Note to servers, baristas, production assistants, flight attendants, party hosts, and really anyone, anywhere: Do not — we repeat, do not — under any circumstances give Arturo Castro coffee. Within minutes of sitting down to talk in the sun-drenched atrium of New York’s Bowery Hotel lobby, the actor is engaged in the delicate task of managing his caffeine intake — and the chance of going overboard has him on edge. He flashes fretful eyes at our waitress. Does the iced tea he’s just consumed have caffeine? (It does.) Do they have the less-potent green variety? (They do.) “I cannot. do. coffee,” Castro says as she walks away, clapping his hands with each word for emphasis like a tweet come to life. “I don’t drink coffee, y’know? Only tea, because coffee will like — it’s like everything else slows down? I’m like” — here he starts wiggling his body, shimmying his arms back and forth in a little couch dance, then launches into an account of the time a Broad City P.A. accidentally brought him a full-caf latte instead of the decaf he’d requested. “I’ve never acted so fast in my life. They were like, ‘Arturo, it’s hard to understand you?’ ‘Whatdoyoumean?’ And we had these tiny little trailers and I was in there just” — he makes a panting noise — “cracked out.”
One thing is clear: The Arturo Castro you meet in his crackling new sketch-comedy show, Alternatino With Arturo Castro (Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central), is the real Arturo Castro. The man is a ball of kinetic energy and charm, bursting with stories, given to impromptu riffs, and just generally bouncing along on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural enthusiasm. He interrupts himself frequently, then interrupts his interruptions, as if his brain is just too damn excited to finish one thought before getting to the next. Talking with him is a little like being a skateboarder hitched onto the back of a cab as it zips through the city streets. Just get a good grip and enjoy the ride.
“People expect me to be a certain way,” Castro says. “Like, white people think they have the monopoly on neurosis but, no sir! Nooooo ma’am! I’m such a neurotic fucking human being, and I’ve never seen somebody that looked like me approach [a show] that way, so I was just like, Fuck it, let’s approach it that way.” The result: skits like one in which the character of Arturo, trying to impress a date who fetishizes clichéd ideas about Latin men — hypermacho, hypersexual — pretends to be into salsa dancing, only to stand off to the side at the club, biting his nails over the drink menu along with a handful of equally out-of-their-element white dudes.
Castro’s sensibility is very much informed by American culture. Even before he moved to the U.S., he’d traveled here a bunch, including an annual trip to visit an aunt in Fort Lauderdale, when the family would hit Disney World and “stock up on ill-fitting Banana Republic” from a massive outlet mall nearby. He relished our syndicated “TGIF” sitcoms, like Step by Step and Family Matters. (“Among my friend group in Guatemala,” Castro says, “everybody was like ‘Sports!’ and ‘Fight!’ and I was like, ‘But what about Urkel? What’s his narrative?’”) He also has a Canadian stepfather, so he visited there, too, and for a few years dated a French woman.
“I’ve lived with a lot of cultures and absorbed a lot from them,” Castro says, “and I realized that our common denominator is what we all laugh at, which is awkward situations or really stupid things. So I just set out to make something like that, a party where everyone is invited. You don’t have to be Latin to enjoy it. If you are, you might get an extra wink at it. But even if you’re not, you’re like, Oh my god, this guy looks like a ball of nerves who’s about to die from anxiety!”
Most audiences know Castro from his work on two wildly different shows: the seminal lady-slacker comedy Broad City, on which he played Ilana’s sweet and effete Guatemalan roommate, Jaime, and Narcos, the Netflix crime drama set in the world of Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, where he was the sociopathic cartel scion David Rodriguez. When Castro made his debut in Season Three of Narcos within a week of Broad City Season Four, some fans got whiplash. It was a pretty impressive — not to mention highly unusual — showcase of his range.
“Narcos came out and everybody hated me — in a good way! Like they hated the character, because he was such a dick,” Castro says. “But from the hatred they started researching my work. And then Broad City came out and they were like, ‘Whoa, you’re a great actor!’ I very easily could’ve been pigeonholed into doing just comedy. But I can point to Narcos for anybody who doubts my dramatic skills, like, ‘Fuckin’ take a look at that. If you have ten hours.’”
His career had even more unusual beginnings. Years before his big break in Broad City, Castro was part of a hastily thrown-together hip-hop boy band in Guatemala named, by a well-meaning teacher who should definitely never be a manager, The Unknowns. On the face of things, it was not an auspicious start — except that the group’s sole performance at a telethon led directly to a TRL-style hosting gig for 17-year-old Castro, which led to him being labeled, in a phrase that will no doubt appear in every story written about him for the rest of his life, “the Carson Daly of Guatemala.”
Not long after he secured that job, Castro’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 53. While Castro had been performing on stage since he was 12, the loss fueled a deeper interest in drama. A month or so earlier, that same boy-band-organizing teacher had assigned Castro the “to be or not to be” monologue from Hamlet. Initially, he couldn’t wrap his head around it. But after losing his dad, it suddenly resonated. “I was like, ‘Oh, wait, he’s talking about the fear of what’s beyond, and how we all fear and try to find answers,’” Castro says. “I started seeing theater and media as a really healing tool.”
The comedy half of the equation developed when Castro arrived in New York and started auditioning for commercials to make ends meet. (He played, among other parts, “a taste bud on a giant tongue” and “a shitty angel for an injury lawyer in Jackson Heights, Queens.”) He’d always been funny, but he realized that dialing up the humor to match the staccato pace and sharp dialogue of TV spots helped him get work. Otherwise, he spent his time auditioning for bit parts — see: his credit as “Dishwasher Juan” on an episode of The Good Wife — and acting in NYU student films for a hundred bucks a day in order to pay for his basement studio in Williamsburg. (He now lives, no joke, in a penthouse apartment directly across the street.) It was a four-year slog until he landed Broad City, which was his first pilot audition and what he calls a six-year comedy course with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.
His funny and dramatic sides are less distinct than his resume would indicate. There’s real heart and not a hint of cynicism to Alternatino. Castro is fundamentally optimistic about our ability to find common ground — an especially generous outlook for someone who’s experienced overt racism since moving to the United States. There was the time at H&M, early on, that an older white guy kept asking Castro about the price of the clothes, assuming he worked there. The times he emailed about apartments on Craigslist and got no reply unless he changed his name to something more American. There were the times he accidentally bumped into someone amid the bustle of New York and heard them sneer, “Wetback.” It took him a while to find such incidents offensive, he says, mainly because he’d never experienced — and never expected — prejudice before.
“I didn’t realize I wasn’t white until I moved to the States,” he says earnestly. “You grow up comfortable, you have the privileges that a lot of white kids do. And so you come here like, ‘Yeah, we’re all just chillin’!’ And then you realize…you’re not. Very early on I was forced to explain that I didn’t come from drug money. I found myself on dates where people were pushing this poverty-porn angle, like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so brave.’ Like, ‘For being at brunch?’
“I think it’s more about misinformation than mean spirit,” he continues. “I think a lot of people are just not exposed to folks like me or different varieties of Latino. It was just shocking to me that I had to be in a category when I’d just assumed that I was in everybody else’s category. That was a learning curve the first couple of years.”
Despite the obstacles he faced when he arrived in New York, Castro was convinced success as an actor would come, thanks in no small part to his family. “They always saw something in me,” he says. “And once they saw me on stage they knew there was nothing to stop me. They were super supportive, so it never seemed weird to me to pursue this.” This is the same family who formed a caravan 25 people strong and drove to El Salvador to see Castro perform when he was touring with a small American theater company.
Castro gets back to Guatemala occasionally to “recharge [his] soul batteries,” but, 14 years after moving here, he knows New York is home. “I’m grateful for having grown up in Guatemala because it taught me a lot about character and the value of family and spirituality,” Castro says. “But I always felt it went at a little slower pace than me. I was always anxious for more, like, There’s gotta be a bigger fuckin’ world out there than go to law school, marry this girl, have these kids, and go to the fuckin’ country club. Like, that’s not for me. And then when I came to New York I was like, ‘Oh, you guys are all neurotic psychopaths, just like me! I have arrived!’”