It was just another regular workday at Pedro Castañeda’s tow truck company in San Antonio, Texas when the novice actor received a phone call from director Chris Eska in February 2008.
“Chris asked, ‘Hey did you hear the news?’” Castañeda said. “You got nominated [for] Best Actor for the Independent’s Spirit Awards.’ I said, ‘Great! What is that?’”
What Castañeda didn’t know at that moment was that he had been recognized by the premiere organization, which exclusively honors the best in independent films each year. He also didn’t realize – until Eska pointed him to a Web site – that the other nominees in his category were some of Hollywood’s most elite actors. They included recent Oscar nominee Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), Oscar nominee Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”), and Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”).
“I was looking at the other nominees and I thought, ‘Wow!’” Castañeda said. “I couldn’t believe it!”
Castañeda was nominated for the award for “August Evening,” an exceptionally independent film shot in South Texas in 2007. In the film he plays Jaime, an undocumented farm worker traveling with his widowed daughter-in-law as they search for a place to start a new life.
During a phone interview, Castañeda, who was born in Laredo, Texas and raised in Des Plaines, Ill., spoke about how he was able to commit to a film like “August Evening” without ever acting before.
It amazes me that you’ve never acted before. How did Chris persuade you to take this role without any prior experience?
It was a total accident. I have my own networking company and was doing some work for [Chris] at the same time and place he was holding auditions for [“August Evening”]. He came up to me and I told him I wasn’t there for the audition. But he told me I had the look that he needed for the character and asked me to read the script. So, I read the script and took a chance.
It must’ve been a great audition. After you got the part did you think, “What did I get myself into?”
Well, I never felt I was doing anything right [during shooting]. But Chris said I was doing okay and not to worry. He molded me and I followed his instructions. Most of the cast had experience so I learned from them.
Did you have a feeling while making the film that it was going to earn critical acclaim?
No, not really. We had a really good cast and all of us thought we were making a good movie, but I thought it was going to be something that we put on DVD and shared just with our families.
What was the experience like going to the Spirit Awards ceremony?
It was very exciting to meet all the actors. I got to meet Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”). I was kind of embarrassed because I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were doing interviews for Univision and he told me how proud he was of me representing Latinos.
Now that the film is on DVD and the initial excitement has diminished, is it back to regular life for you?
Yeah, but if it’s possible, I’d like to keep acting. I did a few small parts for some local movies. I got an agent and had another offer for a movie, but it really wasn’t showing Latinos in a positive light so I declined it. Fortunately for me I’m not a starving artist so I didn’t have to take it.
Why is the depiction of Latinos important to you in a film? In most cases, actors who are starting a career usually take any role offered to them.
I want to do something positive for my grandkids. Also, it’s important to do something positive for the migrant workers. My parents were migrant farm workers so I want people to know that anyone can do anything if they believed in themselves.