You may catch Julio Cesar Cedillo on your screen, but you won’t catch him living in Hollywood. This Texas-bred actor has a deep love for his Latin roots.
Cedillo was born in Durango, Mexico. His father, a truck driver from Hebbronville in South Texas, met Cedillo’s mother and a baby Cedillo while traveling through the border town of Piedras Negras. During truck routes, his father would visit his mother, eventually falling in love. He moved young Cedillo and his mother to Fort Worth when Cedillo was five.
Cedillo didn’t know English but managed to teach himself the language by immersing himself in film and television. He found himself constantly touching up his imitations of actors like James Mason, Jimmy Stewart and Christopher Walken.
“I didn't know that I was learning how to speak English phonetically,” Cedillo says. “In fact, I didn't even know what the word ‘phonetics’ means. But, you know, there I was mimicking these American actors.”
Cedillo attended Meacham Middle School, where he would show off his acting skills to his friends. This is when he first realized his passion for acting.
“I would use phrases that I would hear in these movies,” Cedillo remembers. “I used them in everyday life with these kids, and people would find that funny. But then after a while, I was like, ‘No, no, there's there's power in and what I'm doing here, there's something special here about eliciting a reaction.’”
Although he knew he wanted to do something creative, Cedillo witnessed a tragedy that would scar him for life. There was ample gang activity at Meacham, and in seventh grade, he witnessed the school’s vice principal get stabbed during school hours.
He and his family later decided it would be best for him to attend Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a magnet school focused on preparing students for engineering professions. During his time at Dunbar, Cedillo knew deep in his heart that this wasn’t the path for him.
“While I was there, I was basically misleading the whole world thinking that I was going to be some engineer,” Cedillo says, “when in reality I wanted to be an actor. And that was early on. So I think it's always a gift, when you know what you want to be in your life. It's very rare for that to happen.”
At the age of 22, Cedillo moved to New York City, after being personally selected by Mari Lyn Henry, a casting director at ABC, to attend an acting workshop.
He didn’t find much work while living in New York City, so he always found himself flying back home.
“I was working more in Texas,” Cedillo says. “Being in Texas was important because I realized I was never going to leave Texas to live in L.A. or New York. I spoke both English and Spanish, and the market needed someone like me here.”
While in Texas, he would work on commercials appealing to both English and Spanish speaking markets. One of his first film roles was in Finding the Way Home, a made-for-TV movie filmed in Fort Worth and Denton.
He later landed a recurring role on the children’s TV series Wishbone, where he played a sporting goods store owner named Travis Del Rio. The show, which filmed in Allen, marked his first regular role on a TV program.
“I was very impressed with the fact that the producers were willing to bring on a Latino as a major character on this popular show at the time,” Cedillo says.
During production, the crew would switch out three Jack Russell Terriers while filming. He recalls one day when he accidentally stepped on one of the dog’s paws, eliciting a yelp from the dog.
“The trainer came up to me and asked ‘What happened?’” Cedillo says. “And that’s when I realized that I was at the bottom of the totem pole. And this little cute dog was at the top.”
In 2004, Cedillo landed a role in a Tommy Lee Jones-directed movie called The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada as the titular character. He considers it a very special film, as it was filmed in Odessa, Midland, Monahans and Redford.
He says he immediately fell in love with the script, as he was familiar with all of these parts of Texas.
When he went to audition, he spoke entirely in Spanish, ready to prove to Jones that he was the right fit for the role.
“I knew that if I was going to go read for Tommy — I was told that he might be there, that was not a promise — that I needed to prepare not only the scenes they gave me, but that I had to be familiar with the whole script,” Cedillo says. “I had to walk in there like a ranch hand.”
During the audition, Cedillo and Jones ran through scenes they both had together. Jones immediately knew that Cedillo was his Melquiades.
“Tommy liked it,” Cedillo says. “He looked at me and said ‘You're very familiar with the script. This is a rare occasion. This doesn't happen very often, where I meet an actor that was meant to play the role. You really did your homework.’”
To prepare for the role, the actor spent a month living on Jones’ Texas ranch. During that time, he only spoke Spanish. When it came time to start filming, Cedillo managed to surprise everyone.
“Everyone thought I was one of Tommy’s ranch hands,” Cedillo says. “I didn’t speak English to anybody until the first day of filming. A lot of people were shocked, like ‘Oh, you’re the actor? We thought you were the ranch hand.’”
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, where Jones won the Best Actor award, and Guillermo Arriaga won the Best Screenplay award.
Cedillo has since appeared in other feature films such as Cowboys & Aliens, Frontera and Sicario. One of his most recent, and successful, roles is as Comandante Guillermo González Calderoni in Netflix's original series Narcos: Mexico.
When he first auditioned for Narcos, he received a script containing scenes and versions of characters that weren’t actually in the show.
“They wanted to give me some material so they could see what I could do,” Cedillo says. “It wasn’t a real scene that was going to be shot. I taped it, and then when I got home, I forgot all about it.”
About two months later, Cedillo got the call saying he had landed the role. He was flown out to Mexico, where he was immediately sent to wardrobe, hair and makeup to create an aesthetic for the character of Calderon. He was doing a photo shoot for the show’s promotional art yet still had no idea what was in store for the character.
“They write the show as they go along,” Cedillo says. “My first day on set was a scene where I had to slam a guy’s head into a table at a topless bar. We didn’t really have a meeting about the character. They just kinda threw me into the water.”
Cedillo is also set to appear in an upcoming Netflix series called Coyote, which was filming in Tijuana before the COVID-19 pandemic. The status of its release is currently unknown, as they had only filmed six of the 10 planned episodes.
Next month, Cedillo will appear in a short film called Manos de Oro, which was directed by Oak Cliff-based director Merced Elizondo. Manos de Oro will premiere at the 6th Annual Official Latino Film and Arts Festival from Nov. 27 through Nov. 30 for a spot to air via HBO’s streaming services.
Cedillo was approached by Elizondo to play the role of Sergio in Manos de Oro, and although he liked the story Elizondo had written, Cedillo wanted him to improve upon the film’s writing.
“I actually told him ‘I love your story, but it needs some work. If you're willing to sit down with me. I've got some notes I can share with you,’” Cedillo says. “We met at a coffee shop and he took my criticism as a champ. I realized right away that he’s talented and he was willing to put aside his ego.”
Today, Cedillo finds himself inspired by Latinx and Southern stories, and he wants to uplift the Latinx community through quality stories. He encourages other young Latinx creators to dig deeply within themselves, acknowledge their strengths and constantly work to improve.
“Be honest with yourself,” Cedillo says. “Don’t B.S. your way through anything. I know some people say ‘Fake it till you make it,’ but that’s not the way to do it. If you’re faking something, that means you never really knew what you were doing. No matter what your talents are, you’re going to work on your weaknesses and amplify your strengths.”
While he may never move to Hollywood or New York City, Cedillo will happily represent small-town Texas wherever he goes. Today, he is a proud resident of Benbrook, outside of Fort Worth.
“It always sounds small,” Cedillo says, “And I like that, because I want [producers] to believe that they found me in the middle of nowhere. It’s all about perception, and it makes them feel special. Like, ‘Oh, look, we got this really great actor and we found him in the middle of nowhere.’”