Frankie J. Alvarez knows you don’t like Agustin, the character he plays on Looking, HBO’s half-hour dramedy about a trio of San Francisco-based gay besties (Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Alvarez). While viewers focused their positive attention on the love triangle between Patrick (Groff), Kevin (Russell Tovey) and Richie (Raúl Castillo), much of their scorn was directed at Alvarez’s character, an often-misguided struggling artist. Alvarez understands why. During season one Agustin tricked his boyfriend Frank into having sex with a hooker, accused Patrick of slumming with Richie and generally caused everyone close to him no end of misery. It was almost cathartic to witness Frank give him his walking papers in the season one finale. But change might be in the air for Agustin. Season two (premiering on HBO January 11) will introduce an unexpected new love interest — a bear named Eddie (played by Mean Girl‘s Daniel Franzese) — who will presumably call him out on his sometimes aberrant behavior. Alvarez chatted with Queerty about why viewers are challenged by his character, shopping at sex stores with his costars and how the series will address HIV prevention.
When I watch Looking I’m reminded of watching Sex and the City 15 years ago when my friends and I wondered if the writers were eavesdropping on our private conversations.
We’ve had experiences — me, Murray and Jonathan — where we’ll read a script and think, Oh my God! That happened to us. We had that conversation! There’s a scene coming up in the third episode where Augustin and Patrick go shopping for an enema. We had a similar experience when Jonathan asked me to go to a sex store with him to buy a certain product and we had a similar conversation and similar experience so it was eerie. I’m glad you said that. That’s the goal of the show — to be as real as possible.
During the season one finale Agustin got dumped — deservedly, some would say — by Frank, who told him that he didn’t know who he really is. Do you agree with that assessment of your character?
I think that is true and those words from Frank echo in the depths of Agustin’s soul. From the start of season two until the final frame that conversation is really debilitating. When we pick up with Agustin it’s been 6-8 weeks since that event and he’s just as aimless as when we left him. He’s drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs, and he still doesn’t have a job. Thankfully Patrick has taken him back in. They go away to the woods for the weekend partly to clean up Agustin’s act. It takes a lot more than that throughout the season. In the first season his sense of self is tied to his art so when his art is taken away — and rightfully so — he’s left with nothing. And there’s no better place to start from and to build from and through his new job and this friendship/romance with Eddie he starts to open up. Maybe people will see that this is the guy that Patrick went to college with when they first became friends. You’ll see another side of him and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
You mentioned Agustin’s drug use. I’ve noticed that he’s been found on the sidewalk in a chemically-enhanced state twice so far.
[Laughs] I think obviously the drugs are a tool to forget. The pressure of disappointing his boyfriend and hurting his friends and the trail of brokenness that he left behind has crushed him and he doesn’t really know how to deal with his emotions. There’s a lot of bravado that’s covering a lot of fear. The drugs are a great way to forget. He starts to pick himself up from it and Daniel’s character Eddie is so much fun. The chemistry we had really comes through and the writers were excited about it and ended up writing more stuff for us. It was fun to stumble into that and it has a positive affect on Agustin.
As an actor I try not to judge who he is. I just think what is it he wants and how does he go about it. With somebody like that he makes bold choices but they’re not always thought out. They don’t come from a malicious place. He’s not twirling his mustache thinking, I can’t wait to hurt my boyfriend and fuck with my friends. I think he hurts their feelings and then realizes the repercussions of his actions. That’s the big thing in season two. He’s starting to become aware of how his actions can become destructive to his relationships. He’s really making an effort to be a better friend and be better in his relationship with mixed results. It’s a learning process and he’s definitely going through it in the second season.
A lot of viewers find Agustin to be very unlikeable, but I see him as a guy who just always acts on his worst impulses, which people do in real life even if they don’t want to admit it.
I’ve gone out with the guys to events and so many people come up to us and tell us they love the show and a lot of them, when they’re talking to Raul or Jonathan, they say “Oh my God, I’m just like you.” No one ever says, “I’m just like Agustin.” A lot of them people will say “I have a friend who’s just like Agustin.” It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them are making up that friend and it’s really them. It’s tough when you see yourself in that character, but I think that’s what’s so beautiful about him. He’s out there. I’ve met him out dancing in the Castro. I think it’s great that he’s provoking a strong reaction. He’s a real guy. He’s one of those friends who are always struggling a bit, but there are positives to him. You need him to be real with you.
Do you play the character just as he’s written or have you been able to incorporate some of your own characteristics?
In the second season I bring more of myself to the character. I’m a playful, mischievous guy and I think with the relationship with Eddie we were able to bring some of that out in Agustin. I think that’s good for him and it fleshes him out. Certainly as an actor I can identify with his sense of fear and wanting to succeed. I have healthier ways of coping than Agustin does, but definitely the fear can cripple you or motivate you and right now he’s at a crossroads. I think it will be exciting for audiences to see which path he chooses.
In the episodes of season two I’ve watched Agustin becomes involved with someone who might surprise viewers. Does this relationship develop throughout the rest of the season?
Yeah. Eddie is a friend for a while and then a romance develops. I won’t go into it too much. It’s a really challenging, exciting relationship. They have a great system of checks and balances between each other. I think Agustin drops some truth bombs for Eddie and certainly Eddie puts Agustin in his place when he needs it. I think last year Frank had a tendency to support him until it was too much, but Eddie is more truthful and upfront and does say the tough things and it’s good for their relationship in the long run. It’s really beautiful. I’m excited for the bear community to see themselves in a character like Eddie. It was sad to speak with Danny about this. He told me that I was his first onscreen kiss. I’m glad that our show is on the forefront with this. That we’re not obsessed with cookie-cutter movie star looks. We’re trying to cast real people and tell real stories. Were trying to be as truthful to the nuances and the myriad of experiences within the gay community. There are so many parts that we can’t tell the whole story, but we’re trying our damnedest.
Were you aware of gay bears before the series?
I was aware. My mom was a ballerina while growing up and I danced a little bit. It was through that community that I got to know a lot of gay men and women. But as far as the categorization, that was new. I’ve learned the difference between a cub and a seal cub. It’s not part of the everyday vernacular so it was fun to navigate and learn. My wife got a kick out of it. She said, “Oh, you’re an otter!” [Laughs]
Last season Agustin and Richie were very adversarial, but that seems to change during season two. How will their relationship evolve?
There’s a really exciting scene coming up between the two of them, but I don’t want to give too much away. It’s a beautiful scene. Raul is an actor of tremendous grace and eloquence. He’s so truthful and he’s been acting for quite a while. I only graduated from grad school a couple of years ago so in many ways he’s been a big brother to me. I learn from him every day, especially the scenes with him and Jonathan. They’re two pros at the top of their game. They’re incredible. To finally get a chance to play a scene one on one with him was a real blessing. It was certainly one of the highlights of season two.
It’s attributable to our real friendship off camera. Back when we tested in February of 2013 they were mixing and matching people and when the three of us read I remember making an offhand comment, “That was the dream team.” We chuckled about it, but sure enough they cast all three of us. We felt at ease. It starts with Jonathan, the way he leads us. He’s so generous and open. There are no divas in the bunch Everyone takes care of one another and we let each other shine in the moments where we’re supposed to shine. We know collectively as an ensemble that that’s the strength of the show. Nobody’s trying to get in front of the other to get more screen time. We love each other and these characters.
What would you guys do together when you weren’t filming?
We go to yoga together and to movies on the weekend and go dancing in the Castro. It’s insane how close friends we are. It was a new experience going back to San Francisco for season two after the first season had aired. We were mini-celebrities. We’d go out dancing and guys would buy us drinks and we’d get hit on and take selfies on the dance floor. It was cool. People really embraced us and the show. People feel a tremendous amount of pride for the show. They feel we’re showing parts of San Francisco that haven’t been seen on TV before. San Franciscans are really proud of their city and the fact that they feel we’re doing a good job is the ultimate affirmation.
[Laughs] First of all, when that interview came out he sent me an email apologizing. He said, “I told them Agustin wasn’t good at canoeing and it made it sound like you’re not outdoorsy.” I fake threw a tantrum at him. We all have a good sense of humor about that kind of stuff.
When I read it I just presumed you’re very urban.
[Laughs] Well, it’s definitely a character choice. Agustin isn’t an outdoorsy guy. He’s trying to get fucked up and forget his problems. All the stuff that Patrick is excited about, like seeing the oldest tree and canoeing, is just not his bag.
Without giving too much away, there’s a character who says he has a “House In Virginia” and another has what’s described as “AIDS hysteria.” Will the series tackle the debate over prevention drugs like Truvada?
All I will say is it’s a big plot point. It’s so perceptive of you that you picked up on that in the first couple of episodes because the writers are setting that up for later. That’s all I should say. We very much continue to be on the forefront of what it means to be a gay man or woman in today’s modern world. Obviously, issues of PrEP and Truvada certainly do come up multiple times throughout the season.
You’ve had to film some rather graphic gay sex scenes. What’s that like for a straight actor? I wonder how much of it is choreographed and how much of it is spontaneous between the actors.
I think it’s a mixture of both. Those scenes are already incredibly vulnerable and technical because of the way they’re shot. We’re trying to avoid showing certain body parts and still maximize the story’s potential so it ends up being pretty technical. I haven’t had a sex scene with a women yet so you’ll have to ask me next time. The circumstance of whether it’s gay, it becomes so technical that you’re not thinking about any attraction or nervousness for me as a straight man. Daniel was saying the same thing. There’s no romantic tension between us as actors. We’re not worried about what the other person is going to think. I’ve got a wife and I go home to my wife and that’s that so we can put aside any extra things that sometimes get in the way and just tell the story in the best possible way and respect each other in the process.
As a straight actor playing a gay character, what are some of the most ridiculous questions you’ve been asked? You’re welcome to include the last one I asked you.
Yeah, from a journalistic point of view it’s hard to think that I come to work and take my clothes off and have a sex scene, which is something that’s so intimate between two people. But for us, we’re approaching it from a storytelling point of view. What does Agustin want from the scene? When you invest in those things then the nervousness goes away. It’s always those questions. I just think it’s funny because this is my first big gig. I’ve never gotten to do a sex scene with Carey Mulligan or something so that would be a whole slew of other issues. I thought it was alarming during the first season to get all those questions but then I realized the the sex scenes are a big part of the show, so of course I’m going to get asked about it.