Showbiz leads performers on odd journeys.
Just ask Juan Pablo Espinosa, the Colombian-born star of the new comedy Half Brothers. The film opens in cinemas December 4.
After growing up in Colombia, Espinosa came to the United States where he studied drama at Emerson College in Boston. After a brief stint in the New York theatre scene, he returned to Colombia where he immediately landed the leading role of Alejo in the drama series Tu voz estéreo. He followed up as the Latino hunk Carlos in the soap El último matrimonio feliz, and as the lead in A corazón abierto, the Colombian TV adaptation of the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy. Since returning to the US, he’s landed roles on Narcos and in Cocaine Godmother. Throughout his career, Espinosa has never hidden his sexuality as a proud gay man. He also released a statement via Instagram in 2019 reconfirming as much to his fans.
Half Brothers casts Espinosa in his most high-profile English-language role to date. In the movie, he plays Flavio, the estranged father of Renato (played as an adult by Luis Gerardo Méndez). Flavio abandoned Renato and his mother when the latter was just a child. Flash forward more than 30 years, when Renato learns Flavio had another son in the US: the wild man Asher (Connor Del Rio). Together, Asher and Renato team up to retrace Flavio’s journey from Mexico to the US, and learn the ultimate fate of their father. Though a slapstick comedy, Half Brothers benefits immensely from a sensitive, intense performance by Espinosa, whose tender work gives the movie an emotional charge.
We chatted with Espinosa ahead of the Half Brothers release to discuss his role in the film, the difference in roles he’s offered in Latin America vs. the US, and life as an out-gay actor. Half Brothers opens December 4.
How did the role of Flavio come to you?
My agent sent me the audition. I remember looking at it and thinking wait a minute—Flavio is 60. I need to start moisturizing.
But after rectifying with them, I knew I would get to play him from his 30s to his 60s. So I was less insulted.
But from the get-go it was something that wasn’t the type of project to come my way every day. Upon reading the actual script, it was very moving to see. I’m a Latino, Colombian actor who has been here in Hollywood and going for a lot of auditions where it’s like “Colombian drug dealer.” Latino characters are so ingrained in everyone’s mind as stereotypes, associated with conflict and crime. So when I read this script, I was like oh my God, finally, something that celebrates a heartfelt story.
Even though it’s a comedy, in the end you’re left with a feeling of family is important. I was very, very excited, so I began the audition process. There was all this back and forth. You’re working so much to get the character. I think it took a month and a half until I got the news [that I’d gotten the part]. Luke [director Luke Greenfield] was such an angel. He had this vision and we shared it. So going through the whole process was beautiful—to have a director rooting for you every step of the way. I’m so glad we were able to shoot it.
You already mention: you play Flavio over a very long period in the film, at various points in his life. Does that change the way you play a character—finding the nuance of age?
Completely. That’s one of the most exciting things about the work. Usually, when you get a script, you have an arc that your character goes through over a year, or a day. In this journey, you have 40 years where you’re going to follow the character. So from the get-go, it’s was beautiful to see his passion and love for his kids. I felt like that would be our thru line, no matter what he was doing. I really wanted to have something where, even if it was a subtle twinkle of the eye or a smile, every time the word “Renato” comes out of my mouth, or “Asher,” you notice.
That’s really cool.
It’s interesting. I’m a big believer in energy. At the beginning, you see [Flavio] in his 30s. He’s a father, a very vibrant human being. But, he goes through so much adversity. My goal was to show that energy contained with every obstacle, dimming a little bit. Then we see his journey, which is heartbreaking. So I never wanted to lose his essence, but I wanted to see him contained. That was fascinating to work. And like you say too, there are certain processes within the middle of the process too. Sitting in a make-up chair for four hours…
With all the prosthetics and the incredible make-up and hair artists. They literally became my best friends. I’m eternally grateful to the people that give you the opportunity to look in the mirror and see Flavio. There’s only so much I can do psychologically and emotionally as an actor. But to look in the mirror at yourself and see you’re older—it’s like oh yeah. You also shoot everything out of order. Actually, the first thing we shot—and this was insane—was his [closing] monologue. To this day, that was one of the most thrilling days of my life. We finished, and everyone was crying.
The first day of shooting, the first day of everybody, they threw me in the water. It’s like oh great, a 13-page monologue. And you’re aged. And you’re doing a Mexican accent in English. It’s one of the craziest wonderful things. It made it so much fun. It was such a great opportunity.
Well, and that brings up another interesting element. I’m pretty sure you also never meet your co-stars face to face. How does that challenge you in your performance?
It was really fun. To me, I was so lucky to have met Ian, who plays young Renato and Drew, who plays young Asher. I really had a moment where I felt the love for the kids. So I cement that feeling. There is literally one scene together. When we were rehearsing, it was so weird. It was the only scene we had together. Now, it’s funny, but at the time, when we were shooting in New Mexico, the days were organized as comedy or drama. It became every day when Flavio was on set everyone was like it’s a Flavio day. They were all so respectful, so quiet. It was such a thrill.
Do you find a difference in the type or quality of roles you’re offered in Colombia versus the US?
That’s a wonderful question. I began training at Emerson College, in Boston. One of the things I remember was going to performing arts school, doing Shakespeare every day or Checkov every day. Being King Richard or Romeo, it was great. Then I moved back home to Colombia after college, and I was the heartthrob, the Latin lover.
Oh wow, that is interesting.
And I’m like but I can be King Richard! It was interesting to see the contrast. I could play a doctor—I did the Colombian version of Gray’s Anatomy. We did a lot that, at the time, was groundbreaking. And it was so much fun, and there was a diversity to everything I was offered. It was the same feeling I had at Emerson: I’m an actor. I can play anything.
Then, when I moved to the United States, it was a completely different picture. It was like you’re an actor from Colombia. That means you can only do certain roles. Then, those certain roles are only in a specific age category…which happens to be the perfect age for a drug dealer. Literally, 70% of the roles coming my way are drug dealers.
Oh my lord.
To be honest, there were roles that would say “Colombian Drug Dealer,” but Colombia would be misspelled.
It’s like, you want this authentic, but you can’t even get the name of the country right? So that’s been a challenge here, to break free again and show I can do other things. And this film really gave me that opportunity and the joy of waking up on a set and playing to my strengths. I’m grateful for the career I’ve had, but at a certain point, you have to be conscious of the message you’re putting out there.
So it’s wonderful to be associated with something I truly believe in.
It’s interesting that you put it that way: you’re sending a message. There is something else I need to ask you, which is you came out and joined the ranks of the rest of us queers last year. Welcome.
Since coming out, have you seen a difference in the kind of roles you’re offered because Hollywood now knows you as a gay man?
You know what’s so beautiful too? When I was in college, I came out. That’s when I feel I personally came out. The most important thing for me was to come out to my mom and dad and sister and close friends. It was a process, but it was beautiful. So I always felt out. And this is funny: the first-ever work I did on TV in Colombia, I was approached by a woman at a gay club.
She was like have you considered acting?
So it goes to show: I’ve lived a perfectly out life, even when I started working on TV there with the macho situations and all that stuff. Producers, directors, the networks have only been so loving. I’m so grateful to work with them. It wasn’t until social media that things started to change. At home, I would go to gay clubs and interact with friends. I’d take pictures [with fans]. Then, when social media took such a chunk of our lives, I was doing this meditation by Oprah…
It was to become the person you needed growing up. Then I started wondering who I needed when I was growing up, and was like I was a homosexual growing up in Colombia. I experienced a lot of homophobia, a lot of negativity toward the community associated with disrespectful words. And I tried to look for a reference, and I couldn’t, as a kid, look up to someone gay living a normal life. So when I did the meditation, [I realized] I had a platform to make contact with my fans. And I realized I was keeping my private life private, so I figured why not integrate?
And hearing from fans who were contemplating suicide and all these things that were heartbreaking, I realized I [couldn’t] keep it to myself. I was out, but maybe people who know my work have no idea about my personal life. I didn’t have to; I chose to. And it’s been beautiful.
And, as for the kind of roles I’m offered, one of the most beautiful things I did before coming out was ask what I have to lose. I had friends who said don’t do it, people I work with. And if [coming out] meant I wasn’t offered those macho roles, hey, been there done that. I want characters that offer what Flavio offers. Also, as you get older, you look at life as more joy and less drama, less fear. If I can help anybody go through those sentiments, and be joyful, and see I have a normal life when they look at my Instagram, I’ve completed my Oprah mission.
I love that it’s your “Oprah mission.”
I’m a fan.
So where to from here? You can speak English, you can speak Spanish. You’ve proven you can do well with a plumb role. What kind of parts do you want to be considered for? Gay roles? Straight roles? Do you not care?
I want to stay here. I’m in a relationship here. I’m feeling more at home. At this point, it’s funny: you don’t want to be the best gay actor; you want to be the best actor. I want access to the best roles there are. Also, I think it’s really important if there are gay roles that come my way to play them with dignity. As a gay man, I feel like a lot of what I’ve seen in the media—here, we have lots of queer people behind the scenes redefining what we see. Hopefully, that happens in Latin America as well. I’m just thankful to take it day by day and really to bring whatever truth to a character. I’m cultivating a career here.
Half Brothers lands in cinemas December 4.