Before he was tapped to audition for HBO’s “Looking,” a new show about the lives of three young gay men in San Francisco, Frankie J. Alvarez had never acted in front of a camera. A recent Juilliard grad, he’d been working the regional theater scene. But when HBO calls, you answer. Now, he’s one of the three leads on a hotly anticipated new show and says he could not be happier. We got him on the line from New York to talk diversity in media, filming sex scenes and more.
What was it about the part, or the show in general, that attracted you?
First of all, the show, writing-wise, is just so naturalistic and the way that Andrew [Haigh] films it, coupled with really exciting cinematography, the camera just feels like another person that you’re in the room with. You really feel a sense of intimacy and it feels like real people talking, which is really exciting. What actually was a bit of a challenge for me, coming from theater, was really stripping down the musculature [of the character]. To really just peel away all those layers and be as transparent and open and present as possible.
And then, of course, playing Augustine has been a really exciting challenge. What’s so great is to be playing an intelligent, articulate Latin man who really embraces his sexuality and has a strong sense of who he is. As a first generation American with a Cuban background, it’s really fun. I’m not sure we have ever seen a Latin man like this on television.
I’ve read some complaints on the Internet along the lines of, ‘Here’s another show about white gay, privileged men, etc.’ — and it’s funny because you’re not even white...
It’s a little bizarre, because it feels like people are making a rash judgement based on a one-minute-and-a-half-long trailer. Murray [Bartlett] and Jonathan [Groff] are white and Russell Tovey is British, but me and O.T. [Fagbenle] and the guy who plays Owen [Andrew Law] and his girlfriend are all different minorities, so you’ll see it’s a pretty diverse cast. I think a lot of the haters will see that as they watch the show.
From the trailers, the show seems a bit like "Girls," with gay men in San Francisco instead of straight girls in New York. Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, I think that’s a simple way to look at it — and I think it’s flattering to be compared to a show like “Girls” or “Sex and the City,” which are marked hits of huge quality for HBO — but I think the comparison stops once you watch the show. Yes, they are friends surviving in the city and dealing with relationships, love and their careers, but just totally writing-wise, and the way the show feels, it really isn’t like those shows. You know how it is? You have got to sort of frame it, you have to frame the new with the old. Hopefully in 10 years there will be shows coming out where people will be like, “Oh, it’s like the straight ‘Looking.'”
There hasn’t been an exclusively gay show on a big network like this since “The L Word,” that I know of. What do you and the rest of the cast hope this show will add to the conversation?
I think what we really want is, first of all, for the gay community to feel represented and that their voice is being heard, and that they feel they can see themselves in this show. And then, for the straight community, to feel like they have a window into what these guys’ lives are like. To realize and see their own life circumstances within these guys. My wife and I have watched the show and there have been certain moments where Patrick will do something or Dom will do something, and we have been like, “Oh my God, that reminds me of that time where I dated that girl and that relationship I had with that guy.” So I know for us, as straight people, it has been relevant, and we do see ourselves in these guys.
Are there any stereotypes that the show attempts to confront?
I don’t know if I can think of anything like that. I think what’s really great is that it just feels like that, for these three guys, the gay aspect of their lives is just one circumstance out of the many circumstances that they are dealing with. That being said, there are some jokes. They do rip each other about certain things and they do confront certain things. There is a little scene that happens in episode six where I tease Patrick for having a gay sounding voice. So little things like that happen.
I think this is an exciting time for television, and the media in general, where we are seeing same-sex relationships portrayed even on cable television. I’m hoping that we’ll soon get to a point where a scene with two guys making out isn’t shocking in any way, it’s just another romantic scene.
I agree, I hope for the same as well — that we don’t have this divide where this is a gay film and this is a film for straight people. Hopefully that changes in the same way it should change for minorities, as well. We shouldn’t be making movies specifically for a specific group. I think now, more than ever, people want to see themselves in every nationality and every culture.
HBO is known for graphic sex scenes. I imagine sex scenes are uncomfortable, period. Was shooting your first gay sex scene hard?
You are totally right. Shooting a sex scene is already very vulnerable, so the fact that it was with guys... I have never really done a sex scene in front of a camera, this was obviously my first big on-camera thing, so I really don’t know what the difference would be like. But I know, for me, what’s really good about the sex scenes in this particular show is that it’s not sex for sex’s sake. A lot of these sex scenes are advancing the characters forward so for us, as actors, it’s really easy to throw yourself into the circumstances of what’s going on with the character emotionally. That helps us get through, you know, what can be so awkward and technical about filming a sex scene.
What kind of research did you when you were getting into your character?
I have a lot of gay friends and family members and so I chatted with them about certain things, and reached out to them as I got the scripts and checked in on whether it seemed authentic or not. And then that coupled with that I did do a fair amount of research. I read certain books. Some were given to me by Andrew, our showrunner, and Michael [Lannan, show creator]. They gave me all kinds of good material. Some that were about the gay experience, but some that were just about, you know, the punk culture in San Francisco, which Augustine is a fan of.
But for me, the singular most important intellectual thing in terms of research, was this beautiful book by Patti Smith called “Just Kids,” about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. And just seeing this young man struggle with his sexuality and struggle with his art in his 20s and 30s in New York, I sort of saw a lot of Augustine in that, and that sort of proved to be a big inspiration point. That said, you know, you do all this research and you show up on set and kind of throw it all away, and you just allow yourself to respond to your scene partners and just be as open as possible to whatever is happening in the moment.
As far as the plot goes, I understand that your character is the only one of the three that is in a committed relationship, you've just moved in with your boyfriend...
That right. He has sort of been begging me to move in with him and I kind of relent silently in the pilot. But I think he is a little scared of the increased domesticity. He has a joke at one point where he talks about not really wanting to be a housewife, and so he sort of kick starts that by having a threesome in the pilot. And what’s really exciting about Augustine is this insecurity he keeps feeling about the relationship coupled with his own fears about whether he will ever get his art of the ground. What’s really great is as the season progresses, two story lines are going to crash into each other, and it’s really exciting.
And as you said earlier, those are fears and worries and stresses that are not specific to gay people.
Exactly. They're stresses we all have, whether they're job related or relationship related, we're not only seing them through a prism of the box we can be put in. If a train gets delayed in the morning for me, and I miss an audition, I’m not thinking about, “Oh man, I got totally f—ed of that train because I’m so Cuban." And I think, because people don’t really understand sexuality, they want to sort of feel like, well as a gay man they must be viewing everything through a gay prism and, actually, our sexuality is only one aspect of our life.
How as the reception been, leading up to the premiere? What kind of feedback have you been getting?
We just did the international press day and everybody seems really excited. They're just really responding to the naturalism of the show, they feel like they are in the room with them. And that sense of intimacy, I think, has so far been our calling card, and hopefully that’s something we can carry out in further seasons.
Are you afraid that HBO will spoil you for regular TV, when you're moving forward in your career?
Right. It’s strange for me, because this is my first TV show that I've worked on, so I don’t really have a frame of reference or anything to compare it to. I guess I won't realize how much I’m spoiled until I’m working on another show. But, that being said, I do realized how blessed I am. The sense of autonomy that we feel on set, and the chemistry we have between us and with the rest of the cast and with the crew, has been really special, so it’s nice that that specialness that we felt on set is translating on camera.
"Looking" premieres on Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.