Frankie J. Alvarez From HBO's 'Looking': Loving the Acting Life

Frankie J. Alvarez in scene from HBO's "Looking"Richard Foreman / HBO

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Growing up in Miami, Frankie J. Alvarez always knew that he was interested in performing. “In elementary school, my sister and I danced to Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” in the talent show, and I was in the Thanksgiving play. I was hooked.” While attending an all-boys Jesuit prep school Alvarez was so enamored of the spotlight that he considered becoming a priest. “It took me a few months to realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was interested in being on stage, talking to people. Plus, I liked the ladies.”

Now Alvarez is one of the stars of HBO’s “Looking,” which returns for a second season on January 11. “Looking” follows the lives of three gay men as they search for love, friendship, and fulfillment in San Francisco. Out Magazine calls it “a gay TV show about the rest of us.”

Alvarez, who is of Cuban descent, hails from an artistic family. His grandmother was an opera singer, his father was in a band in Puerto Rico, and his mother was a ballerina. His three sisters all danced with the Miami City Ballet. Alvarez graduated from the Juilliard School in 2012, where he received the Raul Julia Memorial Scholarship. He auditioned for the famed acting school with a bilingual version of the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Looking” is Alvarez’s first TV role. “Before this show, I was auditioning and bouncing around doing regional theater. I was doing a play at the Actors Theater of Louisville when I sent in an audition tape for the show, then I did a casting session on Skype. My play closed on Saturday. On Sunday, I watched the Super Bowl, on Monday I flew to L.A. to read for the part in person, and Friday I got the job. In a week, my whole life changed.”

Alvarez has won critical acclaim for his portrayal of “Agustin,” an aspiring artist struggling to get his life together. The New Yorker called Alvarez “excellent” in the role, while a critic at the Baltimore Sun wrote that he played the role “brilliantly.” This year, Alvarez was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for an "Imagen" Award, an honor recognizing Latinos in film and on television.

Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff, and Frankie J. Alvarez on the streets of San Francisco in scene from HBO's "Looking".John Johnson / HBO

There are highs and lows in being on “Looking,” Alvarez explained. “The best part (of being on the show) is waking up every morning and feeling so engaged and fulfilled in the work,” he said. “It’s a beautiful cast, we hang out together, we go out dancing and out to dinner, and that is not always the case with a group of actors. And being able to support my wife and my family someday is a blessing.”

On the other hand, Alvarez was at times stung by audience reaction to his character. “I was surprised to see how people reacted to him so harshly, how they judged him. That was an adjustment for me. You put a lot of yourself into a character, so even though he’s not you, in a sense it is you. It’s easy to take it personally,” he said. “Then again, provoking a reaction is better than provoking a shrug.”

He notes the differences between himself and the free-spirited Agustin. “I am not gay. I am a pretty nice guy. When people meet me, they are surprised, they say, ‘you’re nothing like your character.’ Well yeah, I’m acting!”

But overall, Alvarez said that he and the other “Looking” cast members have received a positive reception from viewers. “It is almost an exclusively gay audience,” he said, “and this is my first taste of celebrity. In San Francisco, guys will yell our names when we’re filming, and in general people tell us that they think we’re representing the city and the (gay) community well.”

Besides Alvarez, “Looking” also stars Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett, and Raul Castillo. During its first season, “Looking” steadily grew its audience over an eight-episode run. Variety reported that the show averaged about 2 million viewers a week.

“Looking” has been called the gay version of HBO’s “Girls” and compared to “Sex In The City.” The show offers a frank look at urban gay life, with scenes of recreational drug use, online hookups, and open relationships. “Some people wondered, why can’t it (the show) be more like Sex In The City?” Alvarez said. “It can’t, because it’s not like that. Our show is more diverse. Our characters have economic issues. They are dealing with everything from gentrification to the tech bubble to commitment.”

Although Alvarez is excited about the show's second season, he has carved out time for other projects. He is working on another run of the musical he co-created, “Those Lost Boys” (about an indie band that reunites for a concert), and is collaborating on a film treatment about Cuban baseball players.

Alvarez acknowledges that he has come a long way in a relatively short time. “One of my first jobs was doing children’s theater, I did it to get my union card,” he said. “Now to be part of a show that is so respected is great. And my dad is wild about my being on TV. To have my parents proud of me is the biggest gift.”