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Henri Esteve: Storytelling Through Concentrated Empathy

Henri Esteve: Storytelling Through Concentrated Empathy

We immerse ourselves in various identities throughout our lives, moving from one moment to another, but also evolving into something new continually. Artist Henri Esteve says, “I am an artist, a son, a brother. I am a Cuban from Miami who fell in love with storytelling. A storyteller, I guess would be the easiest for me to identify.” 

Henri grew up in a Cuban household wrapped in the warmth of Cuban culture which as he says is “Laughing through drama and trauma. I love a sense of community that has become a big thing for me;  I am trying to create a community wherever I live. I think a lot of that comes from a Cuban house. The feelings like the community and familiarity with people are really important for me.”

Despite the global focus on events that have affected the entire world and although Henri couldn’t visit his beloved community for some time, he has experienced the awareness of growth and a deeper connection with himself during this past year. 

Photography // Emily Knecht

“I think growth is one of those things that’s like working out. In general, you don’t notice it day by day. But you do if you look back a year or two past. During quarantine, there was a level of routine I was forced to find and things to free my mind in a way from the news cycle, anxiety, and monotony, or what was going on in the world. So I ended up getting a motorcycle that I’ve wanted for years and that turned into, if not daily, every couple days a meditation, for hours. I ended up disappearing into the mountains in California on the bike and coming back feeling way better. So it gave me a routine to sort of get away, meditate. During time off, I really became accountable to myself, because I really had no one else to be accountable to. I think that helped a lot in growth. I like myself better at the end of quarantine or right now than I did before, and that’s a really good feeling.”

Especially since last year, technology has not only helped us to stay connected with our loved ones but has also become an outlet for many talents to continue to create and share stories with others. The evolution of technology has expanded, becoming accessible to many while offering enough quality to produce and film stories with much more affordable budgets. It also broadens the possibilities for talents to experience the identity of various disciplines that they then bring into their main field of creative expression, adding to it a new perspective. 

“Before the digital era, it would cost so much money to shoot things on film and then, to turn that into a movie and the editing process was so much more strenuous. I think technology is just opening up the opportunity for people that are already storytellers and understand the story structure of movies or TV shows to start broadening and creating their own stuff. I also write and direct. I just started directing about two years ago. And then I have a couple of projects that are in pre-production. Right now just trying to get the scripts finished and then try to turn them into a feature,” shares Henri. 

Acting for Henri is, “concentrated empathy.” How satisfying must be the opportunity to become someone else and to discover something new about yourself, which contributes to your own development. 

“It’s an empathy workout, I think every time you start creating a character and working on something—my favorite thing about acting now that I’ve grown and acted for a longer period of time is how much I can find catharsis in roles. No matter how small it is, if it’s something I don’t think I am, it’s very beneficial for me. When it comes to the process of directing, the funnest part for me is working on performance. And that’s probably just coming from a theatre background where I didn’t have to worry about the camera and storytelling in that capacity. So for me, it is a lot of one-on-ones with the actors pulling them to different sides of the set and talking about the scene. I read a lot of Sidney Lumet’s books, and I started adapting some of the things he was doing as a director.”

Henri grew-up in Miami with many Cuban Republicans as friends, and now he can currently be seen on Freeform’s Grown-ish portraying Javier, a Cuban Republican activist and a grad student whom Ana, played by Francia Raisa, interns with at Cal U. One of his favorite things about Javi is that he is not demonizing the other side, even though he is loyal to his strong conservative values. 

Photography // Emily Knecht

“As I look at politics today in the United States of America, especially the media where politics has fallen into this place where both sides get demonized by the other. The political media only talks about the far right or the really far left, like there is no opportunity for someone to be in the middle. I think Javi definitely does not subscribe to that belief system of politics, which feels like a nice thing. And he is just trying to find ways to deepen his relationship with himself and God—that’s a fun thing to kind of take and try to implement into my own life,” says Henri, about the process of becoming Javier. 

Beyond the connection between Ana and Javier as Cubans from Miami, as with everyone and everything around us, their relationship is a mirror reflection of what they feel within themselves. So they show each other where they stand, and from there they make decisions to grow and take certain directions.

“I’m pretty sure Ana had a strong relationship to church before Javi. I think Javi is challenged by Ana in many ways. But especially, this is his first relationship where he’s been abstinent, and he is trying to have a relationship that isn’t based on sex, and I think that for him that ends up being a really daunting and positive experience where he can find a lot of growth in there.”

Grown-ish reflects on many topics that are important to the modern day’s societal and cultural context. The show’s narrative highlights opposite sides of those topics, aiming to bring more awareness to the audience not only about the various contextual backgrounds and beliefs but also the benefits of diverse thinking and our common threads as human beings. 

Henri says, “They do a really good job of writing these episodes and these characters in a way that you’re hearing multiple sides of the topic, and then allowing the audience to sort of just choose where, what side they align with, or if they don’t even align with a side and they take in information and are a little more knowledgeable on the topic or a little more empathetic to a topic. I think the duty of giving multiple sides promotes empathy. And, you know, we could all do with some more empathy today.”

Besides his role as Javier on Grown-ish, Henri is in the process of unfolding several other projects within the entertainment industry. On the personal side, he is passionate about bringing more awareness to people on the topic of mental health. This is related to his own experience in struggling with anxiety, depression, and addiction, eventually overcoming them all. 

“In those moments I felt alone and unaware of who to talk to, or how to talk to people about it, and how to find support. It made me feel like what I was going through was different and not necessarily normal due to the stigmas around it. And there was a shame in trying to bring it up to people or with people. So it’s really that, I want to attack the stigma around mental health. If me talking about it could make, for example, some 12-year-old kid in Miami feel a little less alone when he or she has anxiety attacks or depression then that’s awesome. I want to be able to make people feel a little less different in those capacities, “ Henri states. 

We all have the opportunity to turn things around and see those moments of discomfort as beneficial. The greatest clarity in preferences about how we want to experience life is born from these situations. It doesn’t mean we have to stay too long there, but they are also necessary and inevitable components of our growth and expansion. Henri shares his own example about making the choice to turn an unpleasant situation into his benefit: “A few years ago I was partying quite a bit and had a blackout where I woke up next to someone; I had no idea who she was or how I had gotten there, unfortunately. After that experience, I knew I had to make some changes. I did a lot of work to shift my relationship to alcohol and partying. Those kinds of moments are uncomfortable and scary, but that one was a final one for me to see what I was doing not only to myself but my career and just my wellbeing and mental state.”

Photography // Emily Knecht

That recognition and strength to make the decision based on what feels the best brings a fuller sense of care and love for oneself and others. “So I’ve really started to show up for myself in a big capacity. And in doing the things that I say I’m going to do, and whether that is eating better or working out in the morning, or being more empathetic in certain conversations or making a grateful list or journaling, or turning my phone off for three hours. I’m accountable to myself.”

We are all storytellers in one way or another. Our beliefs are highly influenced by the stories we tell to ourselves, hence these become predominantly the perspective from which we experience the world around us. Everything we give our attention to is an invitation. 

Like Henri Esteve, who is a professional storyteller, perhaps we can be more present and aware of the stories we embody, making them the types of stories we really want to experience in our lives.

Photography // Emily Knecht

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