#TheatreCrushThursday: An Interview with Mariana Castro
New year means a revamp for the Chicago Theatre Triathlon! Last year, we did a weekly blast on our social media to recognize a local theatre company who was doing exceptional work in the field. We now are embracing the love of #TheatreCrushThursday to apply recognition to an emerging artist who is trailblazing their own path in the arts. Every month, we'll explore in depth what ignites their creativity, projects past and present, and highlight their perspective from working in their fields of expertise. Consider this your Inside the Actor's Studio at your fingertips that covers interdisciplinary artists, asks more than your favorite curse word, and feels like getting acquainted with a new friend.
Our first #TheatreCrushThursday interview spotlights the gifted, extremely kind, hardworking actor and writer, Mariana Castro. We interviewed Mariana this past summer and thoroughly enjoyed getting to discuss her performance triumphs and challenges, a luminous undergraduate career at DePaul University, and the hustle of navigating one gig to the next in a city with bustling opportunities. Read on as we discuss how Orlando Bloom led to her pursuing acting, gratitude in telling stories of immigration, and her future aspirations in directing and film.
Let’s start with your name, pronouns, and where you’re from.
My name is Mariana Castro and I use she/her pronouns. I'm an artist/actor/I do other things in art. I’m from Bogotá, Columbia.
What was your upbringing like?
I lived my whole life in Bogotá. Me, my mom, my dad, my brother who's younger. I got a chance to see the world kind of earlyish which was nice cause I got exposure to America and just like traveled a bit around. I had a pretty city life. It was outdoorsy cause I did live with a garden, played outside, and climbed trees.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you were little?
My mom is a fashion designer so that’s how I got into the arts like my mom would like take us to painting and drawing classes. And then back home, we go to school from kindergarten until we graduate at the same school. It wasn’t an arts school, but it had a lot of dancing, singing, and every year you had like presentations. It was very competitive too. It was always made from us so it was a lot of student produced work. That’s how I got interested in acting through like my theatre classes. My cousin and I used to do like a lot of little presentations to my family. I watched a lot of movies. I didn’t go to theatre as much.
Were there any films or performers you saw that you were like, ooo, I wanna do that.
It was actually a lot of period films that inspired me and fantasy, specifically the Lord of the Rings. Because I guess with period films seeing the costumes and a different time period on film. Seeing all the special features like I always loved seeing the how to make something of a film. But yeah I really liked that kind of stuff, and it was watching Lord of the Rings. Once, like an interview with Orlando Bloom where [he said], “I went to the Yale School of Music and Drama,” and I was like, whoa. You can go to school for this? So that’s really where I was like, oh, I actually wanna do this.
Did you do any acting when you were in school?
I did a couple of plays at school. More backstage so set design, ensemble like dancing, but not as much in school. It was more little acting or musical theatre training academies and they had like their own presentations or shows. So that’s when I started to get more into doing performing in a more formal setting.
Outside of an educational setting.
And my living room.
What drove you down the path of finding DePaul to pursue acting?
I didn’t get a chance to go places and see them. You can’t just do four trips back and forth so I was relying a lot on The Hollywood Reporter and a lot of lists of schools. I initially wanted to go to Europe and looked for a lot of schools in the UK. I was applying to NYU and because they had the Common Application I was like, oh. Maybe I should apply to another school in America. I can’t even remember. I just saw DePaul somewhere. It was super random. I think that actually helped because it was low stakes for me because I didn’t know much about the school until I actually went on the day of the audition.
What was the audition process like?
It was chill. I didn’t think as much with the American schools because I initially wanted to go somewhere else. I guess that helped because I was more relaxed. I was in New York for the audition and you just do a monologue, then you have a class, and you have a break. And then you get called back, do the monologue again, you work on it and do a cold reading of an open scene, another class. There’s a lot of interacting with other people which I really liked. Oh, and an interview.
Once you made that decision, what was that like? Had you been to Chicago before?
It was my first time in Chicago. I hadn’t even thought about Chicago as a city to go cause I didn’t really know Chicago had a theatre scene. Where I’m from the only things you hear are L.A., New York, London, so thinking more specifically to U.S. I didn’t have as much knowledge about it.
What have you enjoyed about it since being here?
I like that it’s a big city that’s calm. Like in New York you always have blinders and a task, and you have to go there, and here you feel like you can relax a little more, walk places, and the transportation’s more chill. I love in the summer they have so many free events to go to and music. In the summer, there’s a lot of it. In the winter, not as much, but it’s exciting to go see those things and the lake, honestly. That’s like the best part.
At DePaul, you worked on a variety of productions. Were there any roles that stuck out that you really enjoyed?
Yes. I really enjoyed Augusta and Noble. Augusta and Noble is a children’s show about Gabi, a girl who’s about to go to high school and she doesn’t know that her parents are illegal immigrants from Mexico. Throughout the play, she goes throughout the process of discovering her background and coming to terms with her identity. I really enjoyed the process and just seeing the audiences’ reaction because a lot of the kids that came to see it were in similar situations as the character. It was cool to have the opportunity to show young people there’s things in their lives that they can overcome and coming to terms with that they’re not alone in their situations. Especially cause when you think about immigration it feels like a very adult theme and children just kind of fall into it like, "Oh. I was with my parents when they came." Or, "I was born while we were in the process." It’s like they’re kind of stuck. "Oh, I don’t know where to go." "I don’t know where I’m from." "I don’t know how to feel about it." I don’t have the experience so it was a big learning experience. I do remember having a lot of people at the time being grateful for having seen the play.
I loved working on Desert Stories for Lost Girls, a play that Lily Rushing wrote. It was about this other girl discovering things about her past and family, like all these terrible things that had happened to her grandmother, great grandmother, and coming to terms with her past and where she comes from. The girl [Carrie, was played by] Jillian [Skale] and I was the grandmother [Rosa]. It was fun, mostly because of the language cause Lily’s just such a great writer. There’s a lot of poetry in it and the images were really nice. Ann Filmer was the director and she was very like California vibes. So chill and relaxed, but then very serious too so it made for a space for collaborating. I definitely enjoyed that show and it was my last one. It was nice to work on something that somebody my age wrote. Wow, you’re like my age and you wrote this full play. It was great.
And Desert Stories and Augusta and Noble were both new works.
Desert Stories for sure. I did work on the reading a year before. But Augusta and Noble I know they did in Chicago like a year before.
What is that process like in working on a new play as it’s growing?
I guess it depends how much say you have. Because with Augusta and Noble it was pretty [much] the play is the play and we’re not gonna change the script. But for Desert Stories it was nice to have a say, but not necessarily in a way of, oh, I want to change this about your work. Kind of like making and discovering what this is about and especially because Lily was in the process.
Did you come across any challenges or unexpected discoveries in your studies?
Definitely language. It’s a very big thing that I’ve noticed can be like a big wall, but also gives you opportunity for other things. Especially the first two years, even though English has been present in my life, I was not like thinking in English or it was hard to drop in images and embody the language in a scene. Cause when I’m speaking Spanish I feel more direct than in English. It’s much better now, but at first it was definitely a challenge. I did go to acting school back home for a year before coming and the way it works is like feeling the room. It feels kind of sacredish sometimes, and a lot of the influences are more like European and Asian.
A lot of the things I encountered at DePaul were more logic centered so like when we were walking around the room back home it was always about looking at each other in the eyes. Here it was like you’re more in your own thing. We never really had to look at each other in the eyes. It was never something that was commented or requested which was interesting because it’s like we’re doing it together. The majority of things I’ve been apart of I feel more hesitant to comment on something cause it feels more like this is my character and the work I’ve been doing rather than oh, we’re kind of all putting the pieces together.
Since you graduated from DePaul, you’ve worked on a musical, another theatre for young audiences piece, and some films. How has that process been of getting more freedom in the projects you get to work on?
It’s fun to be able to pick. I guess what I’ve learned is you really have to be interested in the project in order to apply. Like if there’s no interest, it’s kind of pointless because I’m not going to put as much energy in it. It’s not like I have to be a part of it, but it’s having the chance to apply for things, to say yes and no. I had never done musicals before [The Book of Sebastian].
What was that experience like?
It was fun. I really liked the story too. It was set in the Spanish Civil War and it was this group of Mujeres Libre, one of the revolutionary women’s groups back in the day. There's like some priests and people from the military so there’s a lot of encounters between different political stands. The play was very interesting because I had never seen that especially here. The lyrics and music all by Eric [Richardson] and Ashlyn [Lozano], she went to the Theatre School [at DePaul], directed it. It was her first directing experience so it was a lot of first times which was fun to share. It was just fun to sing honestly. It was cool to find the action in the singing and not so much the words.
You were also in Rough House Theater and Adventure Stage Chicago’s The Stranger and The Shadow which was a part of the Chicago International Theater Puppet Festival. Did you get to do any puppetry?
The funny thing is no. I originally applied to the job because I wanted to do puppeteering. The story’s about this girl, it’s like a sci-fi,1984 sort of world and it’s this girl that enters a city called Coalfax. Oh my god. The play is kind of about immigration too, because she immigrates from another city. There’s all these puppets of people that live there and they have these jars where they throw their emotions so they don’t express their emotions. They just kind of throw them up and it’s the process of her like exploring and meeting people there and changing the world. But yeah, I realized that I was not a puppet. Everyone was a puppet but me!
I got to do like a little puppeteering. So I like screamed my emotions. Instead of putting them in a jar, I scream it into a backpack and the backpack comes to life so the emotions turn into a monster. I got to do a little monster for a hot second.
Theatre has mainly been your experience in coming to Chicago and DePaul, but you’ve also done a couple of films. What have you enjoyed about that experience compared to theatre?
It’s all artificial so I love that layering because with theatre you do get the sense that it’s a performance and a lot of films, not all films, but a lot try to hide the fact that it’s a film. So like not bring attention to camera movements and stuff like that and the acting’s very natural. It demands things to do right on the spot. You have to come up with solutions very quickly and there’s a lot of technique that I haven’t been exposed to so like knowing you don’t blink as much, this is a close up so don’t move your head as much, like very tiny technical things that I start realizing and then how do you add the acting to that?
I’ve gotten the chance to write something and we made it with my boyfriend [Alexander Popov]. The film is called Bovine. It’s about this guy who’s a veterinary student. We see a couple days of his life when he’s tutoring a student and he has an uncomfortable sexual encounter with the dad. Nothing happens, but the energy of the dad, Phillip is his name, affects him a lot. Seeing the writing how you imagine versus how people start adding to it so like the cinematographer sees this, and then here’s the production designer, it transforms the film into something different. We’ve gotten super negative feedback and positive feedback too. The themes and some images are a little strong so that’s why some people don’t like it because they feel very uncomfortable. Negative feedback of course it’s not nice to hear, but it’s great to hear people have reactions to it.
My boyfriend is Russian so a lot of people that have seen it from there have a different perspective on the film versus people that have seen it here. And people that I’ve shown at home, very different feedback too. It’s interesting to see how culture, what’s in or trendy, what the subjects people are talking about, or how people tend to see things in art in different countries are.
You mentioned you hope to do more with film in the future. Do you hope that is on the writing side, acting, or both?
I wanna do everything. I wanna do more acting of course. I feel like I’m still not as familiar. I’ve only been in two or three actual professional sets versus more student independent so seeing that difference of course you definitely learn from it. So yeah, hopefully more acting, but it would be nice to do more writing or directing. Having more creative input would be fun to explore.
Do you think you would ever write something for yourself then perform it?
I don’t know if I could ever write and perform. It would just feel like Clint Eastwood. I don’t know how he does it. He’s like directing himself. It would be fun I think. It would be hard for me to separate myself. If you kind of mix them, it can get complicated. Writing this for example I was thinking too much visually or acting wise and so I was like, oh you have to remind yourself this is a script. The images don’t come yet. Just focus on the writing, divide the tasks, and not do it all in one part of the process. So, maybe one day.
Do you have any goals for the next project you'd like to work on?
I actually want to direct something. I’m still thinking if I should write or find the scene. But I want to direct something because I haven’t had the chance to direct anything in film. I just want to find or write a simple scene, like in a restaurant or something to learn more about how it works from the other side, how to prepare for that, how to break down a script.
The Chicago Theatre Triathlon focuses on promoting new artists and works. Has there been anything you’ve seen, listened to, or watched that's grabbed your attention?
It’s actually not from Chicago. It’s from this festival I went to see, but I don’t know their name. In that festival, they had a lot of circus artists and this group was a clowning, hip-hop, dancing troupe. It was kind of burlesque, like their costumes were kind of ripped. It was just so impressive.
I also saw at the MCA an exhibit about a Chicago fashion designer who's working for Louis Vuitton. A lot of what he does involves race, class, and in his fashion he explores that. Fashion has all this money, business, advertising, all this stuff so I just thought it was very interesting to see his work and from somebody in Chicago. He’s like in his interviews, "I came from the streets and now I’m like the director of the men’s clothes at Louis Vuitton." I was like wow.
Mariana Castro is a Chicago based actor originally from Bogotá, Colombia. Some of her past leading roles include Rosa in La La La Strada (dir. Jeff Mills), Wren in The Stranger and The Shadow (dir. Claire Saxe), Gabi in Augusta & Noble (dir. Lisa Portes), Lupe in The Book of Sebastian (dir. Ashlyn Lozano), Rosa in Desert Stories for Lost Girls (dir. Ann Filmer), and Fuzzy Fire in The Banyan House (dir. Heather Beckett). She holds a BFA in Acting from DePaul University and is represented by Stewart Talent. To see more of her work, visit www.marianacastroflorez.com.