Christopher Rivas on the Special Energy of ‘Call Me Kat’

Growing up, Call Me Kat star Christopher Rivas always felt a little lost. Like most kids, he’d always been exposed to the arts through movies and television, but that first lightning strike of true connection to performance occurred thanks to one Broadway actor: John Leguizamo. Rivas had been to the theater, having seen large scale productions like Beauty and the Beast before, but “when I saw this show and I saw someone who looked like me and was actually from Queens, New York (like I was) and Colombian like half of me, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” All it took was seeing someone from a similar background as him to encourage that lightning strike, and ever since, Rivas hasn’t slowed down. “I want to be in spaces where I get to tell my story and tell stories and make people laugh, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

After a CalArts education and plenty of time building his craft on stage and in various short films, Rivas broke onto the television scene with guest roles in Shameless and Rizzoli & Isles. Christopher already knew he had the fire and the talent to make it far, but the latter series was the one that really cemented his confidence as a newbie in the industry. “It was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can actually do it.’” Any young actor who has hit the audition circuit knows how discouraging the business can be, and Rivas hadn’t entirely escaped that intimidation, but “when I was there, working, I was really fulfilled with the confidence of: This is my life. Even in moments where it gets hard, I’m going to remember this feeling, and I’m going to do this.”

That confidence obviously didn’t go unnoticed by casting agents, as Rivas built an impressive resume over the next half decade on acclaimed and popular shows like GLOW and Grey’s Anatomy. The rising star had booked a part on an exciting new sitcom pilot, and things only seemed to be going up… until COVID-19 put the world on pause and effectively canceled the new show, before it had even begun. “I was feeling like a lot of the world, like I had lost, just trying to figure out what was next.” However, that next step turned out to be an even bigger and better one than Christopher could have imagined. Call Me Kat was looking for their Oscar, a charismatic man who Mayim Bialik’s titular protagonist would meet in a bar. The writers knew the two would hit it off, but the future of the character was uncertain. “It was going to be somewhere between one to three episodes in season one.” Rivas booked it, and the part only continued to grow with every day on set. “After the first [episode], they were like, ‘We’re going to keep you in until the end.’ Around episode three, they said, ‘We want you back for next season.’” Now, Rivas is a series regular and the third corner of the show’s central love triangle, something that Kat’s former boyfriend Max (Cheyenne Jackson) is none too happy about.

The end of the first season left Kat in a difficult position: choosing between her college beau Max and exciting new prospect Oscar. Viewers were left hanging for months after the finale, waiting to know who she chose, but Rivas admitted that he knew the answer all along. “Mayim, in her absolute openness and generosity, was like, ‘Before you came to this show, I was supposed to be with Max, but they just loved you.’” Max had been built up as Kat’s ideal match, but the writers and producers hadn’t even realized Oscar’s potential until Christopher stepped onto the scene and infused the character with his signature charm. So, the story switched direction, and the season two premiere found Kat deciding to pursue the man she’d met only a few episodes before. “So she had told me what was going to happen, and that was something I’ve been keeping to myself since the announcement, because they wanted to keep it sort of hush hush about who she would pick.”

When considering how Rivas described sliding into the role with ease, it’s no surprise that the producers were eager to keep him around for as long as possible. As soon as he met the teams working on and off camera, everything just clicked. “There’s a part of me that thinks I can play everything with enough time and enough rehearsal. I believe in my acting abilities enough. But it’s true that there are roles in this life that actors get to play that click. For whatever reason, you meet them at a certain time in your life where all the pieces fall into place.” That immediate confidence set in with Oscar, and a large part of that assurance was due to the fact that television is such a team-based medium. “In a sitcom, you’re not alone. Everyone is involved.” Mayim Bialik especially turned out to be an incredibly strong scene partner, “an unbelievably easy person to work across from.” Christopher had nothing but effusive praise for the sitcom veteran, describing how “she’s very generous, as an artist and as a person.”

Although Christopher has enjoyed filming all kinds of content, he’s found that the multi-camera world is where he’s felt most comfortable, and that’s no surprise given his background and training in theater. Between the pauses for laughter and more dynamic physicality, the pacing, tone, and speed of a sitcom is nearly identical to that of a stage play, but the most important similarity is the audience element. “Other humans can create an energy like no other. You can’t duplicate people in a space, and you can’t duplicate real laughter and real joy. It’s contagious, and it fills the whole space, the whole stage.” A responsive and enthusiastic audience can revitalize any production and magnify the energy levels of everyone on set, from the directors to the makeup team. “You can do a film, and you can do other forms of television, and there’s this silence that exists, sort of like at a golf game. When they said, ‘Action,’ there’s this real, real heavy silence that we need to respect so the actors can do their thing, and that is also a beautiful art form, but with a live audience, there’s no denying that they’re there, and you need them. You don’t exist without them.” For a while, television fanatics wondered if the multi-camera sitcom was on its way out of cultural favor, but Rivas is emphatic that the medium’s unique qualities cannot and will not be replicated anywhere else. He’s very likely correct, as series like Call Me Kat have continued to prove that millions upon millions of viewers at home still crave that communal aspect, the feeling that you’re never watching alone. “That’s why it’s so special, and that’s why people return to it and will keep returning to it.”

Of course, the pandemic has presented more than a few roadblocks to achieving those live audience reactions for real, but Christopher is proud of the entire team’s dedication and strict adherence to safety protocols. “It’s not easy during this time. I want to give a big shoutout to all of the producers and safety staff who keep us safe, between the testings and the masks and the shields on top of the masks and the social distancing.” Luckily, those guidelines have worked well enough that Call Me Kat has begun offering tickets to live audience tapings, beginning in mid-February (with testing requirements and social distancing measures still strictly observed). Despite the uncertainties and obstacles, Rivas has found that his team’s continued success is nothing short of “incredible… the commitment we are making to still keep to this craft in making this art and being able to put it out in a timely fashion.”

The second season of Call Me Kat has seen Kat and Oscar navigating their newfound relationship, not without their fair share of comedic mishaps of course. While Rivas has to stay tight-lipped to avoid spoilers of future episodes, he was able to tease the meeting of some of Oscar’s family. “That will incite some stuff in our world, and I can just say that Oscar and Kat journey to new places. There’s a lot more to come now that we are officially dating.”

Oscar’s story isn’t the only one Rivas is working hard to tell, though. Christopher has recently entered a deal with SiriusXM’s Stitcher, where he will soon be premiering a podcast focused on Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican diplomat who served as the main inspiration for James Bond. As a young Dominican-Colombian college student, it was Christopher’s dream to eventually be cast as the first Latin James Bond, but after discovering the little-known history of Rubirosa, “I was blown away and thought to myself, ‘This whole time I thought I needed to become this white British guy, but this white British guy might have been Dominican this whole time.’ How might my life have been different had Bond looked like me? Or looked like my father, or the people I loved?” The podcast is not only a documentary-style explanation of the life and escapades of the diplomat; it’s also a warning to people of color everywhere that the stories they’re familiar with may be closer to home than they think, that their own stories may be warped long after they’re gone. “It was important to me that this story be put on blast. If his essence was stolen by Ian Fleming, I wanted to bring it back. I wanted to honor him and really look at this character, Bond. Is he really all he’s cracked up to be?”

Rivas’ second podcast will be Brown Enough, an interview show about the experiences of brown people in America. “Some of the guests we have are incredible. It’s going to be really fun, and it’s going to spark a lot of amazing conversations.” The podcast shares the same title as Christopher’s first book, which will be released this fall by Row House Publishing. The collection of essays will focus more specifically on the actor’s own experiences as Dominican-Colombian man, “whether that be my time in Hollywood, whether that’s me being the one of the only kids of color in my theater conservatory, whether that’s my love of television growing up.” Between conversations about climate change, student loans, and Broadway, the book will be a holistic “exploration of brownness, everything between black and white.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Christopher knows he has even more ideas he wants to explore. “I have a TV show that I want to make that I can’t say too much about… I’m sure there’s another book in me, and I also want to keep being a part of other people’s amazing art. As much as I love creating and making things, I also love the collaboration of other people’s genius. Whatever else is next, I’m excited to be a part of it.”

When Rivas’ call time on Call Me Kat ends, he heads home for the night with two stories in his head: Oscar’s on the page and his own, constantly evolving and shaped by the wonderful people he’s lucky enough to work alongside. “Not only are they talented artists and actors and actresses; they’re phenomenal humans that you want to hang around and be with. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re insightful.” Once the dust of the day is settled, he usually finds himself smiling as he reflects on both the jokes in the script and the people working so hard to tell them, the people he gets to call his friends. “I walked into a space, right place, right time… [with] amazing people there who never made me feel like I wasn’t part of the family. It has stayed that way, and we have a lot of fun, and I’m really, really grateful to be a part of the family. I just love going to work every day.”

You can keep up with Oscar and Kat’s story every Thursday night on FOX, and watch out for Brown Enough, Christopher Rivas’ own story, hitting bookshelves in October.

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