Juan Pablo Espinosa is not just dad. He’s daddy.
The Colombian actor, 40, with thick curly locks, a perpetual five o’clock shadow and throaty voice is a two-decade telenovela hunk by way of Secretos del Paraíso, El Secretario and La Fan. He’s also appeared in English-speaking projects like Netflix crime drama Narcos and alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2017 film Cocaine Godmother.
Perhaps, though, Espinosa’s greatest personal success occurred last year when he publicly came out as gay in a video on Instagram. He’d come out once before, to his family, as an 18-year-old student at Emerson College in Boston. As he pursued an acting career, Espinosa kept up this subtle separation between his personal life and professional success. It was settled, and he was at peace with it — until he got on Instagram a few years ago. Young fans trying to come out to their families began DMing him for support, and he realized good could come from publicly announcing he’s gay.
Espinosa thanks meditation and the beauty of age for coming to this realization. It’s a fitting moment of wisdom as he now stars in Half Brothers, a new buddy road-trip comedy about two clashing half siblings, Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez) and Asher (Connor Del Rio), who must fulfill their sick father’s destiny. Espinosa plays their ailing father, Flavio, in the bilingual film out now in theaters.
Quarantining in Los Angeles, Espinosa hopped on a call with MEL to discuss the life and career he’s created for himself both back home in Colombia and in the States. If there’s one thing he’s learned after years of being typecast as “violent” depictions of Latinx men, it’s that honesty is the heart of good storytelling.
“It’s heartbreaking because a lot of the things that I’ve auditioned for in the past didn’t align with my points of view [while] trying to sustain myself,” he says. “It’s so beautiful to celebrate when something does come your way that you 110 percent identify with.”
I enjoyed Half Brothers. It was nice to see unique and multiple father-son relationships. Different displays of masculinity too. What compelled you to do this film?
That’s one of the things that really drew me to this film, too. As a Colombian actor, we see a lot of the bad portrayals of not only masculinity but also Latin Americans — narcos, drug dealers and crime. A lot of the films that have to do with Latinx characters, everything is violent explicitly or domestic. Half Brothers is one of those beautiful films where not only do you have the brother relationship but you also have a relationship with the father. It’s a romantic comedy where the love story is between the sons and the father, which I find extremely endearing. At the end of the day, it’s a family film regardless of whether your relationship with your father is good or bad. You’re also exploring the sense of closure, which I feel like a lot of us struggle with.
If you could expand a little bit more, is this a rare example for you to play a character that doesn’t have any sort of stigma attached to it?
You start realizing, oh, these stories should be told from a place of truth. Not a bunch of writers are doing research and exploring what could be a good thing for the demographic. How can we cater to this minority? Let’s do some research. It’s definitely coming now from a different perspective, which is so enriching. You see the representation being more dignified, which brings so much joy. Half Brothers, it’s one of the things that I feel proud of. When I go back home [to Colombia], I’m gonna be like, yay, there’s a movie that I’m dying for people to see and not be angry.
Is that a common concern for you? A film that people are dying to see and not angry at.
Yes, I’m a very sensitive person. I do try to be aware of other people’s feelings and not making anybody feel bad. When you’re an actor dealing with an audience in these kinds of scenarios, [you worry about] how you are going to come across in a way where people can identify and actually celebrate, as opposed to having a negative reaction. When you’re in this business, a lot of the time, you’re trying to maintain a career. Many times I’ve auditioned for things [where] I’m like, sure, I’ll sell that car. Hopefully, Half Brothers will bring joy, and people will identify with it.
I saw that you’d come out as gay in an Instagram video last year. I’m curious why last year was the right moment for you to publicly come out.
Well, what’s so funny is I came out when I was young, 18. I was in college in Boston. Everybody in my life knew, and everybody in my life has always known. Then I started working in TV productions, and everybody knew so I never felt closeted. Thank god. After 18 years, I never did. It wasn’t till social media started to grow bigger and bigger. As actors, you have such interaction with your fans. I would get these beautiful messages from a lot of my fans being like, “When I told my mom I was gay, she was so mad at me.” I was like, “Yeah, but that actor you see every night in your show that you love so much, he’s gay too.”
When you say “that actor,” you are talking about yourself in the third person?
Yeah, last year was the perfect time to do it. A couple of other people through DM were talking about suicide and all these things. For a minute, I stopped everything and started looking at the pros and cons. I’m living this out life, and everybody that has direct contact with me knows it. How will it affect how I’m perceived or portrayed in the media? Why am I keeping this inside? So many times where I would be doing an Instagram story, and you would see my boyfriend in the back. It had a lot to do with a 40-year-old trying to survive in social media. That feels kind of awkward: Hey, guys, this is my boyfriend. It was nice to fully acknowledge that side of myself and embrace myself as a whole.
Meditation is obviously such a big part of it. Put your money where your mouth is. You’re doing all this spiritual work, and you’re still editing yourself. There’s a part of you that’s not completely comfortable sharing with other people certain things. So I just decided to do that video. Little did I know it was gonna become this thing, especially back home in Latin America. The newspapers are calling. It was insane. What was so beautiful, too, is that at the end of the day, you realize if it has this much of an impact it’s because we have so much more work to do. There’s so much more to be talked about. There’s so much “normalizing” to be done.
It was very exciting to get the conversation started and address the media. All these questions at the time [were] coming from a very South American macho perspective. To have one of their actors be so comfortable speaking and answering questions [about LGBTQ issues], it’s so nice. A lot of homophobia comes from ignorance. To be able to address and look at it in the eye, it was very — and it still is — very exciting.
That’s fantastic! We talked about how, as a Latinx actor, you sometimes take whatever roles come your way. I imagine it was also hard to know if coming out would hurt your career.
What’s so beautiful about growing older is, what kind of life are you willing to live? For me, growing up as a gay kid, I focused so much on all the things I could lose. But I never focused on all the things I could gain. Think of all the stupid roles — you didn’t want to be looked at as an object. [Now], give me the opportunities to try to showcase as much as possible. Focus on all the things that we can gain, as opposed to [thinking] I’ll never be called again for a Telemundo role.
Hopefully, by doing these kinds of things, we’re also pushing the boundaries of the industry to be… Sorry, I haven’t talked about this in English, so if I get a little messy… But what I would talk about back home is how we treat the audience. A lot of it is looking down and talking down to your audience. They can’t find out you’re gay because then they won’t believe what you’re doing on the screen. That’s condescending to your audience. What kind of people do you think are working on your shows? I don’t need to see the guy who’s playing Pablo Escobar be a drug dealer. I don’t need the girl who is playing Queen Elizabeth [to be an actual queen]. Don’t be so judgmental of your audiences. Start taking responsibility for the content that we put out there [and] also how we address our audiences with dignity.
It’s cool you play a straight character in Half Brothers. It goes against that narrative that if you come out as an actor, you’re not going to be able to play a diverse array of people.
It’s exciting too. With everything in life, the more we talk about it, the more we see it done. If you see a really bad attempt at somebody who’s playing a gay character, you’re like, This is horrible. So I think it’s only fair that we all live in a world where we explore endless possibilities instead of focusing on what we can’t do.
You go to acting school and you’re like, You’re an ice cream cone. You’re a unicorn. What planet are you? What animal are you? Then all of sudden you get into the business and, Oh, I’m sorry, you can only play 40-year-old Colombian gay and narcos roles. What the fuck? It’s really frustrating that you go through all this training, and you go through all these things. When we look at the acting industry and the film business, everything is possible. Let’s be coherent, let’s put our money where our mouth is and let’s make it that way. You can be anything. You can play anything. I do believe that if you work hard and you get the character right then you get the roles.