Umbrella Academy's David Castañeda on Diego's Second Act and Latinidad in Hollywood

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When it comes to acting, David Castañeda has his heroes. "Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men: that's a big one. Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Amy Adams in Arrival. There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis." Still, one performance stands a cut above the rest as the one that catalyzed his wanting to be an actor, along with 2002's Raising Victor Vargas: "I saw The Matrix. I saw Neo and I was blown away. I was 9 years old."

Castañeda stars in Netflix's The Umbrella Academy, which, after the release of its second season, became the streaming supergiant's No. 1 most-watched show in August. It's entirely possible, then, that at this very moment, a 9-year-old is watching Diego Hargreeves save the world one knife throw at a time with all the awe Castañeda, 30, once had watching Keanu Reeves dodge bullets in slo-mo.

Adapted from the hit comic book series of the same name written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, Netflix's answer to the eggshell-white Avengers follows an estranged family of superhumans (Ellen Page, Hamilton's Emmy Raver-Lampman, Misfits' Robert Sheehan, and Justin H. Min included) adopted from around the world. Set in Dallas in 1963, this season tackles everything from racism and police brutality to homophobia and pre-Vietnam antiwar sentiment.

Consider that Latinos make up only three percent of protagonists in top-grossing films (and less than five percent of all speaking and named characters), and Castañeda's breakthrough performance as a Mexican-American crimefighter on a top-watched Netflix original series is no less than a triumph for Latinx representation on TV. On a call with POPSUGAR, Castañeda discussed Diego's second act, the endless potential of Latinos in Hollywood, and redefining who gets to be the hero.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

POPSUGAR: First off, congratulations on the success of The Umbrella Academy! How does it feel to have the new season out?

David Castañeda: It feels great. You know, I think when you put so much time and effort within a group of collaborators, you don't know how it's going to do, and it's nice to see that people are reacting very positively toward it.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: You grew up between Mexico and the US. How does being Mexican American — de aquí y de allá — inform your work as an actor?

DC: From the basics of it, it's my language. The way that I enunciate, the way that I talk: it's very Spanish, Mexican, you know? So, for example, most of the times when I grab a script, I have to translate everything into Spanish to know exactly what I'm saying, because I was raised in a Spanish household. And what that does is, it slows me down when I speak. You know, when you're living in a Spanish home, you tend to speak really fast and loud, and you tend to cut words off halfway through the sentence, and you get the information across. And, when you translate that to English, it sounds like you're just speaking gibberish. [laughs]

"It's like salt-of-the-earth type in our culture, where we're not just representing us, or me as an individual: we're representing an entire bloodline."

So, physically, that's one thing. In terms of how it bleeds into my work, another thing is — there's this really cool thought that I always had when I was going to college 'cause, it's very earthy. It's like salt-of-the-earth type in our culture, where we're not just representing us, or me as an individual: we're representing an entire bloodline. So if I'm on the screen, if I'm late to a meeting, if I'm interacting with certain groups of people: it's not just me interacting with this person. It's not just me doing the work for this scene. It is my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and then there's this huge cloud of — or, this huge culture that's kind of implemented in myself that, it gives a lot of depth, I think. Especially when [I'm] doing a character that allows me to access it more; especially the more I know about my culture and my family.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: I know your first on-TV role was as a gangbanger, and in an interview with Con Todo, you made a point to say you wouldn't take offense to being offered a "stereotypical" role as long as it's well-written and comes from a place of truth. That struck me: the humility in your approach to acting, and taking roles, and making them your own.

It's an interesting line to toe, though, between American and Mexican, because I feel like on the show, you toe another line between being this superhuman and these very human emotions. This season, I feel like a lot more depth was explored in your character. Would you agree?

"You know, I was always taught that the simplest way to understand a person is to know that everything is derived from love — lack of love or fulfillment of love."

DC: I mean, 100 percent. I think that there isn't a day when we go to set — I mean I'm sure it comes across a few times when we're doing green screen, all of these things — but going to set, a lot of the thought is, who is this person? And, what am I trying to defend at this point? And [you] figure out how to connect and defend this character's story, because — I think once you get to the simplest form of what a character wants, everyone connects to it. And that — that in itself is depth.

You know, I was always taught that the simplest way to understand a person is to know that everything is derived from love — lack of love or fulfillment of love.

PS: That's beautiful.

DC: So, through that, every character that is portrayed, you can pretty much derive it all the way down to that. And, I think when it came to Diego, that was a big topic that in my head was roaming around every time I get a script or scenes. And that goes back to the "stereotypical" roles. Obviously, your ideas, and how you want to do it, and all these things to give the character a backing and a whole story — at the end of the day, the filmmakers decide it works for the story or it doesn't work for the story. They have the overall control at the end of the day of how this character is portrayed. Sometimes it gets left in the cutting room; sometimes it gets used. But, all in all, all you gotta do is hope that the people that you're working for are looking out for the best in the story. That's the biggest thing.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: And I guess, really, that's the work of acting: doing your best with what you've been given.

DC: You can only do as much as you can and kind of lend your brush to the canvas, and I've been very, very lucky with the world that has been placed upon me with my family and with the people around me that have allowed me to not see those barriers.

It wasn't until I went to college that I started seeing how many people — Hispanics, and Mexicans, and even in Latino culture — went to theaters to see films. You can take your family to a theme park — you know, a family of five — you're spending $60 a ticket. And by the time all in all is done, that family can spend $500 on that outing for the weekend. You take your family to the movies, you're looking at $85, $100, $120 with popcorn. And so you realize, how accessible. Our community is just so used to going to the movies, no matter what is given to them. And now, I think that there's an awareness [that] the people that tell stories should be able to hire the people that can truly represent those stories, and vice versa.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

"Now that it's out and people are kind of connecting to it, I feel like it's going to allow other filmmakers and studios to say, I want to hire writers to tell stories that connect to this character."

PS: That ties into what Eva Longoria had to say about the importance of Latinos showing up not only in front of but also behind the camera.

DC: For Umbrella, you know, Diego in the comic books is blond and caucasian, it seems. And I didn't think about it too much, Chris, while I was doing the role, what was his heritage and all these things, because obviously he was adopted. But I did feel it at certain points. One of the writers or someone wrote in season one that got cut out, that Diego had, he said something that referenced being Hispanic. And I was very happy that it got cut out, because the truth is, Diego was never raised in that culture: he was raised as an entity behind a philanthropist who was using him through child abuse, and trauma, and all these things.

So I never thought about it in that sense: I thought this guy wouldn't even speak Spanish. Now that it's out and people are kind of connecting to it, I feel like it's going to allow other filmmakers and studios to say, I want to hire writers to tell stories that connect to this character. Or, I want to hire directors that can give me a world where I can tell a story. And it doesn't have to be a story about a Hispanic, or a Latino story, but a universal story. And to notice that there is so much talent in our community, a pool of talent that we're still just scratching the surface of.

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: Something I thought was fantastic this season was watching Emmy Raver-Chapman's character Allison navigate this Jim Crow-era America, and do it on her own. And in the same way that you said your character was divorced from being Hispanic in that they were adopted and raised here, it was interesting to see that reckoning for her character. I think it'd be fascinating to see an arc like that for your character, too.

DC: I think so, too. I think the situation didn't allow for Diego to have that experience in the same way in the '60s. I think if it had happened, Diego wouldn't have even let it affect him, because he's so stubborn and so closed off to everything that isn't regarding his objective. But there was a question posed not long ago that if Diego got to have his own storyline, what would it be? I think once — depending on whatever happens here on out, I don't know if we'll get a third season — I would say, if he got to live in this world right now, I would love to see how he'd react to it. I would love to see how he'd take this all in, and what would he do?

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: What kind of vigilante justice do you think Diego would be up to if he was in modern-day America?

DC: Well, because he's more reactive, I feel like he would gravitate towards the people that accepted him the most. So obviously he doesn't like guns, so he's more hand-on-hand combat. I feel like he'd be down on the streets with some of the people that are trying to do more than just silently protest, to be honest with you.

PS: Yeah.

DC: I mean, I don't know. I mean, he's reactive, and if he knows that he can knock off one domino that'll kind of help everything else, he'll do it.

PS: I mean, just the whole plot line around assassinating JFK kind of illustrates that point. I definitely don't imagine him as the going-to-organize-regularly type. [laughs]

DC: Yeah. [laughs]

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

PS: Seeing a Mexican superhero on TV, aka Netflix, it gives Latinx kids a chance to see themselves as the good guy, for one. But then, it also disrupts the trope of Latinos as crime-doers. What are your hopes for a show like this, considering its legions of fans are a testament to the virtues of better, more inclusive casting in Hollywood?

DC: That people that are watching it, that they know that there's a different way of doing things. Like, a lot of kids when I went to school, drama wasn't an option. Drama kind of felt like you were on an island. If kids can watch it, and they think, "You know, I'd love to try this. I'd love to see what storytelling is and where it can lead me," and just have the kind of first steps and initiative that everyone has. That, a kid that's brown-skinned, or light-skinned, or whatever skin color that they are — that they can see it and be like, "Mom, can I take an acting class?" Or, "Can you buy me a camera?"

And that hopefully, studios realize that stereotypes aren't working anymore. And, that the internet, and social media, and all these things are sort of opening up the world to realize that there are so many not even different races, but sections between a race — like skin color, and demographic, and socioeconomic placements. That there isn't just one way to put it.

"Hopefully now, when actors or myself get to read a script, it's like, 'Hey, first of all, who's telling this story? How well do you know this story? And the character that I'm playing, is he a real person?'"

I did a film called End of Watch, and I remember one time, a casting director came up to me, and she's Hispanic. She said, "I love that movie. I love that movie because there's so many Latinos in that movie, but there's so many different kinds of Latinos — from the cop, to the cartel, to the gangs, to the people on the streets — that it sheds light to not just one specific thing."

PS: Like you said, we've only just scratched the surface.

DC: Hopefully now, when actors or myself get to read a script, it's like, "Hey, first of all, who's telling this story? How well do you know this story? And the character that I'm playing, is he a real person?"