Discovery: Frankie J. Alvarez

Published January 8, 2014

ABOVE: FRANKIE J. ALVAREZ AS AGUSTÍN IN LOOKING. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN P. JOHNSON/HBO.

“It’s not just penis for penis’ sake,” says Frankie J. Alvarez of his role on HBO’s new series Looking. “There are certain vulnerable moments where, when you’re naked, it sort of intensifies that vulnerability,” he continues.

Starring Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett, and Alvarez, Looking has been pitched as “gay Girls“: a group of young(ish), modern male friends looking for love and career fulfillment in San Francisco. Alvarez plays Agustín—a cocky aspiring artist who, in the first episode, moves out of his shared apartment with his former college roommate (Jonathan Groff) and in with his boyfriend. “I’m excited for my character,” Alvarez tells us. “He’s got a lot of swagger at the beginning, [but] a lot of stuff happens and it’s sort of his descent.”

Looking is Alvarez’s first major role, either on television or in film, but the Juilliard graduate holds his own amid his much more experienced co-stars. “A lot of my stuff from Episode Two we filmed on the first day,” he laments. “When you’re working on something new, you get more comfortable and you get better, so I’m watching it yesterday and thinking, ‘Oh, man, that was my first day.'”

HOMETOWN: Miami, Flordia

CURRENT LOCATION: New York City. [My wife and I] live on the third floor of this house that’s owned by this old Greek couple. After 11 o’clock, they get a little testy. It kind of feels like we’re living with our parents.

ALL IN THE FAMILY:  My grandma was actually a pretty well-known opera singer in Cuba, and then my mom was a ballerina. Two of my three sisters are dancers, so we grew up in the arts.

FROM RAMONA QUIMBY… I went to Florida State for undergrad. I came up here and I lucked out and booked this national kids’ tour of Ramona Quimby. I was kind of the funny guy. I played Ramona’s teacher—I had a big beehive wig and boobies—and her funny uncle who traveled in Africa and stuff. It was a blast. We toured the Midwest and the Northeast, and you’re like a rock star—you show up to all these elementary schools and community theaters and the kids just go nuts. That’s how I earned my equity card and joined the theater union.

…TO JUILLIARD: At the time my very best friend, Alejandro, who I went to high school with, was in his first year at Juilliard. He was like, “I know you were thinking about furthering your education. You should give this program a shot.” It was the only program I auditioned for; I kind of put all my eggs in one basket. I got in and I thought maybe that was a message from above.  What were my audition pieces? I did Prince Hal from Henry IV, Part 1. I did this contemporary piece—a Latin waiter who’s charming a white girl with a little bit of an accent. Then my callback piece, I did the balcony speech from Romeo and Juliet, but I did it bilingually—I went back and forth in English and Spanish.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT:  We did this thing at school where when the first-years come in and everybody performs a monologue in front of the whole school. For the first-years, it’s a way to sort of introduce yourself to everybody else. I did the Romeo and Juliet piece. I had this Western shirt on with snap buttons, and I snapped my shirt open and ripped it up. I had never done that before, and it was nuts. But a buddy of mine was sitting next to Leah, who would eventually become my wife. And he remembers Leah being like, “Whoa,” and leaning forward. So who knows, maybe that was the moment for her… Certainly when she did her monologue, I remember she did this John Patrick Shanley piece. She sort of backed up into the curtain, she had this beautiful, form-fitting, olive-green dress, and she touched the curtains in a way that made me want to be a window, you know? She was in the class ahead of me with Alejandro and Adam Driver, who’s sort of blowing up.

DOPPELGÄNGERS: [Auditioning] is a bizarre thing. When you’re auditioning for commercials, they’re looking for a Latin guy in his 20s, and you’ll show up and it’s a bunch of people who look just like you and it’s a little weird. More often than not, they’re way better-looking, they’re taller, they have way more abs than you do. You can’t take it too seriously because really, that’s the way to hell. You can just descend into self-criticism. I can’t point to my work and say, “This is my work.” My work lives in me, so when people criticize my work, they’re also criticizing me. It’s really hard to sort of divorce that sensitivity.

LOOKING FOR LOOKING:  It just came out of nowhere. When I graduated in 2010, I had been bouncing around from theater to theater doing regional work. I was doing this play called The Whipping Man in Actor’s Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky. And crazy coincidence, Carmen Cuba, who casts the show, her father-in-law is Moni Yakim, who runs the movement program at Juilliard. Carmen said, “Can you give me a list of some young guys who’ve graduated?” And he put me on that list.

I sent in tapes for Raúl Castillo’s character Richie—the character that Jonathan Groff’s character was flirting with—[but] I don’t really give off that kind of hood vibe, so I knew that I wasn’t right for it. I just wasn’t having the best experience working on that play and being in Louisville, Kentucky, where it’s gray and snowy and cold. Then they moved me to the series regular part. When I showed up to L.A., it was me against two other guys for the part and the same for Jonathan and same for Murray. I was so happy that my play was done and it was a new year and happy to be reunited with my wife—I wasn’t really nervous and I think it really helped me to be in the room and be playful and open. Jonathan’s been working now for 10 years. Murray for 20. They have a lot of on-camera experience, so I just tried to learn as much from them and our director, Andrew [Haigh].

NEXT UP: My best friend, Gabe Ebert, and a couple other friends—we’re collaborating on this musical that we’re writing. I’m actually the non-musical person in this show. It’s about this band that kind of hit it big in 2001 and their lead singer kind of mysteriously disappears. My character is an NPR interviewer, and I bring the band together for a reunion 10 years later. I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR, trying to get my voice in that kind of place that’s soothing and inviting. It’s going to happen at Ars Nova; we’re going to have a weeklong developmental run and then we’ll have three performances and hopefully we’ll get added onto their season. We really have the long game [in mind].

LOOKING PREMIERES JANUARY 19 ON HBO.