Henri Esteve is generally recognized for his Hollywood work in Revenge and Grown-ish. That is unless you’re a theater buff, in which case Esteve’s extensive stage work in classic productions probably put the star on your must-watch list over a decade ago.
His new starring role in Primo on Amazon Freevee is likely to eclipse all these memories. The sitcom, a semi-autobiographical adaptation of creator Shea Serrano’s own upbringing in San Antonio, Texas, launched last week to solidly positive reviews.
In Primo, 16-year-old Rafa is trying to navigate the usual teenage rollercoaster of emotions with a single mother and five uncles who sometimes help and sometimes hinder. Alongside Esteve as Mike—one of the uncles, a strict military man—there are Ignacio Diaz-Silverio as Rafa, Christina Vidal as Rafa’s mother and uncles played by Carlos Santos, Johnny Rey Diaz, Jonathan Medina and Efraín Villa.
According to Vulture, Serrano—a journalist and New York Times bestselling author—pitched the series to producer Mike Schur because he was “tired of waiting for there to be more Mexicans on TV.”
The series was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico beginning in May 2022, and while Esteve is hopeful it will be picked up for a second season, there’s no official word yet. The writer’s strike is adding to the uncertainty. Still, the pause has given him time to work on developing his own work—drama, not comedy—which feels like a full circle for the actor, who knew he wanted to act from the age of nine.
Esteve’s journey from stage to screen
“I remember the first time I wanted to do it, but it was years later that I actually did it,” he tells me. “I was watching HBO late one night, and I saw John Leguizamo’s Sexoholix, a one-man, coming-of-age show. I was watching him on this theater stage in a room full of people and I had the ‘I want to do that!’ moment.”
Esteve eventually moved to New York City at seventeen to study at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute. His natural aptitude for the stage led to his playing Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and parts in Don Peterson’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, Edward Allen Baker’s North of Providence and David Auburn’s Proof.
“I was selling sneakers in SoHo at a store called Michael K, then I was working at Milk Studios,” he recalls. “Milk was very cool, a cushy version of a labor job. It’s a photo studio and gallery, so I was around artists all day. After Milk, I worked at Webster Hall, which was incredibly busy, and it was hard. I would book a play and I’d go do that for a couple of months then come back and switch jobs. In my head, the money would figure itself out but I had to get on stage.”
Which he did, though it wasn’t long before he left New York for the beating heart of the American film industry. He arrived in Los Angeles in 2013 and a year later, made his television debut as Javier Salgado on the ABC series, Revenge. What many fans don’t know is that Revenge isn’t what brought him to LA.
“I had a role lined up for a film—I’ve never talked about this—a fight film,” he tells me. “Jason Statham, who I’ve never met, was attached to be the fighting coach for this MMA film, and I was going to be one of the antagonists.”
But when he arrived, the film project had fallen apart. Luckily, Esteve’s brother lived in California, so he had somewhere to bunk while he looked for other opportunities. That opportunity eventually came in the form of a recurring role in the third season of Revenge.
As the arrogant and ambitious hacker-on-parole, Esteve portrayed a morally corrupt opportunist. Javier lied, duped and double-crossed friends, lovers and acquaintances with seemingly no remorse. His good looks and suave silver tongue let him seduce and betray Charlotte while simultaneously wheeling and dealing with her brother. Did you like playing this person, I ask as diplomatically as possible.
“I loved playing him,” admits Esteve. “Anything that’s a cover and a defense mechanism for a really fractured dude, I enjoy. Especially when they’re using ego to fill that void.”
After seven episodes creating havoc, Javier vanished. Esteve went on to star in the indie movie Microwave and to write and develop his one-man show, Patsy, which recounts the life and death of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 2018, Esteve reappeared on screen as Abel in Amazon’s award-winning and critically acclaimed show, Homecoming starring Julia Roberts. Two years later, he played another Javier on the Freeform series Grown-ish. This Javier was an intelligent, well-educated and disciplined grad student interning alongside Ana (Francia Raisa) at Cal U.
What is Primo?
As Uncle Mike in Primo, Esteve plays yet another fractured man prone to ego-driven endeavors, but this time one whose intentions are honorable and his supremely disciplined, military-trained lifestyle is admirable, if strict.
It is a relief, as a viewer, to watch characters who can lampoon their traits and their families, but without the cringe-worthy tropes of white writers trying to imagine Latin characters’ lives. Is there a very obvious difference between working with old, white men writing Latin characters? Is Primo significantly different in feel?
“Yes and yes,” says Esteve, a smile playing into his voice. “I think the hardest thing to get right is that naturalness. It’s not even stereotyping on screen or otherwise, but the way I can tell it’s not a Latin writer is when they do Spanglish and depict a Latin person speaking Spanish to an English speaker —like, why would I ever speak Spanish to someone who doesn’t speak Spanish?”
His imitation of Spanglish is fantastic, and though he claims to be a drama dude through and through, there’s no doubting his comedic chops.
“With Primo, we don’t speak Spanish or talk about being Mexican, and that’s the beauty of it,” Esteve tells me. “The most Mexican thing we do is cook Mexican food. Besides that, there are no real references to being other, and that’s why there are no stereotypes. It’s about a family that happens to be Latin.”
At the heart of Primo is a story of the role men play in raising the next generation of men. In an America that is fixated on what mothers should do, and can do, and what makes a good mother, it feels pertinent and necessary for art to be asking: what do men owe their sons and the boys in their care?
“I think that’s really essential,” Esteve says, “and it felt important to be that last link before a generational change. The uncles are that final link in Primo, and Rafa is going to move past so much toxicity and chaos that we all live in and to do that—for a Latin family—is particularly special. So often, Latin fathers are written in a way where they’re leaving the family or absent.”
He adds, “In this show, there are five men so committed to the next generation, and that’s pretty cool. Probably [Uncle] Jay is my favorite. For me, discipline is a skill I had to teach myself later so I would have loved to have had someone instilled that in me [growing up].”
Esteve’s mother moved to the U.S. when she was 10, and he laments that she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her creative passions. However, she created an environment that nurtured her children’s artistic careers.
“She came over from Cuba when she was about 10 and it wasn’t even an option to go into an arts field as a profession,” he says. “Her two sons—me and my brother [Franz Klainsek]—are both artists now. My brother’s a painter.”
Though career-building streaming roles have taken up his energy and attention in recent years, Esteve has not lost his interest in crafting his own vehicles—which don’t look anything like Sexoholix 2.0.
“Since Primo ended, I’ve been busy collaborating with one of the writers on the show on a drama,” he hints, adding that drama is still where he feels the most comfortable.