Benjamin Levy Aguilar of the new FOX series Filthy Rich is a genuinely good person. I’m not simply saying this because we were recently on the phone together or because he is a real discovery as Antonio Rivera, a single dad and MMA fighter (yes, you read that correctly), on the Kim Cattrall led, Tate Taylor developed series. It’s more the combination of sort of wide-eyed innocence and Aguilar’s surprising real-life backstory and twisty path to make it to Hollywood and to the series in particular which make Benjamin Levy Aguilar a compelling interview subject. (Read on and I guarantee you’ll agree with me)
The following is a condensed and edited version of a surprisingly candid chat with Benjamin Levy Aguilar of Filthy Rich.
Brief Take: I hope that I have all of this correct: You grew up in Guatemala, at a certain point considering moving to Israel, but you changed course and for a while, played soccer in Italy. Then, on the advice of your mother, decided to give Hollywood a try?
Benjamin Levy Aguilar: That’s exactly how it went. At least when I was there in Guatemala, acting wasn’t really a tangible dream. For us, if you dream big, maybe you dream of being a soccer star, that’s a competitive but attainable dream. Hollywood for me seems like something outside of this dimension and maybe out of space. I never thought that this was going to be a possibility, that I could actually get paid to be in movies. I would see these actors in movies and I would think that they are special human beings that were maybe born into it or…it was ignorant. I had this ignorance of acting and when she asked me that, I felt like it was the first time that I was like: “Oh! That’s something I can pursue.” I think that the challenge of it and the excitement of it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, because I wasn’t happy where I was and it kind of reminded me of that passion that I had for soccer and that pursuit of something so big outside myself and it hit me. And as soon as it hit me, I bought the ticket that same day, like literally that same day and I landed in LA a week later.
BT: Both the tone and themes of Filthy Rich are funny. What do you think of them?
BLA: Oh my God, I loved that I had the opportunity to be in a soap opera type of show, especially because this one feels different in the sense that, like as you said, talking about handies and all the things that the writers put into this, it doesn’t take itself as seriously. When you allow it not to take itself as seriously, instead of being this very serious soap opera, it becomes this kind of juicy family drama with so many twists and turns that you don’t know what is coming. And this speaks to all of the humour that is involved in the writing and in the story.
BT: What is it like for you to play a father on the show? How many babies did you use?
BLA: [laughs] They were twins and they weren’t always so quiet. But I think that what we did well, and when Tate (Taylor) introduced me to the kids and the family, we developed a real bond before the pilot. I was one of the first people cast on the show, so I was in New Orleans a long time before some of my cast mates arrived. I had the opportunity to spend time with that family and babysit the babies for the parents before they’d go out for dinner, [laughs] and I would learn to change diapers and I learned to bathe them without putting shampoo in their eyes. There’s a specific way that I didn’t know how to do that. All of those little things developed a real bond between the babies and me and they ended up calling me Papi, which means ‘Daddy’ in Spanish. You could see that on set, because when they wanted to be held to stop crying, they came to me. After the shots and after the takes, I’d be the one that would hold and babysit them so they would stay calm for the next take. [laughs] It was a full-time job for sure, because after I would do my scenes, I would go and take care of the baby and I loved every second of it.
BT: Now you really can pull off playing a father.
BLA: Yeah, I really can. I feel a lot more comfortable and it stays with you, because then I go out to dinner with my friends and if they have babies, I will be the one playing with the baby, [laughs] and I guess speak their secret language a little bit now, which I used to not know how to do. I didn’t know how to handle it. [laughs]
BT: What do you enjoy about the creatives and the cast working on this show with you?
BLA: Oh my God, Brian Grazer has done some of my favourite movies, movies I would watch in Guatemala before I even knew that I was going to be an actor. I would watch movies featuring Alanna (Ubach), who plays my Mom, and I had no notion of acting in that moment in my life and I can’t believe that now she’s playing my Mom. Or Gerald McRaney, I remember that there was this week…man, this is such a beautiful moment for me, I was in Studio City and I was broke and didn’t have anything and I was really depressed and I remember seeing this guy in a magazine stand in Studio City and I was like: “Oh my God, that’s Raymond Tusk from House of Cards”, played by Gerald McRaney. I was about to go talk to him and I was like: “No, maybe I’m not going to bother him”. And literally a year later, he’s playing my Dad on tv, [laughs] I still don’t believe it. I told Gerald that story when I met him.
BT: What about the wardrobe? Did you know that you’d basically be wearing a tank top?
BLA: [laughs loudly] You know, I guess I assumed that, but it was funny in the make-up trailer, because the weather kept getting colder as we were shooting the season and everybody would start wearing more layers of the clothes, and all the make-up artists would joke around that Antonio is the only one that is getting fewer layers. [laughs] My fighting stuff started happening and that storyline kicked off and I had to be really careful with my diet and training [laughs] and stuff. And those tattoos, they take about an hour and a half to put on every day, and I don’t have any of those tattoos, so…it was a whole process.
BT: None of those tattoos are real?
BLA: None of those are real, no. I don’t think that my brother would be too happy about that [laughs] or my Mom [laughs]. I think that I would put some on if I wasn’t an actor. Although sometimes I doubt it, because being Jewish I would expect it, but they’re all fake. I had the opportunity to try them on without permanently having them. And it’s kind of ironic that I have “Jesus” tattooed on my chest. [laughs]
BT: Well, Jesus was Jewish. So how deep did you go into the mindset of a fighter?
BLA: Oh my God, it was everything to me. I grew up in Guatemala and it’s a beautiful country, but it does have its flaws, the danger and the violence. I was like: “I’m young, but I’ve got to learn to defend myself, I need to learn how to defend my family”. My Dad had passed away and I was like: “I’m the man of the house and I need to learn this” and that’s what got me into Krav Maga and everything that I did. For Antonio, for me as a character, I think that I had the opportunity to basically show what I could do in that storyline because when I auditioned for Antonio, it’s not like they asked me for a fight reel or a clip of what I could do. The storyline said I was a boxer, and when Tate (Taylor) found out that I knew Krav Maga, he changed it up to fit me, which I am so grateful for. As the show went on, I think that when they started seeing I could actually do my stunts and my own fighting and my own stuff, they trusted me more and the storyline evolves a lot more with it, which I am grateful for.
BT: Which style of fighting do you use in the show?
BLA: In the show I use MMA, which I knew nothing about at first. Mixed Martial Arts is a combination of everything, but I think that Antonio is more of a striker, that would be more like Muay Thai and kickboxing, but he’s definitely got the full spectrum of fighting, in wrestling and Jiu Jitsu, but I think that a lot of the fighting for Antonio is the moment. He can become very emotional and powerful, but he’s actually very soft-spoken and sweet outside of the mat. It’s an opportunity for him to express things that in real life, he isn’t allowed to express, which on the mat comes out violently and aggressively. He likes the striking and the punching and the kicks and elbows and Muay Thai, everything to do with that aspect of fighting.
BT: On a completely different yet similar note, when you were a soccer player in Italy, were you a striker?
BLA: Yes! Yes I was, I was a striker.
BT: How devoted were you to playing soccer?
BLA: Oh man! I started playing soccer when I learned how to walk, this is what I learned at a very young age. I got really obsessed with it and I thank soccer, because it kept me on the right path when everything in my life was so chaotic. I had bad influences and it kept me healthy and sane and I got obsessed with it. When I say obsessed, I actually was obsessed, like an OCD type of obsession with soccer. I wouldn’t go to sleep until I hit the high goal post. I’d say that I have to hit that goalpost fifty times before I could go to sleep. And if I didn’t, my mind would tell me terrible things that would happen in my life, like that my Mom is going to, God forbid, die or something. It was kind of like an unhealthy relationship with soccer, it was me I guess, now that I’ve been in therapy in this pandemic, I’ve learned that it was me trying to control my childhood because it was so chaotic. The only way I could do that was playing soccer and controlling what I could do there, and I think that this obsession with soccer and that fear of losing out on my life helped me become good, because I was obsessed with it. Then I got recruited to play with an AC Milan team when I was eleven years old. That was a year after my father had passed away and I went to Italy for three years, I thought it was going to be my life, [laughs] and I was actually really good at it. But I think I made peace with that part of my life and from that, I take away my passion and discipline. I think knowing that no matter where I came from, if I work really hard at something I can achieve it, which I carry on throughout my life.
BT: How many “firsts” has this show been for you in terms of an actor?
BLA: Oh my God, I’ve always been trying to learn, I’ve met mentors throughout my time in Hollywood. Right before I got…I didn’t even have a manager at that point. Right before that, I was a reader for Carla Hool Casting. She does Narcos and a lot of other big shows which I wanted to be on. I thought if I help people learn how to audition, I could be better. I was a reader for her and they had this little short film that they were doing and it was three days and it was like a hundred bucks a day [laughs] or something like that. It was an MMA fighter cutting weight for a fight which is a very rigorous process about which we don’t really speak. She looked at me and said: “Ben, you don’t have a manager or reps or anything, but do you want to audition for this short film that we’re doing to get your feet wet?” I was like: [chuckling] “I’d love to! Thanks, I get an audition!” I ended up booking that short film. I was happy and grateful to have a story like that. I ended up losing 30 pounds in 30 days for that short film. I think that Carla and (casting associate) Natalie (Ballesteros) helped me with going through that process. They were both starting to get scared that my cheekbones were starting to pop at the end of the three weeks. They’re like: “Ben, take it down, it’s a short film, they’re only paying you $300, you don’t have to go though this”. And I’m like: “I do, I do”. When they saw the finished product, I think that they were so proud of me that I had gone so far in my work, that they recommended me to my current manager. And he was the one that said: “Alright, Ben, this is going to be your first pilot season, I’m going to be sending you out on a lot” Filthy Rich was one of those auditions in the first two, three weeks of pilot season. It was my first callback as well, and it was my first screen test. I didn’t even know what a screen test was when my manager told me that I would be screen testing. I started celebrating in the office. I thought that I had booked it. [laughs] It was crazy. I’m never going to forget that week, from the first audition to the screen test. It was extremely high adrenaline for me.
BT: Can you tease the upcoming season a little bit?
BLA: You know what? I think that everybody is going to be surprised. And there’s always people that tend to predict what is going to happen on certain stories, but I think that everyone is going to be very surprised as to where it goes and I think that it’s interesting to see people talk about it. When you think you know something is going to happen, something else happens. There’s a lot of very clever twists and a lot of moments which are very important to talk about, in the year in which we are living and the times in which we are living, I am very interested to see how it evolves into a conversation.
BT: Do you have a favourite moment from set?
BLA: Yeah, I have two. The first is I had the opportunity to shoot the first scene of the pilot with Melia (Kreiling) who plays my sister, Ginger. I couldn’t believe it, all the producers are in New Orleans, it’s the pilot, everyone was on top of everything. I was like: “Oh my God! [laughs] This is going to be my first scene! And I’m going to be opening”…it was such a powerful experience of being able to calm my nerves and being able to do my work with many eyes looking at me. That was the first time I had ever done something like that, that was a very powerful experience. There was also a moment later on in the season in which everything was really surreal for me. I couldn’t believe where I was. I had this beautiful storyline and there were many extras and I remember Tate and the producers were there. I came to them and remember thanking them for this opportunity. It’s a moment that I’m never going to forget. Everything kind of came at me at once….I can’t say more. I wish I could say more than that, but I’m trying to be careful with it.
BT: What has it been like to be a performer during this time? [it was the Jewish high holidays at the time]
BLA: They’re beautiful. When my father passed away, my brother started becoming religious and he is actually a Rabbi for Chabad [Lubavitch]. He lives in New York and because of him, I got closer to Judaism. I don’t mix meat and dairy. I try to be as kosher as I can. I don’t eat pork or shellfish, I honour all of my Jewish traditions. Yom Kippur is probably my favourite holiday, though it is such a strong commitment, I think because of it. I think that it’s something for which I look forward every year. But that being said, I love Shabbat, I do Shabbat with my friends and I’m very proud to be Jewish.
Filthy Rich airs on Mondays at 9/8c on Fox and CTV