Christian Navarro knows that sometimes, the best way to get what you want is to ask for it — as many times as you need to.
It’s a tactic that landed him his star-making turn as Tony Padilla on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and an audition for the role of Prince Eric in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. For the latter, he harnessed the power of Twitter to get on the casting director’s radar, but 13 Reasons Why took a little more time, a little more persistence, and a little more serendipity.
“They didn’t want me for the job for so long, and then it ended up coming to me,” he tells MTV News about the process. His ex-girlfriend had been auditioning for the show, and sometime during the process of helping her practice her material, he began calling up to get in the door himself. “For about three months, I begged for an audition, and I kept getting told I was too old,” the now-28-year-old adds. (At the show’s outset, Tony is around 16 or 17.) But he kept trying, because, as he explained, “If I want something, I dedicate 150 percent to that goal and I don’t stop until I get it. That’s how my family raised me.” Eventually, he landed a meeting, and later, the role.
What happened next was nothing short of cataclysmic. When it first debuted at the end of March 2017, it seemed like it was all anyone could talk about. Viewers binged all 13 heavy episodes, which detailed sexual assault and suicide so vividly, the show later chose to add trigger warnings and offer a resource guide for those looking for help themselves, as well as editing out a graphic suicide scene in Season 1 altogether. Still, professionals worried about what effect the show might have on particularly vulnerable viewers, especially because it rarely showed characters seeking help for their struggles. Over the course of the following two seasons, that began to shift, and the teens of the fictional Liberty High School began reaching out, both to adults they trusted, and each other.
It takes Tony longer than some of the other characters to reach out. For the better part of the first two seasons, he served as the keeper of everyone else’s secrets, and was most often in contact with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), whose angst and trauma, respectively, drove much of the show’s early episodes. As Season 3 unfolds, however, we learn that Tony has been holding his share of secrets from everyone else, and not without justification: His parents, and several of his siblings, are undocumented. It’s the kind of secret that, for generations, immigrants and their families have learned not to share.
Navarro first got the hint that the show might be tackling deportation while filming Season 2; a since-deleted scene featured Tony reading a pamphlet about immigration. Things come to a head in Season 3, when la migra shows up just ahead of a momentous first — Tony had planned to introduce his boyfriend, Caleb (RJ Brown), to his parents when the two come home to an empty house.
“I thought it was very important to tell that story, especially if we claimed to be the show that tackles these really topical issues,” Navarro says. “Really, it felt like a responsibility to show the struggle and be as truthful as possible about it.” He adds that since the season dropped on August 23, “thousands of people have reached out to me. All I ever wanted from the third season was for young people whose families have been taken away from them, to see some sort of strength in this character. They live in the shadows, and we just wanted to shine a little bit of light on them and say, we see you.”
Tony later finds out that his family’s secret had been uncovered by the Walker family when they were researching witnesses who were going to give testimony against Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) for his rape of classmate Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe). That the Walkers then tipped ICE off to the Padilla family’s status further raises the stakes in an already tense relationship — as Hannah’s confidante, he believed the extent to Bryce’s monstrosity before anyone else, and has every reason to want nothing to do with the serial rapist, even after his former classmate avows that he’s changed.
It’s understandable, then, that Navarro “kind of wished” Tony was the one who killed Bryce, though he chose to not find out until the end of filming. (“I had spent a lot of that season thinking like, yeah, he got my parents deported, so it was definitely Tony,” he adds.) Even so, he looked forward to working with Prentice. “For three seasons I had been begging to work with Justin because, as an actor, I have so much respect for the man,” he says. “By the end of the third season you’re really forced to unravel that [Bryce] has the potential for good. And, is that enough of a redeeming quality?”
And though Tony has remained one of the most steadfast allies in the fight against rape culture at Liberty, he still exhibits his share of growth, both with learning how to rely on his boyfriend, and how to open up to his friends. “The dialogue we want to have on this show is that you don’t have to be hyper-masculine to be a man,” Navarro adds. “The majority of your strength comes from vulnerability and empathy… It’s okay for Clay and Justin [Foley, played by Brandon Flynn] to share their feelings with each other and tell each other ‘I love you.’ It’s okay to be an ally, to stand up for friends of yours who are women, or who are going through these things.”
“It’s not what we teach yet, that it’s okay to be vulnerable and empathetic as young men,” he says. “But we have to change the culture. And until we change the culture, until our young boys have very different ideals in terms of what it means to be a man, we’re always going to have this old boy’s club mentality.”
For his part, he hopes shows like 13 Reasons Why can help break the stigmas associated with… well, feeling your feelings. And while he calls shooting Season 4, the series’s last, “bittersweet,” he’s already looking forward to the future, and what other barriers he can help break down.
“The next thing I want to do, it has to be as non-conforming and as cutting edge as Tony Padilla is right now,” Navarro says. It’s for that reason in particular that he’s gunning so hard for the role of Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, which would slate him with Halle Bailey if he were to land the role. “I grew up with the VHS tower of all the Disney movies, and I loved The Little Mermaid. I mean, I think Prince Eric… I’ve never seen a Latino represented on film from that perspective. It would be game-changing, really.” And while the ball might currently be in Disney’s court, it’s also clear to see that the actor isn’t going to wait before he can change the game himself.