Photo by Emilio Madrid
A24 expanded its excellent slate of 2022 films with the premiere of The Inspection at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Starring Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, the film is inspired by writer-director Elegance Bratton’s story. As a young, gay Black man rejected by his mother (Gabrielle Union) and limited options for his future, French decides to join the Marines and undergoes the military branch’s famously intense bootcamp. There he navigates grueling training and deep-seated prejudice by peers and leaders alike. However, unexpected camaraderie and a hard-earned sense of belonging come to shape his identity and life path forever.
Among the cast is Raúl Castillo, who plays the lone drill sergeant to show some kindness to French. Following his recent Gotham Award nomination for his performance, Castillo spoke with LA Confidential about The Inspection’s exploration of masculinity, his personal connection to French’s journey and his experience filming Cassandro.
What about the script captured you during the first read?
Ellis French, the main character played by the wonderful Jeremy Pope, is in the tradition of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. He's an underdog who overcomes great odds to find success, and, ultimately, becomes a Marine in our story. I just found that really inspiring. I read the script in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes you get sent scripts and it's very laborious and you're busy, distracted and whatever. But I got sent this script with A24 attached and of course I was immediately interested. A24 has done some of my favorite films in the last decade.
And then the character, Rosales, that they were asking me to read for I felt was really compelling and a depiction of masculinity that I hadn't seen before. That was really exciting to me.
How would you describe Rosales’ depiction of masculinity?
I love characters who live in the gray who aren’t told in primary colors and let the audience decide. I love when a director or writer challenges the audience and doesn't spoon feed them with what the story should be. I think Elegance did that really elegantly, no pun intended, with this character. Rosales sees potential in French. He sees real potential, real leadership skills and I think he chooses to instruct and nurture French in a Marine kind of way. But I think he sees real potential in him and he goes out of his way to lift him up.
I went to college at Boston University. I was the first of my family to leave. I come from a really small town in South Texas called McAllen. It’s a border community and my family is from northern Mexico and I came from a really homogenous environment. And then left and went to Boston, which is very different culturally speaking than South Texas. If it hadn't been for the care and compassion of an African American professor by the name of James Spruill, he was an acting professor who went out of his way to nurture me and school me and give me a little bit of tough love that I needed or I wouldn't be here today. But I think Jim saw that I had discipline problems early on and I needed extra care and compassion and he took me under his wing and nurtured me in a way that I really needed at an age where I was at a real crossroads. I was in New England and I felt very uncomfortable, but I didn’t know how to name it. I didn't understand what I was going to do. And I think he recognized that I was a bit of a fish out of water and if he hadn't gone out of his way to nurture me, I don't think I'd be here today. So I think when I read the script I really identified with the storyline and the way that people of color come together intersectionally in these institutions and each other up. And I think we need that, especially as men of color.
The film takes place during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era about a decade after Desert Storm. Why is this an important story to tell now?
I think we need stories about human conditions that are uplifting, stories that are inspirational, stories that are intersectional. This is a story about a young man who's really searching for the love and respect of his mother and ultimately learns to love and respect himself, and I feel like that's incredibly universal. It's a heavy story. It's raw. It's full of a lot of dark material, but it's also really funny, and it's ultimately uplifting and inspirational. And we need that. It’s a time in our country that’s incredibly divisive. I think we need stories that bring us together, and this is one of those stories that will help provide healing in the process.
What other upcoming projects are you looking forward to?
Now I'm doing— I'll say this. It's a thriller/ maybe slasher film. Total genre piece, totally different The Inspection in a really fun way. I want to continue to do things that challenge me, that challenge what audiences are expecting for me. These are two young filmmakers that I'm really excited about. It's a small cast and a relatively small production, but I think it's going to be one that is gonna really thrill audiences.
I also have a film that’s going to be put out in the new year called Cassandro directed by Roger Ross Williams and based off his documentary about a luchador by the name of Saúl Armendáriz. In our story he is played by Gael García Bernal. Saúl is often referred to as the Liberace of lucha libre and he wrestles under the moniker “Cassandro”. We shot the film in May/ June of 2021, so just before The Inspection. It's an Amazon project and I'm excited about Roger. Like Elegance, he’s a documentarian making his transition to narrative filmmaking.
I can say that I’m a luchador. It was a lot of fun. We shot down in Mexico City. The film takes place in El Paso-Juárez, but we shot in Mexico City, which is a dream come true for me. My family is from northern Mexico and I don't come from the industry. No one in the family is in the industry, so to be there in Mexico City and working in Estudios Churubusco— which my parents used to speak about the golden age of Mexican cinema and the great traditions of Mexican cinema— so to be down there working was a real dream come true.
This interview has been edited and condensed.