To many U.S. viewers, Kate del Castillo may be best known for playing Pilar, the sexy and powerful Mexican crime boss who so vexed Nancy on Showtime’s Weeds — and ended up on the receiving end of a mallet as season 5 closed. But her recent TV and film roles, including a turn as a lesbian opposite love interest Eva Longoria in Without Men, are changing all that. Based on the novel Tales From the Town of Widows by Colombian novelist James Canon, Without Men is a quirky comedy that asks how women would remake society if they didn’t have to rely on masculine ideals. Longoria’s character may have the brains, but all the brawn — and a healthy dose of sex appeal and lesbian empowerment — comes from del Castillo’s character, Cleotilde.
Del Castillo is no newbie in the world of cinema. One of Mexico’s top actresses, she’s been performing since she was a child. After reigning in Latin America for over a decade, she came to Hollywood 10 years ago and her subsequent debut, as Rosario in the indie darling Under the Same Moon, is still to date the highest grossing Spanish-language theatrical release in U.S. history.
This year, though, has seen del Castillo’s breakout — and a game changer for Spanish-language programming in the U.S. as well. She starred in the coveted title role as Teresa, a young innocent who becomes one of the world’s most powerful crime lords on Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur). A short-form prime-time telenovela for Telemundo (a Spanish-language network owned by NBC/Universal) and Antena 3 (in Spain), Queen of the South became the most successful telenovela ever, breaking records for both male and non-Spanish-speaking viewers and astonishingly beating out all the English-language network shows in its 10 p.m. time slot. (The show and del Castillo’s role in it were so successful, the network launched its first Emmy campaign to get del Castillo that honor; alas, it didn’t succeed.)
But that won’t stop del Castillo. As Without Men (part of the Maya Film series) moves from theaters to DVD September 27, the actress is back on set, this time filming K-11, the controversial look at life inside the notorious prison unit where gay and transgender prisoners are housed. Helmed by Jules Stewart (mother of Twilight star Kristen Stewart), the film costars a bevy of notables, including Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star Goran Visnjic, D.B. Sweeney, and Mr. Sunshine’s Portia Doubleday. Del Castillo talks to the Advocate about playing gay and transgender, LGBT rights, and leaving Mexico for Hollywood.
The Advocate:Without Men is such an interesting film — at times it’s really funny, at times it’s heartwarming. The ending surprised me — in a good way. What do you think audiences will take away from the movie?
I saw it for the first time last night. And, you know, it’s a lot to, to grasp when you see it for the first time. And I think, at the end, uh, it’s a movie that talks about communicating, uh, between, communication between men and women you know, and how women can really step up for themselves. So I think it’s nice and it’s fun and, I don’t know, it’s just a fun movie.
I think the character you play codes as lesbian right away. She’s much more self-assured than the other women.
Yeah, definitely, she’s a straightforward lesbian. Absolutely. I think she has overcome that machismo world and she’s the one who, who gives them a little bit of self-assurance and telling them ... to become a woman in every single sense without a man. I think it’s a beautiful character and [she] comes to revolutionize the whole town.
The film is about that women emerging from these supporting roles to be leaders in their own right. Do you feel like the leader in real life?
I am a leader in my own world. That’s enough for me. I’ve been living by myself for a long time. Then I married and then ... I think I did a big thing first of all, on marrying the first guy I married, and I wrote a domestic violence book because that was my experience. So, for me, this means a lot. I’m always trying to push for women’s rights. So this movie, it’s just perfect for me.
Do you think Spanish-speaking audiences versus English-speaking audiences will perceive the film any differently?
Unfortunately we — and I’m speaking not for Latin America but for Mexico because that’s where I come from — we still, I think, are a little bit macho. Not that we only live in a macho world, but we also think as a macho world; even the women, you know? The women in Mexico, because that’s the way we were raised. But now, every year, every moment, every single month, everything’s changing in Mexico and in Latin America. They see the women working but still being moms.We are working and we still having control of our homes, of our children, of everything, so we added something. And I think we’re gaining all of this respect from men in a good way.
You have a very much buzzed-about sex scene with Eva Longoria.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
Was this the first time you kissed another woman?
This was the first time, yes, and then I went to the Queen of the South and I kissed another girl there, so I’ve been kissing [women] and now I’m going to play a man who wants to be a woman. So I’m confused now. [Laughs] My husband is like "Oh, honey." But yeah, this was the first time, and we were — I’m going to talk for myself, but I was nervous, just because in the back of your head, it’s stupid, but you know, it’s a woman. I’ve kissed very ugly guys, why wouldn’t I kiss Eva Longoria? Right? [Laughs] But in the back of your head it’s just weird ... and all the people, the crew, they were like "Oh, my God, these two chicks," you know? Actually, we had so much fun and she’s so nice to work with. She’s a fun and very light actress, very light girl, like in the way you can hang with her. So we had a lot of fun and uh, and she’s just, she’s just soft.
So it was a little different than doing a sex scene with a male costar?
Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, and we had so much respect. Sometimes with male actors, you don’t get that much respect. sometimes in this career you get to come across the asses. [Laughs] So, I felt really, really secure in many ways. And it was just amazing; we had a lot of fun.
You spent most of your life in Mexico — was it a hard transition leaving that behind to come to Hollywood?
Yes, it was, it was a very big decision. I mean, leaving everything that you have worked for. Like your family, your name, your comfort zone. It’s hard, but when your gut’s telling you to move on and telling you to do something else, something different ... you just cannot neglect that. So it was a big move, and I did not regret it; I would do it exactly the same. It’s been hard, of course, very, very hard, and sometimes I will wake up just crying, wanting to go back. But it’s always a brighter day the next day.
What’s been the hardest part?
Well, I guess, starting all over again. Knocking on doors and trying to get good roles, trying to get Americans to know me. When I got here the first time, I was only doing the roles that were Latin, which were prostitutes or the maid or something like that. Things have changed, and I am very happy to be part of that ... now I get to play so many different, beautiful, strong, and powerful roles, which is great. But I think that decision to start all over again was [difficult] because economically everything changed for me.
And you’ve been acting since you were a child.
Yes, since I was 9. A very long time.
Everybody loved your role on Weeds. That was a great story arc with the Mexican crime boss, and since Latina women are so often been relegated to these maid roles or prostitutes, it seemed like a breakthrough role.
Yes, no absolutely, I was so happy to go through this role, because for me it was like, oh, my God, OK yeah, she traffics [laughs] but she’s powerful. And you know, that’s what I wanted. Latino roles are getting better — every single day they’re getting better and better. I was lying there with Demián Bichir — a very good friend of mine, and I love him, I think he’s one of the best actors — and all the crew and everybody there was so amazing to work with.
Well, how much of yourself do you see in your characters?
I see a lot. I just played, in the Queen of the South, this big drug lord, a human trafficker ... so I’m like, oh, my God, how can I do this without judging the character, without being able to absolutely understand them? It’s not that I’m OK with the whole thing or that I agree with them, but you need to understand them as an actor. Those kind of characters are amazing to play because they’re so different from you but at the same time they have so many things from you. Talking about the trafficker, for example, I was like, oh, my God, how can I play this mean, horrible, cold woman? And I’m like well, she doesn’t know better, she’s never had anybody tell her something nice, or touch her in a nice way. She’s been abused all her life and now what does she do? She’s abusing. But it’s because she doesn’t know better.
You see the humanity in them.
Yeah, absolutely. we’re all humans, and we all have our bad, our dark sides and our bright sides and that’s just the way we are.
Queen of the South beat all of the English-language network shows at the 10 p.m. spot.
I know, isn’t it amazing? For me it’s like a dream come true. Thinking about even competing with the networks, it’s just amazing. Also, that I worked with, in English, in many great movies, with great actors and great directors, and this thing in Spanish is the one that catches attention from other networks — and also Americans [overall]. A movie I did called Under the Same Moon that was in Spanish, it was also a big hit. And for me, it’s an honor and I feel so grateful that something in Spanish is what’s grabbing attention.
Under the Same Moon was the highest-grossing Spanish-language theatrical release in the U.S. Did that pave the way for the Spanish-language genre to sort of blossom?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I think now that we’re so many Latinos here ... it’s just amazing. Everything today will pay off, everything that we do, everything that we say, and all these movies — also with the LGBT issues ... the Americans see us from a different point of view. It’s not only about immigration — like 'these guys who come and just take our jobs' — I think it’s just humanity. We’re all trying to survive, we’re all trying to be better, and we’re trying to work. I think that movie was one of the beginnings at least for me, in this American market, and I love it. I just feel so proud.
I think we just need to open our minds. We cannot just judge and categorize. If you’re black, if you’re gay, if you’re Latin — we’re all the same. We’re all the same, and we all want the same, we want to be happy. And when we do it [stop stereotyping people], we’re going to try to understand the other people and how much love we can give and understanding even if we don’t agree, or even if we don’t think the same way, but it’s just trying to understand the people who surrounds us.
Tell me more about your upcoming film, K-11.
I’m researching a lot about transsexuality [for the role]. Oh, my God, I’m so excited. That’s why I love my job, because I learn so much with every role that I play because you get to research. I’m playing a transsexual. And I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading and getting to meet people. I’ve learned so much from these transsexuals and transgender people that it’s amazing. I can’t even describe you how much in peace I feel now because I’ve got to meet people ... that they are amazing people that have been through so much pain. And that makes them just survivors in my point of view and amazing, amazing people. I’m very happy and I’m very proud to be able to, to just to open my eyes, open my mind. Once I was playing a prostitute down in Bolivia — I spent three months there, and it’s the poorest country in Latin America. I was having a bad, bad time because I was hanging out with all these prostitutes. In Bolivia, it’s legal. So I was hanging out with all these prostitutes, and the stories they would tell me, my heart was so broken and I was feeling so bad I would be like, “Dad, I feel so bad, I wish I could have so much money to give these people, and to do something, to help them” and my father — my father’s a big actor, right — he was like, “Honey, you need to stop this because this is not your reality. But I am so glad you know that it exists because it is reality.”
So you know, there’s a big difference. And, and there’s only so much we can do but ... just knowing that it exists, it changes your life. It changes your point of view. It changes the way you act every single day. So for me, now, as I’ve learned and I’ve grown so much in this past month of researching [transgender issues]. I’m starting the movie tomorrow, so let’s see what happens.
Well what can you tell me about your role? Are you actually playing a transgender person in the film?
Yes I am. Everything happens in Los Angeles County Jail. K-11 is a section they have in that jail that segregates all the gay and transsexual and bisexual inmates so the other ones won’t harm them. So I’m one of those transgender girls inside the jail. And she actually runs the dorm, so she can be as feminine as any girl and then she becomes really violent because she does meth and she does a lot of drugs, and she’s mercurial — she snaps in a second and she’s violent and she can be very masculine.
And so it’s this duality [that’s] amazing, I mean, it’s like a schizophrenic kind of role, which is so hard and such a challenge for me ... because I’m not playing a lesbian like in Without Men. I’m playing a man who wants to be a woman. So it’s just different.
I know that there’s a lot of interest from the trans community, since there are so many interesting people involved in it.
[Director] Jules Stewart has done an amazing job getting actors together. When things are meant to be ... the right people just fall in this right project, in the right moment, and all of the people that are involved are amazing and things start to happen instead of the obstacles that you get all the time when you want to do a movie.
It’s expected to be a blockbuster.
Well, yeah, hopefully. It’s funny, with the Queen of the South, I finished it in January, and then all the success ... is just a blessing, because you don’t expect that. As an actor, you just go and do your job he best you can. it’s not in your hands anymore. You’re done. You don’t even know if that thing’s going to even go out; you can only can do what you can do and and try to do the best way you can, and that’s it — everything else is a blessing, it’s a gift from life, really.
Are you still developing a TV series that will showcase your love of extreme sports?
I’m talking to different networks. I always had this thing for action. It’s hard as a woman to get those kind of roles, so I’m encouraging people to help me and develop something like that because I love it. I think it’s just a lot of fun.