She first gained fame in the world of telenovelas, and now we in the United States know her from shows like "Weeds," "Jane the Virgin" and the Netflix series "La Reina del Sur," which just returned after eight years.

In 2016, she gained a new kind of attention after a fateful meeting with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. After a tumultuous ordeal in the press and in private, she's now earning acclaim in the new Off-Broadway one-woman show, "The Way She Spoke." (If you can't get to New York, Audible will be releasing a recording of the show later this year.)

She joined us recently for an episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss this play, which she says is the ballsiest work she's ever done, the fall-out from her El Chapo meeting and why the world needs more men — not women — like her.

This show is based on the real life story about the femicide, the violence against women, in Juarez, Mexico. Talk about the inspiration for this show and the people that you are playing in it.

It's actually the journey the author [playwright Isaac Gomez] took down to Juarez. His parents are from there. When he was younger he went there, and he wanted to know what was happening because everybody knew about the desaparecidas, the women who have disappeared and nobody knows where they are or what happened. It's been decades and it's not stopping. Everybody thought that in the beginning there was a serial killer, and they arrested a couple of guys who probably have done something. Then it started happening all the time. It never stopped and it hasn't stopped, which is what is really, really awful.

It started in the early '90s. You know, Mexicans, we have no memory. They're being forgotten. The first place where they found eight women dead, eight bodies, now is a memorial. And there's thousands and thousands and thousands of names of missing women. Most of them worked in las maquiladoras, the factories. Most of them are owned by the United States. Something really weird is happening, because it's a border city and border cities are always very dangerous for obvious reasons. But here, it just keeps happening and nobody does anything, because nobody wants to get killed. So nobody talks about it.

This play is reminding us what's going on that's still happening. Femicide happens everywhere. It's this hatred for women, because they're not just killing them, they're raping them and they're ripping them apart. It's really, really sad and it goes all over the world.

The show starts out with you walking in as the actress sitting down to read. Very early on, you describe a particular murder and the condition that the woman's body was in. You read the details of this crime and a collective intake of breath comes over the audience, and we begin to realize what we're in for. You say in the play that Juarez might be the easiest place in the world to murder a woman, but it's certainly not the only one.

To give some context of the violence, last year in the city in one month there were 200 murders in a city of 1.5 million. New York City has 8.6 million people. Last year, total, there were 289 murders. It defies the mind, the violence that goes on there and the shadow that these women live under. The shadow that these mothers and fathers then have to live with and the fear of retaliation. You talk about that in the play as you go into different characters. You play the actress, you play the playwright, you play a mother, a sister, you play a suspect. You said earlier to me that people say you're ballsy because you met with El Chapo, but this is the ballsiest thing you've ever done. How do you do that? How do you prepare to play all these different people?

To be honest and with the most humble way that I can put it out there, I still I don't think I'm prepared. I will never be prepared for some something like this. I think actors, we think we are never prepared. I wish I could have had more time. But at the end of the day I see it like yes, I'm off-Broadway, but it's not the big show. We could have done so many things like changing clothes, like changing with the voices. What I love about Jo Bonney, who's the director that I admire and I respect so much, is that the simplicity of it all. At the end of the day we're there to serve the story, to tell this story and not to highlight the actress. None of the people that we are working on it wants to do something like that. Not the director, not the author, not me certainly. For me it's been really, really challenging because I need to get the message across the way it has to be. And it's not my language. It's my second language. That's the most challenging thing for me.

This is your New York debut. You're going to come back and do more though, right?

I hope so. It's been a blessing to come here off-Broadway. That was one of my bucket list. I never, never would have thought that I would have been off-Broadway on a monologue talking about my country and something that it's so painful for me as a woman, as a Mexican, and that hurts my country. That shadow still is there. When people don't want to go to my country because they think it's very dangerous, those things hurt me because I love Mexico. I'm very Mexican and I love my country. These things that are horrible, they just hurt me a lot. Once I read it, I couldn't say no.

It's not just about the going into these different voices or the way you change your body posture in certain moments, but to put up with that emotional weight and to sit there. There's a point in the show where you are reading the names of these women, and what was done to them. You keep reading and you keep reading, and you as the actress become very emotional. I can't imagine that for you as Kate, bearing that, bearing witness to that every night, it's not also tremendously emotional. 

I wake up every single day, and it's so sad, my head aches. I get out of there very emotional. I have an altar there. I ask permission to hold the desaparecidas, to be a via and to pass the message the way it should be. I try because I'm an actress and I'm used to doing this every single night and every single night it gets me in different moments in the play. When I read the names, they change the names all the time. I'm always reading them for the first time. And I can read as far as I can go. It's totally natural and it's up to me. Jo told me, "You read until you can not keep reading anymore." That's every night. So it has to affect me in some way, but I'm trying to do my best.

So you get that list, and you're unprepared for what you're going to read on it? The names and their ages and what was done to them. Because when I saw it, you paused at a moment because the victim was three years old. The reaction that you gave seemed very sincere, and now I can see why. That's a lot to put yourself through.

It is. It is. But you know what? That's what we need to do. If I can give the message, pass on a message to one person, my job is done. I'm not thinking that this will be great for my career, which I think is just the biggest opportunity as an actress, but as a woman, as a Mexican, as an activist. I think the most dangerous thing right now in this era is silence. We have to go out there and it hurts. But I cannot compare the pain that all the other women have been through and their parents and sisters and brothers. Whatever I'm going through is nothing.

It feels like, for a variety of unfortunate reasons, we are in this moment where art is a great conduit to activism. This show, even though it is difficult to watch, is also beautiful and poignant and done in a way that you connect with it as a piece of art as well as a piece of activism.

That's very important that you say that. I love it because people that have been there tell me that the whole thing is so simple, but it's elegant and you feel the loneliness of the actor and of these people that I start reading about and playing. You feel so powerful, but it's so challenging. Everybody is not only seeing you, they're listening to you. I can hear a pin drop because it's just so silent. I feel so close to the audience I love it when they are interested in what I'm trying to put out there and for the words because there's nothing but words.

As one of your characters says, once you know, you can't unknow this. But I want to ask you because there have been movements to try and change what's going on there. There has to be attention to it. But the other side of that is that light can be exploited in certain ways. We've certainly seen in our own country. When you have a president who refers to people as rapists and drug dealers, the problems of Mexico or a Mexican city can be used as an argument for racists. How do we combat that? How do we take charge of this story and put it back where it belongs, in the hands of victims and survivors and the people directly affected by the violence, as opposed to those who are perpetuating it?

It makes me so sad, because I cannot understand how someone like that can be in charge of the most powerful country. Then it makes me feel like, OK, so then there's no hope for Mexico. It's all intertwined in so many ways because we depend on the United States.

I think it's everything, but the narrative still is from men. Until we change who's writing the narratives, it's not going to change, because we live in a macho world. Not only Latinos. The other day also and somebody told me, "Well, yeah, this problem that women have with #MeToo …" I'm like, "The women?" Men are the ones who are killing women. Men are the ones who are raping women. Men are the ones who are abusing women. Actually, it's a men problem.

As an activist I go into places and I talk. They're always like, 'We need more women like you." No. We need more men like me. Women are the ones who have to go to the theater to see these kind of plays, and it's exactly the opposite.

Speaking of misperceptions, three years ago, you had an interesting moment in your life and your career around El Chapo. I don't want to talk about him. I don't want to talk about an actor [who was involved]. I'm interested in you. The way that that story came out, the way that it was reported, the way that there was so much conversation around you as someone who had been acting for 30 years already, someone who's internationally known. Suddenly your story was being defined by other people. How has that changed you? How has that changed the way you make choices in your life and in your career and in your activism going forward?

That's been for sure one of the worst moments in my life. I am very, since I was a little girl, revolutionary. When you decide to do something and you know the consequences and you still do it, that's fine. But I didn't know. I didn't know in that moment what was going to happen, and it has to do a lot because I'm a woman. If it only was Sean or the other two producers that went with me, nothing would have happened. The thing is that because I'm a woman, they wanted to destroy me in Mexico. They even said that I was the la puta of El Chapo, I was having sexual relationships with him. If I was a man, this would've never had happened.

I had criminal charges. I couldn't go back to my country. My parents, every single day outside of their home were paparazzis and reporters. It was really scary. They put my entire family at risk. I decided to go and see this guy, as many other actors have seen criminals for research. That's what we do, we're storytellers. That was what I was doing. But it went wrong because of this stupid other actor. You know, it all went wrong because I'm Mexican, because I'm a woman, because they hated me in Mexico because I've always an outspoken about the government. So they tried to destroy me. And it's super juicy. The actress, the Hollywood actor, the capo.

I did a documentary for Netflix. I didn't want to do it in the beginning, and then my lawyer said, "You know what? I think it's going to be good for you, for us, for the case, to clear things out." If you want to watch it, it's called "The Day I Met El Chapo."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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