For five seasons, fans of “Jane the Virgin” have swooned over the transformation of Rafael Solano from playboy hotelier to doting baby daddy and the wokest bae in Miami.
But for Justin Baldoni, who plays him, that evolution wasn’t just an act.
“What’s interesting about the journey of Rafael as a character is it in some strange way resembles and intersects with my journey as a man,” he said. “I explored masculinity, digging into the parts of myself that are uncomfortable, and learning about equality and privilege. And it really cracked me open.”
It’s still anyone’s guess whether Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Rafael will get their happily-ever-after in the CW telenovela’s finale on July 31 — the “after” including the return from the dead of Michael (Brett Dier), Jane’s first husband, and a series of unfortunate events that keep derailing her wedding to Rafael.
Wherever the soundstage sun sets, Baldoni’s offscreen metamorphosis is ongoing.
Baldoni, now 35, began directing music videos and commercials when he was about 21, even giving up acting at one point — his résumé includes soapy stints on “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” — to make documentaries. Following his feature debut, “Five Feet Apart,” in March — starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse as cystic fibrosis patients who are in love but who dare not touch — Baldoni will soon begin preproduction on “Clouds,” about a teenage cancer victim. Both connect back to stories in his digital docuseries, “My Last Days,” now shown on CW and SoulPancake, that follows terminally ill people as they come to the end of their lives.
He’s also banging the drum for “Man Enough,” a collection of online conversations with other men on topics like “fast cars, fast women,” “I have a long history of hurting women” and “men and women can’t be friends.” Those dialogues prompted Baldoni’s 2017 TED Talk, titled “Why I’m done trying to be ‘man enough,’” which more than five million people have watched. And next year his wife, the actress Emily Baldoni — with whom he has two children, Maiya, 4, and Maxwell, 20 months — will host a spinoff that expands the brand into femininity.
In a phone call from Cannes, France, where he spoke about masculinity to an audience of advertising and marketing executives, Baldoni talked about his quest to become a better man — and why he has no regrets.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The suspense is killing me! What do you think of the way “Jane the Virgin” is wrapping up?
In any TV show, especially when you have a love triangle, you can never please everybody all the time. And of course there was some pushback from people upset that Michael came back and a lot of uncertainty around how that relationship ended. But I think that the writers did a really beautiful job of using telenovela tropes and twists and magical elements to create a dynamic season where all the characters got a moment to shine. At the end of the day it’s a love story, and I believe it plays out nicely.
We still don’t know whether you and Jane will end up married, but you performed a blessing at Gina’s wedding to Joe LoCicero in May. Should we assume that you and Gina will stay in touch?
Absolutely. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll be friends for life. That was a beautiful, beautiful experience. Gina’s my soul sister.
You were freshly married when you started the show and then had two children in the next five years. Did that affect the way you played Rafael?
Oh God, yeah. We got pregnant and I started thinking about what life would be like for my daughter, and then I started openly sharing on my social media these thoughts and feelings, and I was labeled a feminist. Then I had to really figure out what a feminist was. I realized, well, I am a feminist because I believe in the radical notion that women are people.
A big credit to [the creator Jennie Snyder Urman] for allowing me to play a character that actually learned and grew and got feedback from the women in his life and became a dynamic man that wasn’t afraid to show his feelings. She never wants to ask me about anything because she’s very competent and she knows her characters and where she wants to take them. But I can’t believe that no part of Rafael was influenced by Justin.
You’ve been directing for more than a decade. But how did you find the time to juggle “Five Feet Apart” with “Jane”?
When I made “Five Feet Apart,” I had to jump back on the show and shoot the final season but I still had to edit the movie. [The CBS series] “Scorpion” had just been canceled and we shared a hallway with some of the dressing rooms. So we ended up renting three of the dressing rooms next to mine, and I moved in my editor and postproduction into those rooms. So for the whole first half of the final season, I was bouncing between these super heavy emotional scenes with Michael coming back and then editing my lighthearted “Five Feet Apart.” [Laughs] I was basically living at the studio until early 2019, which is why I just took my family on a one-month vacation.
About five years ago you came up with the idea called “Man Enough.” What inspired that?
It stemmed from conversations that I would have with guys in the locker room, where so many problems started and silence became complicity — and that eventually had to change. Right before [the sexual assault charges against Harvey] Weinstein, I took this all over town. I told people, I really believe that masculinity is going to be something that we’re going to be talking about, and let’s have this conversation and be vulnerable with each other. And everyone kind of laughed at me. Nobody got it. So I funded the whole thing myself.
You’re open about your adoration of Emily on social media. Does that make you a Wife Guy?
I have issues where we start uplifting our wives because suddenly it’s cool. So I’m probably not the right person to ask about that. Movements are important because that’s how we reach the masses. But at the same time, I would love to see it being done quietly also. It’s one thing to do something publicly and to show a picture of your wife and how great she is, but it’s another thing to make sure you’re treating her that way in private.
Now that you’re primarily focused on directing, what kind of stories are you looking to tell?
I would say if a project makes me laugh and cry, it’s something that I’m going to be very interested in — specifically social justice and giving people opportunities to tell their stories that maybe haven’t had that chance because of myriad reasons, whether it be the color of their skin or the place that they’re from. Because I was one of those people that had the door slammed in my face over and over and over again when I was wanting to make content that made us feel good. And I believe that there’s a whole generation of people out there that are having that door slammed in their face. And I want them to know that my door is open.