IIt’s been said that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Now imagine that you’re a Bronx-born boricua with dazzling looks, acting chops and a hustle that came with your geography. Now you might begin to understand how actress/writer April Hernandez Castillo, has carved out a career on the big and small screen since making her debut in 2004. Although she’s best known for her role as Eva Benitez, alongside Hilary Swank, in the film Freedom Writers she’s had steady work on shows from Dexter to Law & Order. Most recently the need to share her own story has culminated with the release of her first book, Your Voice, Your Choice: A Story of Resiliency & Redemption, detailing how she survived an abusive romantic relationship. ‘LLERO recently talked to April about her book, Hollywood’s numerous Latin explosions, and her secret b-girl dreams.
‘LL: You started out doing stand-up comedy. How did you segue from that to acting?
Hernandez Castillo: I was still in college doing theater and someone I was working with was also running auditions for the “Yo/Yoa” commercial. Before that I didn’t know what auditions were. He told me, just go show up. So I thought, ‘Ok cool. It should be fun.’ And that was my introduction. I had no idea what I was doing! I said “yo!” that’s part of my DNA and that was the beginning of my transition. After the commercial I started working as an actor. I had to make a decision whether I was going to continue my studies or take a leap of faith. I took it and it worked out.
‘LL: You’ve had steady work on TV. How hard is it being an actor, let alone a Latina, actor in the business?Hernandez Castillo: Before this whole “Latin Explosion” thing happened (which has happened several times) there weren’t as many Latina actresses as there are now. In the past five years there have been all these actresses on the rise. It’s great but you realize there’s more competition. On the other hand it means you’re getting recognized. It’s exciting to see that doors are finally opening. The flip side is that there aren’t that many writers in the room. So sometimes they still just write you as one type. That can be frustrating. We have to take it for what it is and make it work.
‘LL: You’ve been in some indie projects like the critically acclaimed web series, East Willy B. and the movie The Stockroom. Why do you take them and not stick with “safe” roles?
Hernandez Castillo: I think sometimes it’s not really a choice it’s just [what work is available.] You go out and audition hoping you hit a home run. But I will say that when you do an indie film you have so much fun. With The Stockroom I was working with my best friends Victor Cruz and Luis Ramos. It was this labor of love and friendship and it all came together.
‘LL: Tell us about your book, Your Voice, Your Choice: A Story of Resiliency & Redemption.
Hernandez Castillo: I’m a motivational speaker; I have been doing it for the past five or six years. In 2010 I decided I had my own story to share about surviving an abusive relationship. It took me a few years to write. At first I thought, ‘Who cares about my voice?’ But I also realized I had a responsibility. For every woman who survives there are going to be 10 or 20 who don’t. Cool Speak, the organization I work with also has a publishing company. At the time, it was slow on the acting tip so it was the best time for me to focus on writing my first book. It’s based on the speech that I give when I travel the country speaking and sharing my story [about surviving intimate partner violence].
‘LL: How have men reacted to your book?
Hernandez Castillo: I’ve had several men who read the book who have been moved by it. One man, he was 39 years old, told me after reading it he realized he had been a victim of abuse. So I think the book is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. The book is for anyone. I know at first a man might look at this and think “I don’t want to read this” but once they start it’s so much deeper.
‘LL: How did you become a motivational speaker?
Hernandez Castillo: I was with Erin Gruwell and Maria Reyes from [the real] Freedom Writers. We’d sit there with audience after they saw the film and we’d get up at the end and speak to the crowd. I realized I had a knack for speaking to large crowds. I always wanted to be an activist and going back into the community and giving back for me I find it fascinating. For some people it is terrifying but I feel the most alive when I’m on stage.
‘LL: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Hernandez Castillo: I have this fantasy that I am a b-girl…that wants to come out…I was a dancer before becoming an actor. I think I would have been good at it.
‘LL: What’s next for you?
Hernandez Castillo: I think for 2016 its continuing putting the book out there and that’s’ my focus. Pilot season will come and I hope to be on a new TV show. I also want to continue to shoot a documentary I’ve been working on about Joe Joe Conzo, a photographer who documented the beginning of hip hop, and so far that’s it. But mostly I’m focusing on the writing.