Exclusive Interview: Half Brothers star Juan Pablo Espinosa on becoming the gay role model he never had “growing up in Colombia in a very macho culture there was always this stigma around being gay”

Los Angeles based Colombian actor—and let’s face it major heartthrob—Juan Pablo Espinosa, who turned 40 in October, was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Over the past two decades, since graduating from his drama studies at Emerson College in Boston, he’s established an impressive career spanning theatre, television and movies. On stage he’s taken on roles in Chicago the musical, Patrick Marber’s Closer, and Macbeth with Shakespeare & Company. While on the small screen he’s appeared in the romantic drama La Maldicion del Paraiso, played an unconventional leading man in the comedy series La Fan, and donned hospital scrubs to portray Dr. Augusto Masa in Colombia’s adaptation of Grey’s Anatomy, A Corazón Abierto. He also appeared in the first season of the acclaimed Netflix series Narcos as the Colombian political leader Luis Carlos Galán, and starred opposite Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta Jones in Guillermo Navarro’s Cocaine Godmother in 2017. In addition to his acting roles Espinosa was the host of the Colombian version of American Idol, Idol Colombia.

His latest feature film role in director Luke Greenfield’s comedy drama Half Brothers, which opened in US theaters on Friday, sees him portray a Mexican father named Flavio who leaves his home country, his wife and beloved young son Renato behind to seek work in the USA when a financial crisis hits Mexico in the mid-1990s. He never returns. Many years later his now adult son (Luis Gerardo Méndez) receives a phone call out of the blue just before his wedding, telling him that his father wants to see him one last time. At his father’s hospital bedside in Chicago, Renato realises that he has a half brother, Asher (Connor Del Rio). The pair immediately clash but end up going on a road trip of discovery together, as they uncover the mysteries of their father’s life and come to terms with their complex individual relationships with him.

Juan Pablo Espinosa. Photo by Andres Oyuela.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive chat with Juan Pablo Espinosa about why being offered a role like this in Half Brothers was so refreshing, what might resonate with LGBTQ+ audiences about the film, how Oprah and a moving direct message from a gay fan inspired him to come out on social media and why he admires and identifies with Ricky Martin.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Taking you back a little, what was your initial reaction when you read the script for Half Brothers for the first time and what were some of the reasons that you wanted to be involved in the movie?

Juan Pablo Espinosa: “The first day I received the script I was going through it and I’d be reading one page and it was comedy and then I’d turn to the next page and it’d be really dramatic, then I would turn the page again it’d be comedy. It was like that all the way through; drama then comedy and then more drama. So it was really fascinating to read because it’s not every day that I come across something where the two go hand in hand so well. So I was really drawn to that aspect. Ultimately though what made me very excited about the project was the role itself being so different from what I’m used to being offered. As a Latino actor from Colombia, I moved here to LA to start auditioning for roles and every time they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re perfect for the drug dealer’, or ‘You’re perfect for the guy who’s involved in crime’, those kind of characters. So to actually see a script that highlights the Latino journey as an immigrant and the positive aspects of our culture and what it brings to the world was very exciting, to see something that was written in such a positive way.”

Juan Pablo Espinosa in director Luke Greenfield’s HALF BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : John Golden Britt / Focus Features.

Tell us about your character, Flavio, and what it was like to play him at those very distinct stages throughout his adult life.

“Well, as an actor it is such a thrill to come across the opportunity to play the same character throughout that many years. It’s very rare now that you go through prosthetics and makeup and get to age with your character in that way. So firstly I was thrilled because I’m all up for a good makeup session with great makeup artists! They really were the best. I was sitting in a makeup chair for hours watching this transformation in front of my eyes of me literally becoming Flavio throughout the ages. We see him sick, we see him in jail, all these things and it was such a thrill to be able to see that with my own eyes, because a lot of time when you’re playing a character like this who ages it is done in post-production, or many times another actor gets to play your character at different ages in their life. It was such a thrilling experience to really work up these different scenarios in Flavio’s life, like at the beginning where everything’s prosperous, and he has this beautiful relationship with his son and that camaraderie between them, it is so light and bubbly. Then to see the reality of a world that demands so much of him and he wants to provide the best for his family. So it’s not only a beautiful emotional journey for me to be connected to Flavio, but also to be able to hopefully show what a lot of people will be able to identify with, trying to provide the best for their children and family. I think that was one of my favourite things about the film. At the end of the day we all have a father, so to dignify that and to play that, it was beautiful.”

Juan Pablo Espinosa and Ian Inigo in HALF BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : John Golden Britt / Focus Features.

Although this is not an explicitly LGBTQ+ story, I think aspects of it will definitely resonate with queer audiences, particularly those two complex father/son relationships. Flavio left his first son Renato played by Luis Gerardo Méndez back in Mexico and then he struggles to connect with his second son Asher played by Connor Del Rio. What did you make of that aspect of the film?

“I think that one of the most beautiful things about the journey that you go on in the film is that regardless of whether you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community if you have had any kind of relationship with it you know what it feels like to be an outsider. But in any case, you can always feel like you’re the black sheep of the family, you can always feel like you’re not making your family proud. In this case specifically we see it from a father’s perspective. Many of us have felt like we don’t fit in at some time or another. In my case growing up I had that feeling of, I’m not making them proud, or they’re ashamed of me, or I’m afraid that they’re going to judge me or ostracise me. So I feel like the monologue that Flavio has at the end of the film was so beautiful, to really kind of come to terms with the idea that there was never anything wrong with his son Asher, that there was never anything wrong with either of his kids. I think this is such an important message to send out right now to the world. A lot of the time it comes down to how parents are equipped to deal with these kind of situations. I think that the more we talk about it, the more we give children and people in general, the confidence to step up and be whoever they are and to celebrate our differences, the better things will be. I love Asher’s character arc, where he comes across as a quirky, crazy character, and he’s constantly saying throughout the film ‘there’s something wrong with me’, but by the end we see that we’re all human, we’re all trying to tie our family circles as best as possible. Flavio has that beautiful moment in the monologue where he specifically addresses Asher and tells him, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you and I want you to know that I’ve loved you and been proud of you throughout your whole life’. It really brings so much joy to me to be able to put that in a film where hopefully a lot of people who don’t feel like they fit in can have a moment of comfort and empowerment.”

Juan Pablo Espinosa in HALF BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. / Focus Features.

Last summer you came out publicly via social media and I wondered why it felt like the right time for you to do that and also what impact it’s had on your life?

“Thank you for the question because it’s wonderful to be able to address these things. In my case growing up in Colombia in a very macho culture there was always this stigma around being gay. Whenever I thought about the possibility of being an actor, it was always like, oh well, you could never be an actor and be gay, you know, that’s just not the way it works. So you hear a lot of information that comes from outside, but it’s not really what you’re feeling inside. I managed to get through high school and when I was around 18 I actually came out to my parents, which is to me the day I came out really, I addressed my mom and my dad, which were and still are the most important thing in my life, and my sister too. Then I began my journey, and it was beautiful. I graduated school and began working in projects in Colombia in TV and film and theatre, and it was always something that was present, I never felt closeted at all because everybody around me, my immediate family, all my friends, everybody knew. I never stopped going out, I would go to gay bars or go to gay clubs, and I would have a boyfriend at the time, it was very relaxed. But then I think what happened last year is that I realised how the world had changed with social media and how I began having much more access to my fans and how we became closer.”

Juan Pablo Espinosa. Photo by Gerardo Briceño.

“To be quite honest, it was funny, I was doing a meditation. Oprah has these wonderful meditations and I was going through one of them and it said, ‘Become the person that you needed when you were growing up’. That was the mantra of the day, and I was like, ‘Huh, who did I need when I was growing up?’ And then I realised that as a little boy who went to an all boys Catholic High School, full of guilt, full of questions, full of fear, all these concerns that I mentioned earlier, like being singled out, or being rejected or judged, I think what I really needed was a reference of somebody who could be gay and still have a perfectly normal life and be happy. So that was the initial reason that I wanted to do it. Also, one of my fans sent me a direct message through Instagram and he was telling me what a horrible situation he was going through and that he was contemplating suicide. It tore my heart because I understood that you can follow me on Instagram and see photos of flowers and sunsets and of a happy life, but I was leaving one thing aside and it wasn’t conscious, but I wasn’t talking about my life and I wasn’t talking about being a gay man. So I talked to him on Instagram and I was like, ‘Listen, I know exactly what you’re going through, this is going to be okay, it gets better’. Then literally the very next day I made the decision that I was going to become that person that I needed when I was growing up and hopefully provide some kind of reference for a lot of people who were growing up in these circumstances.”

Juan Pablo Espinosa. Photo by Gerardo Briceño.

“I thought it was something very simple, I just uploaded this video talking about some of these same things I’m saying to you now and saying that I wanted everybody to know that I’m gay and that it’s wonderful and I’m very grateful. Then it became a crazy thing back home in Colombia and in America and I got showered with so much love, but also received so many messages of really exactly what I wanted to do, from all these young people and not only young people, but every age group saying things like, ‘Seeing you speak out about it, seeing you talking about these things makes me feel safe and it makes me feel able to talk about it too and to tell my parents and to tell my family and to tell my friends.’ It’s still very emotional for me to talk about with you even now because it’s beautiful at the end of the day, to be able celebrate who you are. Like that famous phrase, be yourself because everybody else is already taken. All we can do is strive to be the best versions of ourselves and that for me is trying to be the best gay man that I can be, trying to be the best actor that I can be, trying to be the best son, partner, and brother. It’s it’s all about trying to be the best that you can be.”

Ricky Martin on his Movimiento Tour. © 2020 Ricky Martin.

What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture; a movie, TV series, music, artwork, book, play, or musical for instance, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years.

“There are so many, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the journey that I saw Ricky Martin go on. Before him, when I was trying to figure out my life I didn’t have a reference of another gay man who I could identify with as a Latino. A lot of times when I would try to think of somebody that I saw in my everyday life who was gay and who had a perfectly normal and loving life I couldn’t think of anybody at that time, especially in the 80s, to be honest, somebody that was talking about all these things. So to see Ricky thriving with his records and everything he’s doing still to this point, that’s such a big source of inspiration to me. Reading Ricky Martin’s book when I was back in Colombia I remember being in complete awe thinking, ‘Is this real? This is great!’ A Latin lover, a sex symbol, it’s all part of our culture, with all the macho stuff, and I so identified with his journey, especially with being in the entertainment business myself. I identified with those ideas you’re being told like, ‘this is the way you have to be perceived if you want to be successful’ or ‘this is the way you have to look if you want to be successful’. So that’s one of the things that I’m most grateful for in this time, here and now, to be able to live my life in the most authentic way that I can and to try to do the best work I can and just be myself. As well as Ricky, when Ellen DeGeneres came out and I was still living outside of the States in Colombia to actually think that a woman could come out and say that she was gay and still have success and have her comedy and her show was incredible to me then. I love musical theatre, shocker! Billy Elliot is a show that really resonated with me; that innocence of a young man, where he’s like, this is what I’m passionate about and this is what I love it. Even though it’s not necessarily a queer story, I definitely do feel like a lot of the elements of it are about how we feel in the community as outsiders and as somebody who is drawn to things that are not stereotypically the norm.”

By James Kleinmann

Half Brothers starring Juan Pablo Espinosa is currently playing in theaters. Head to the Focus Features website to find out where the film is playing near you. Available on demand from Wednesday December 23rd 2020.

Follow Juan Pablo Espinosa on Instagram @espinosajuanpa and Twitter @espinosajuanpa.

HALF BROTHERS – Official Trailer [HD] – In Theaters December 4

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