Actor Rob Raco is a tangible soul - an unfiltered personality with the ability to identify a feeling for what it is. "You're making me feel shy," Rob says with a laugh. He doesn’t repeat the sentence once or twice in his head before speaking: without a lag, his line is dispatched along with the emotion. Before mastering his voice, drums rendered the words he didn’t risk relaying at the time. Photographer Bianca Gerasia and Rob converse with an identical accent - she sketches his sensitivity with the shadows bestowed by the day.
Life in grayscale becomes a disability only when you allow it to manifest. Rob can't physically distinguish one colour from the next, but when he closes his eyes, he initiates an infinite spectrum of imaginable colours. Colours and emotions are intimately associated: Seeing red. Feeling blue. Green-eyed. It’s not about the number of colours you observe with the naked eye, but rather, the abundance of shades that make up the imagination. Regular people live life in grayscale, but Rob does not relate to this way of being. He comprises numerous colour combinations.
Rob is a familiar face to those whose days are animated by a Netflix notification announcing the arrival of a new episode of ‘Riverdale’. He plays Southside Serpent Joaquin DeSantos, the love interest of Sheriff Keller’s son Kevin and a character generating more questions than answers. In addition to his role on the hit show ‘Riverdale’, Rob has several independent film projects in the works. Music being his first love, he is eager for music to take up more of his time, so we’re rooting for a Rob Raco and KJ Apa jam session to be promptly added to the agenda.
Nowadays you’re often recognised as your character Joaquin on 'Riverdale', but who is the real Rob Raco?
Me - I think that is a challenge every day. I have lived a lot of life, especially in the last five years. The real Rob used to hide behind drums. Instead of using his voice, he used to hide and be very emotional. One day I got lucky and met a person who put me behind my own voice. That allowed me to open up and see me for me. The real Rob is a really shy person - someone who just wants to create and give back to those who have inspired him. It’s weird - I’m speaking in third person. I think it’s a question that I don’t think I’ll ever answer and I think that is a beautiful thing. I know the values of who I am, how they grow and how they contradict each other. It keeps me on my toes.
Has art become an outlet for you to tackle strong emotions?
Since I was a kid. I was never the most popular, so I turned to art. My mother was a fine artist, my grand father - an artist who built violins, my dad - an architect who used the other side of the brain in an artistic sense. I was a little bullied kid who found a way to tap into something - to live in my own world. I used to be obsessed with my batman figures and living in an imagination world - only then to fast forward to now when I’m getting paid for my imagination, which is a weird concept. I lived in that because that was truth to me, as opposed to the outside world, which was a bit scary.
Did you have an imaginary friend growing up?
No, I didn’t - maybe my drums? They were my only friends for a long time. Or my cats!
When did you start playing drums?
I was nine years old - crazy. Long time, but it feels just like yesterday. I remember the day and everything. I was born into it - I was a pot and pan hitting kid and my mum played piano, so she would always influence me with different musical aspects. I just always remember jamming as a kid. One day I was surprised with snare drums and that became my outlet. I would go to school, eat a ton of food and then play drums until I was told to shut up by my neighbours. My parents would never tell me to shut up - it was always my neighbours. But then it just grew into a profession; it became the extension of my soul. Two sticks hitting another piece of wood.
What makes you happy?
As of recently it makes me happy, without sounding selfish, to be able to connect with the people who have witnessed my work. It makes me really happy that all the bullshit I’ve gone through in life has brought me to one television show that doesn’t allow me to really give that, but allows them to open up to the layers and chapters of their life - that they need to extricate on to me. I feel it’s a reciprocal thing with art. As of lately with opening charities and travelling the world, it’s really the communication between people and the sharing of stories. I guess that’s all I want out of art: to be able to communicate to either that little kid or an adult - it doesn’t matter.
Speaking of charities, where did you get the idea for Raco’s Tacos t-shirts?
Back when I debuted on ‘Riverdale’ I would always go out for Taco Tuesday, it’s my favourite thing to do in LA. It’s actually Tuesday now, so I’m going to do that. I would always post a photo or a video of me at the restaurant, but I didn’t have a date so I would always place an emoji on the other side of the table: sort of like me and a girl out - just to show how lonely I am, haha. And it turned into this thing where this young fan base started the hash tag #RacosTacos. I figured now that I was coming back to ‘Riverdale’, I got this artist at Represent to drop this ridiculous shirt. I decided that instead of keeping the profits for myself, I would donate for private reasons to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I was shooting a film in Havana all of last month and I was doing the promo for the shirt, which is hard since they don’t have Internet, but I was walking around Cuba wearing my own face, taking selfies and I just had all of these Cubans looking at me. It was ridiculous.
Oh intriguing, can you tell us anything about this film?
It’s an independent sci-fi movie that was shot in Cuba and South Korea.
That sounds lovely. What did you prefer: Cuba or South Korea? Two very different places.
It came down to culture. It was Asian culture vs. Latin culture. They are both beautiful in their own way. I was in Cuba longer and for being a communist country, these people - it makes me cry talking about them - they wear their hearts on their sleeves. On days off from filming I would get the hell out of the hotel and go to the deepest, darkest parts of town to become as local as I could. I wanted to hang out with these people and take them out for drinks. It was very beautiful to me. And Korea, that was more first world than Los Angeles… In Havana they’re just out partying with daiquiris and enjoying life to the fullest. It was very different, but for me, I needed Havana in my life.
How was it growing up in Windsor, Canada?
Being a skinny jean wearing long-haired musician in a rock band? Quite weird… Windsor is an extremely talented part of Canada with such a big influence from the United States, but it’s a very blue-collar working town. When you’re an artist, you’re an artist and you either have to walk around telling people to f*** off or you adapt and become working class. I was definitely the one walking around. Windsor is home, no matter what. It taught me a lot and it’s a very tough place to come from and I think that is a beautiful thing - especially when you live in Los Angeles where everyone is kind of flaky. LA is not my thing.
Did you enjoy filming ‘Riverdale’ in Vancouver?
Yes, I’d never been to Vancouver before. It’s such a beautiful part: there are mountains, the ocean - all within a couple of miles. You can do whatever you want. It is a tiny city and I came there from Manhattan, so nine million to six hundred thousand - I was losing my mind, but the filming was really cool. And it rains a lot…
How did you find playing a homosexual character on ‘Riverdale’?
I get this question quite a bit from random people on the street - and, there is no difference. Love is universal. The way I was taught to act wasn’t acting, it was being, so when you find love in a moment, you just let love shine. It wouldn’t matter if I did the scene with a woman or a man - or a brick wall - if you find some connection that is reciprocal, love is love. For me, it was actually more fun - it was something I had never done. I think it came out more authentic than half the love scenes I’ve ever filmed in my life. There were some looks between Casey and I - I just remember a moment thinking; “I love this kid who is in front of me.” It doesn’t mean I’m in love, it doesn’t mean I’m sexually attracted - it means I love this connection. If love shines, what’s the difference? The truth came out and that’s what matters.
Your connection was very tangible. There is something so sweet there, which is interesting considering you play this tough guy.
The whole tough aspect of it was actually the most enticing thing about getting the role. I have mentioned my audition process before: I was in the waiting room and someone had called me out in a fight, like; “You’re a greasy son of a bitch.” I was about to throw down in the audition room, I didn’t care - I was having a bad day. And then they called me in and it was all the anger that went in that got to book the role - because Joaquin is direct. He is shown non-direct because of FP being his boss. The thing I loved the most about the character is that if he is going to love you, but he takes directions from other people, which was the confliction in his character. For being so tough, we got to see such a sensitive side, which made him three dimensional and human. I’ve never really seen that before in a television show - it’s usually portrayed quite stereotypical, especially the LGBTQ+ community. It’s all colour and flamboyancy, but this is like, no, it’s people. People are people. He had certain life things going on just like any other 17-year old kid. He happened to fall in love. Joaquin was more snake and serpent than anything - he has the gracefulness to go and slither in and do his job and strike and attack when he needed to. It is an interestingly written character.
How did you prepare for the role?
To be honest, it wasn’t anything too out there to prepare. Joaquin is a badass from the other side of the tracks, I grew up in Windsor and I’m a musician who was never really seen. I’m always chasing love in my life and I feel like Joaquin is the same. I didn’t know too much about his past and his family life, but it plays in his eyes. For me, I just committed to my own truth under the circumstances. I was just being as authentic as I could at that point in my life. That was the preparation and I feel like it worked.
Joaquin has a lot of secrets - that is evident. Did you know what his secrets were from the start?
During season one we would get a script the day before the shoot in some cases. It was a brand new show and everything was being tested out. I had some sort of idea of his secrets and I had spoken to Roberta loosely about it. But again, at that time in my life I was going through some heavy personal stuff, so I just decided to keep my personal experiences as the secret, knowing that any time it could flip. Joaquin had secrets, and it turned out that it paralleled. I still don’t know what his secrets are, even going through all those thirteen episodes in season one, he was such a big part of the Jason Blossom murder, but I still don’t know what the secrets are. Where did he go? There are so many things that I don’t know. What is his life at home like? What is he willing to do for love? Those are questions that create a ton of secrets under the circumstances of Joaquin. Was this his first gay relationship? I think if you base those questions on a confusing teenager slash a confusing artist like myself, it creates more layers for someone who doesn’t get a ton of screen time.
At Boys by Girls, we think it’s important to break with the masculine stereotypes, and so I wonder how do you personally define masculinity and do you think the way we’ve traditionally viewed ‘men’ has evolved?
As I said, growing up in Windsor wearing whatever I wanted in a town of college kids who are football players and all this, I didn’t really care. I feel like the general masculine mould we have, especially in North America, this macho bullshit how-many-reps-can-I-do-at-the-gym is getting away from the emotional truth. I think the most masculine you can be is emotionally free. I think if you can be sensitive and engaged, then you’re an authentic person. Then it doesn’t matter what you are. Gay, straight, purple, girl, guy – whatever you want to be, you’re just connected to yourself. For me, that is masculinity. I don’t label any of it and I do what I need to. I just see so many people that I feel are not connected to themselves, so they create this façade that is presentational and almost aggressive. It poses this question: When is the last time they looked in the mirror and asked themselves who they are? Masculinity, I think is all over the f***ing place right now. There are some really beautiful people out there, and if we can just tell them to engage with themselves as opposed to giving them a mould.
Have you ever been in love, and if so, how would you visualize ‘falling in love’?
Yes, I’ve been in love. Many times. How do I paint it? This is great. If we have a canvas and that is life: we are born into a blank one and I think every day we splat a new colour or some bullshit. Hopefully by the time we’re done living, we have a beautiful painting that’s subjective. c Then maybe peel away some layers or create new paintings. Literally, it’s like a new whitewash on my painting: to be then able to add some new sparks and colours. And then it usually ends in a ripped canvas with black and heartache, and lots of crying. But at least, I mean, the love happened. I’m colour-blind, so I usually live in a grayscale. Every time it has happened to me, I’m full of too many colours at a time and my head is just exploding with thoughts. If a person comes into my life and just paints one shade, it’s like this moment of zen. It’s sort of like; “Hey, it’s okay that you have all these colours, but now I’m going to be here helping you.”
What is your relationship to mental health?
I don’t know - I have a few relatives in my family who suffer from mental health issues, depression, etc and I’ve recently lost a very close relative to it...but I mean, we all suffer from something, to put it that way. Over the last couple of years, my family and I have been through a very traumatic time. Unfortunately, I lost my mother. I didn’t go to any therapy for it, but I went to an acting coach, Mel Tuck in Vancouver. He became a mentor to me and helped me pull the pain out and source it for my work. Instead of doing a grief program, I decided to become Hamlet and question whether I needed to live or not. I can’t thank that man enough because I’m here, but you have to go through that shit and live it. This is going to make me cry… This goes for my family too, I just get to express it a bit more, which makes me sad for the people who can’t. My relationship is pretty first hand with some dark things. I’m just diagnosed as a crazy artist and I’ll gladly be that until the day I die.
Thanks for sharing. Who do you look up to?
My sister is my hero. Especially with what I just talked about. You’re talking about a woman who is going through her final years in school, dealing with the death of our mum, graduating at the top of her class, getting a job immediately, getting married - seeing life and living through that. Since I was a kid I’ve always said I want to buy her a house. That is my big sister, as much as we fight, she is my everything. She is who I look up to. I hope to be an ounce of the person she is one day. She is an angel.
She sounds like an amazing person and you are too. What’s your big dream?
Since I was a kid, as I said - being a bit of a nerdy kid - I would put things on that would make me feel like I was okay and one of those was ‘Benny & Joon’, the 1993 movie with Johnny Depp. That movie changed me to become who I am. I think the big dream for me is to find the many 5-year old Robs and tell them that wherever they are in life, it’s going to be all right. No matter where it is, it’s okay. And if you need to get out there, it’s okay to be it. It’s all going to pan out and you’ll be okay, and some of you will pursue your art and some of you will follow in your parents’ footsteps. I think to connect to that inner child. To inspire would be the big dream.
‘Hammer of the Gods’, what can you tell us about your character Eric and the plot?
Eric is kind of a f*** man lead guitarist of an imaginary rock band Sled Dog who is going through an artistic crisis in his life. He needs to get away from his band mates, so he decides to go on this canoe journey to this warm place. They just finished up a massive world wide tour and so Eric decides he needs some time away, but the band comes with him and they go on this very peaceful journey upstream and they take this substance called ‘Hammer of the Gods’ and it’s this thing that then evolves into quite a thriller - like an acid - stuff comes out… Then this journey commences. For a lack of a better word, it plays on the mode: how much does it take to sell your soul to the devil? It was a very fun project and we shot it in 14 days up in Squamish, British Columbia. It was freezing but in boiling summer heat. There were bears. It was a beautiful little indie film and I made a lot of lifelong friends.
What’s next in the cards for Rob?
I’m now self-producing a music series. I’m getting back into music, thank god! I need it, so I’m just calling up a bunch of musician friends of mine and we’re doing a video series. That’s my side project as I’ve got new acting projects on the get go. I’m writing film, I’m writing music and about to do other projects, so I feel very busy. I just got back into fashion with Hugo Boss and I’m going to be travelling with them. I’m sort of like a dog in a treat store at the moment. It’s starting to pay off. I’m just so excited to share it with people.
What’s sort of music are you making at the moment?
I’m a very jazz influenced drummer, especially being from close to the Detroit area. I’m going to try some fusion stuff that is influenced by my favourite Munich drummer Benny Greb. I’ll be looking into that. And then I have this rock element that I’m working on. My mum raised me on Led Zeppelin, so I’m a huge fan. I have the switch between that and some bluesy rock. I hope to get some friends on board - * cough * KJ.