Spanish Actor & Director Paco León Leads an Unapologetically Optimal Life, Including Educating on a Disease Without Barriers
by Dann Dulin
A superstar in his native Spain, Paco León’s talent can now be viewed around the world, thanks to Netflix. He currently stars in the outrageous Mexican dramedy series, La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers), which follows the perils of the wealthy and highly dysfunctional de la Mora family. For you fans, Season Two airs shortly and they’re already in production shooting Season Three!
I’ve seen Paco in other popular comedies such as Toc Toc (playing an obsessive-compulsive cabbie with a handlebar moustache) and The Tribe (playing a sex-crazed amnesiac CEO who becomes a hoofer —and boy what a dancer!), but when I binged La Casa de las Flores, I was ultimately taken aback. It wasn’t until I nearly finished season one that I discovered…he was in it!
Paco plays a woman! His character, María José, is a father who is transgender, a lawyer, and the sanest member of the whole clan. Let me make this perfectly clear: this woman is so hot that she could be on the cover of Vogue or Playboy. At first, I thought it was a female playing the role, until I looked up the show on IMDB.com. When I saw León’s name, I was in shock!
I was also surprised to learn of his interest in the epidemic after I Googled his name. In fact, Paco doesn’t consent to many interviews, but when he heard it was to discuss HIV, he fast agreed. Since he has friends who are living with HIV, the actor participates in events to raise money and awareness, but more on this later.
On a luminous summer day in Madrid, Spain, Paco’s home, he buzzes the apartment at
which I’m staying from the street. Even though there’s an elevator, he climbs the steep rickety wooden stairs to the fourth floor. He enters as if stepping onto a forest ready for a daily hike. His posture is erect, he has a rugged-soft demeanor, and his adventurous face has a peachy glow. There’s also an engaging whiff of cedar and cinnamon. Paco peels off his red and black plaid lumber jacket, and sets a mid-size Sandro (upscale clothing store) shopping bag on the floor. Seems he just made a purchase. At once, Paco is friendly, unruffled, and authentic.
Casual in cream-colored jean-style pants that cling to his trim toned body—not a tight fit but classy —and a white crewneck T inscribed with “Brixton Company” in small letters above the heart, Paco sports a few days beard and a wide moustache that extends beyond the length of his mouth. White tennis shoes and chalky-colored sporty socks complete his ensemble.
Settling into a chair in the living room, when asked, he requests tap water. Due to my inability to speak español and since León isn’t quite fluent in English, my friend, Laura, sits with us to interpret.
Smitten with his character, María José, I ogle Paco like a teenage fan. I ask the usual questions like where it is filmed (Mexico City), what it’s like working with other cast members (it’s his honor to work with Verónica Castro whose work he’s followed), and how he created this classy individual.
Since León started off as a comedian in an improv group, he had the opportunity to play countless diverse females, albeit wacky roles. He discloses that María José is a combination of these eclectic women. “This is the first time, though, I’ve had to contain such a character,” Paco clarifies, his trademark, exceedingly, expressive eyes typically animated. “I treat María with respect and dignity.”
León mesmerizes his audience by his propensity to disappear into characters. His persona and popularity are akin to a James Franco or Jake Gyllenhaal. (Paco admires both actors.) Paco is alluring, intoxicating, witty, and sultry.
His come-hither low-purr is undeniable. Paco has sex appeal, but he doesn’t take it seriously. (In 2013, Paco bared it all after promising to do so once he reached one million Twitter fans. The tasteful beach photograph leaves nothing to the imagination.)
Known for his progressive views and bar-none approach to life, Paco was raised in the charming town of Seville, Spain. Don Juan was born here, Columbus set sail for a New World nearby, and it’s a must-see tourist destination, with one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. Paco’s mother, Carmina, and sister, María León, are also actors. In Season Three, María will join the cast of La Casa de las Flores.
León is best known for his portrayal of Luisma in Aída, a Spanish television series that ran for ten seasons. He played a former drug addict, who lived in a run-down barrio with his sister. Last year, Paco and his long-time girlfriend, Anna Rodríguez Costa, created, Arde Madrid (or Madrid Burns). It’s an eight-episode series, shot in black and white, about the legendary actress and social butterfly, Ava Gardner, portrayed by American actress, Debi Mazar [A&U, May 1996]. A smash hit here in Spain, it’s1961 Madrid where Generalisimo Franco still rules this country with an iron fist, and Ava’s neighbors are General Perón and his wife, Isabelita. The story is told though the eyes of Ava’s service staff, León playing her chauffeur.
Paco scoots his chair closer to the glass coffee table, sitting opposite me. He crosses his ankles, pulls shirt down, and sits erect. He radiates a grin.
I mention the powerfully dramatic black and white photographs of him that I discovered on
the Internet. The two poses are similar—a portrait of Paco with shackled fists. “VIH” is written in black magic marker on one, and on the other, in red, is “VO!” It means, “HIV Alive.” In one pose, León grimly looks downward. In the other, his fetching sorrowful eyes plead.
Paco takes a sip of water and is eager to talk about the special event in 2009, which corresponds to these disturbing photographs. It was a fundraiser for the Fundación Triángulo (Triangle Foundation) and their campaign, “VIH VO.” The non-profit group focuses on equality for LGBT+ on a social and a political level. The evening brought in an abundance of revenue so that they can continue HIV awareness campaigns and, along with Spain’s Ministry of Health, the distribution of condoms to gay frequented establishments.
León has also been involved with the hands-on organization, Apoyo Positivo (Positive Support) and StopSIDA (Stop AIDS). Apoyo Positivo was established in 1993 and provides counseling, education, and assistance, as well as the promotion of human rights. StopSIDA is a national organization founded in 1986 as a grassroots association that provides sexual health support for the LGBT+ community and trans men and women who are sex workers. Paco also has a close relationship with Barcelona’s Fight Against AIDS Foundation. Several years ago, they raised over 713,00 Euros ($800,000) at their annual AIDS Gala.
“I feel like I could be doing so much more…,” laments Paco in a supple tone, taking a handful of mixed roasted nuts, which he snacks on throughout our chat. A conscientious humanitarian, he’s also passionate about breast cancer, disadvantaged kids, the Red Cross, and human rights. For the past few years Paco’s focus has been actively raising funds for Dr. Bonaventura Clotet, a leading research scientist based in Barcelona, who, Paco tells me, is on the verge of a breakthrough anti-HIV drug.
It was the death of Rock Hudson that alerted Paco to the epidemic. He was educated about STIs in high school and took to heart the precautions that were advised, but he mainly wore condoms to prevent pregnancy. Like most, he felt that HIV acquisition happened to others, though later he was having sex and relationships with men.
“I had a scare one time,” recounts Paco. He sweeps his hand through his curly chestnut-brown locks, bunching it up several times atop his head. “This guy I was seeing thought he might be infected. Fortunately, it turned out he wasn’t. But it reinforced what I already knew, which was to protect at all times!” León tested back then and continues to test today.
Currently, Paco is in a fifteen-year relationship with Anna Rodríguez Costa, a playwright and screenwriter. They have a daughter, Manuela, born in 2010, and Anna has a twenty-five-year-old son, actor Eloi Costa, Paco’s stepson. When Paco met Anna, he had a boyfriend. Publicly he’s known as bisexual, but he prefers not to label himself.
“It’s important to use your freedom,” he deftly explains, “to the fullest extent. Don’t give into statistics, fear, or stigma. Own who you are. Own that you are HIV-positive.” He loosely touches his simple, circular gold earring, then grabs one knee and sits back. “Thanks to the meds, more and more people are undetectable. Make your positive condition [diagnosis] a positive statement in the world.”
“Think outside the box and remove yourself from your comfort zone,” continues Paco, indicating that his life is an open book. His spontaneity and naturalness sets an example for others, but at times it presents a challenge. “It’s a delicate balance,” he admits.
“I choose to take an active role in helping others and one way is that my art touches on diversity and tolerance. But being open about your life can bring collateral damage.”
Paco and his partner maintain a stable family life. And Manuela, their daughter, is lucky to grow up in a household where her mother and father are open about discussing sex. “The best way to establish trust with your daughter is to face subjects head on,” he says. “Open the floor for discussion. I am straightforward with Manuela. To me, this is the most natural way.”
Sex here in Europe is treated as any other normal activity, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth. Sad that Americans still treat sex as taboo, as this kind of behavior strengthens stigma.
“Fuck stigma!” shouts León, shrugging his shoulders, whose full name, Francisco, in Latin means, “Free Man.” “I …am… grateful… for… my… freedom.” He pauses, nonchalantly resting his hand on top of his head then adds, “I think we have more freedom than we use, and we have to explore it. You have to test the limits to see what you want.
Search without fear. It’s so worth taking risks [in life].”
Paco leans in, his serious translucent green eyes look honestly into mine with calm urgency. “Communication is the key to avoid HIV infection.” Paco takes a beat then concludes, as if repeating a mantra, “Respect yourself to protect yourself.”
Personal Pop Paco
What is your favorite classic American film?
Some Like It Hot.
The AIDS epidemic: What comes to mind?
All the people we lost, and realize that it’s still ever relevant today!
What makes you get up in the morning?
If you were a comic book hero, what powers would you possess?
What do you believe happens after we die?
Nada. Nothing. [He shakes his head.] Like before life [before we are born], the same thing.
What’s your favorite color?
What do you do when you get depressed?
What is the worst acting job you ever had?
Playing Don Juan. I bought all the DVDs so no one could see it!
Toss over some acting advice.
The greatest talent as an actor is to emote tenderness. It’s hard to find, and it is a treasure.
Name two American actors who do this.
Ava Gardner and Montgomery Clift.
Who would you like to meet?
Everybody! [Then with exhilaration, he snaps his fingers trying to recall a name) Oh! The Hedwig [and The Angry Inch] guy [John Cameron Mitchell].
What book are you currently reading?.
The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom.
Gracias mi amor, Laura Romero!
Dann Dulin interviewed Ryan O’Connell for the September 2019 cover story.