shadows features There’s really no diva
A conversation with Looking's Frankie J Alvarez...
Frankie J Alvarez: Below as Agustin and with costars Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett

alvarez as agustin
alvarez, groff, bartlett

B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Sabotage After appearing in three episodes of Smash, Frankie J Alvarez landed one of the lead roles as Agustin in the HBO half-hour comedy-drama Looking. A charming, well-spoken man, he grew up in Miami in a family of performers, then studied at Juilliard in New York, where he lives with his wife Leah. He's in London to promote the first series on DVD and the impending second season on HBO/Sky.

Andrew Haigh caught everyone off guard with Weekend and now is refusing to follow expectations with Looking.
He's the best. I love when he's on set. I've actually specifically requested him to be there on the days that we do the more intimate stuff, the sex scenes. He just has such a great eye for those scenes. And the way he talks to us, the way he helps us navigate these trickier moments of the show, he's graceful and also brings his sense of humour. I don't want to dismiss the other good directors we've had, but it's just different when Andrew's there. It feels like home, like Daddy's around! We know that he has our best interests at heart and that he's telling these stories in a really great way. I love him.

He likes to work with small cameras and essentially eliminate the camera from the scene. Do other directors try to work in his style?
Totally, that's the goal. I don't know if that's Looking-specific. On a TV series where a director is coming in and you're working with a bunch of people who know the world more than you do and actors who have delved into these characters longer than you have - well, you've just got to find a way to get in line and adapt your style to the mood of the show. I think Andrew really sets the tone in a great way. You're right, it's about taking that mask away and getting us to stop acting.

You never feel like anyone is acting in Andrew's work.
And I think that happened for all of us in the first couple episodes, where we'd finish the day, look at each other and say, "Did we work today?" It just felt like you and I sitting in a room right now having this conversation. We'll have to talk in a couple of years when I've done something else - other films, other directors - then i'll have a better sense of comparing it. But it's been an embarrassment of riches. I mean to have him be my first kind of big thing.

For a first big thing, you have to to play a lot of intimate encounters. How do you feel about them being gay sex scenes?
ASgustin is not the first gay character I've played, and it's not the first time I've been in a sexual situation with a man. So you bring your imagination and your personal experience to it. But that's the thing: they're filming it. With the first season we didn't know what the show was going to be like. We'd seen Weekend, but that's a celebrated indie film. I already trusted Andrew but after watching the first season I trusted him more. Just the shots that he chooses and the way that he lingers on certain moments. That's why he's there for the sex scenes even for episodes he's not directing.

I show up, take off my clothes and just say, ‘Where do you need me?’

Of course these scenes are technical and staged and weird. And you're naked in front of people you don't know very well.
Although it's a closed set so you're not naked in front of hundreds of people; you're naked in front of 10 people. But with the second series I show up, take off my clothes and just say, "Where do you need me?" In the first season it wasn't like that at all! I was still learning. But that's a testament to the way the crew functions and the way Andrew leads everyone. It's respectful. And if people are watching the show and are surprised that I'm straight in real life I feel like I've done a good job. I want them to feel like this is a real guy in a real situation. We show details you don't see that on television! And some audiences have never had that experience, so if we're going to be a realistic show we've got the be realistic across the board.

You're a straight actor, while your costars like Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey are all out. Is there any banter between you?
We've just become really good friends. We filmed the pilot in March 2013, and then we didn't start filming season 1 until September, so we had five or six months of getting to know each other. By the time the second episode came, we really were friends. We were going to yoga together, hanging out with each other's significant others, going to plays and movies. We text and email - we're legitimately friends. And that's been so much of a blessing. I haven't had the experience otherwise - there's really no diva.

Do you improvise in scenes to play with each other?
We do! Woo! No, not that kind of playing with each other. There are times when improv is brought into a scene, and then after a couple of takes it feels like we've gone away from what made that scene so special. So a lot of the time what you're seeing is completely scripted.

Everyone says San Francisco is a character in the show.
Movies set in San Francisco have usually been middle- to upper-class characters. Mrs Doubtfire comes to mind! But our characters are struggling to pay rent. You're seeing parts of the city that aren't being shown, you're seeing the fog and the rain. And I think that's like to what you were saying about Andrew's point of view: try to be as realistic as possible and showcase parts of the city that haven't been showcased. So for us it's exciting to be walking and talking in the streets and have San Franciscans come up to us, sometimes interrupting takes, and say, "My God, you're showing our city the way that we see it." I think that's been the ultimate complement.

What do you think the show says about gay life?
Andrew never wanted Looking to be an issue-based show. Any issues within the community to spring forth from the interpersonal relationships. So I think that's what the show is about: gay men are just like straight men, straight women, gay women. We're all going through the same stuff, dealing with career issues and relationships. What's so beautiful about the show is that we're trying to break out of that box - not only within these characters lives but the show itself. It's a dramedy that isn't really hilarious, but it isn't a slit-your-wrists drama either. Even in the style of our improv we're not encouraged to make jokes or hit punchlines.

Gay characters
don’t necessarily make it a gay show.

Scenes never play to the jokes.
No, it's about whatever comes out naturalistically. We get put into the box of it being a "gay show" and that is both helpful and hurtful. But hopefully we're paving the way for a future Looking where gay characters don't necessarily make it a gay show.

Agustin makes bad decisions and has to continually correct himself. But I've only seen the first series, and he probably goes further from there!
That's exactly what continues to occur. You know for Agustin, coming from an upper-class background, he's kind of been babied for his whole life. Now he's on his own and all the things he thought were entitled to him haven't happened - he hasn't achieved success in the art world, he loses his boyfriend because of his destructive choices. I think he's learning from that. It's inspired some distain in audiences but for me I'd rather people were engaged in the dialog. It's great that some people are defending him and some people hate him. That's better than playing a character that's trustworthy!

Well, you could argue that it's the boyfriend's fault for not accepting him for who he is. It's complex, there isn't a villain.
Yeah, although a lot of people would tell you that Agustin is the villain!

Do you have a say in where he goes next?
Well, I did have a chat to the writers - I had some thoughts and ideas. If they don't go with those suggestions that's fine - it's their show and I'm just a vessel, right? But they were like like, "That's so funny because we just had a conversation about the same thing." Even without talking we were already on the same page. I think he's going to continue to challenge the viewers.



© 2015 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall