Manu Ríos Brings the Chaos to Elite

by Patrick Sproull

Manu Rios
Courtesy of Kito Muñoz/Netflix

If Riverdale is often ridiculed for parading around questionably oversexed teens, then Elite is practically Babylon. Netflix’s Madrid-set teen thriller series recently returned for a fifth season with its trademark horniness at an all-time high. At the heart of each season of Elite lies a juicy mystery, but as the years have passed, the show has further embraced the tangled love lives of its core teen characters. Season five sexes things up to a fever pitch, offering another titillating whodunnit sandwiched between smouldering sexual tension, an abundance of on-screen bottoming and Nathy Peluso on the soundtrack.

Like any school around the world, there’s a hierarchy baked into Las Encinas and circling the top is Manu Ríos’ brash Patrick Blanco Commerford. Before he enrolled at Las Encinas in Elite’s fourth season, Ríos was no stranger to appearing on-camera. After a childhood of starring in musicals, talent shows and TV roles, Ríos transitioned to YouTube—but when he was cast in Elite, his first adult role, little could prepare him for the magnitude of fame that comes with starring in Netflix’s second most popular Spanish-speaking series. In the 10 months since his first appearance, Ríos’s Instagram following has rocketed from south of five million to 10 million.

“It was kind of crazy at the beginning. When you do a project like this, you know it’s worldwide and a lot of people are watching it, but I tried not to think about it and just focus on the work,” the 23-year-old says over Google Meet. “I remember I went to France and I was just eating with some friends at a restaurant and one girl saw me and started calling people. By the end of the meal, I went out and there was a big crowd of people asking for pictures.”

Ríos seems undaunted by his spike in fame‚he’s bashful, almost; a reflection of the boy-next-door charm he brought to his YouTube days. “I would love to do something where I have to be super different than who I am, a physical change or something like that,” he says of his future acting ambitions.

As casually gay as Elite is, Ríos is mindful that it’s still an abstraction of reality. “It’s so very important but I think with this type of show, which a lot of teenagers and young people see, you have to keep in mind it’s not 100 percent reality,” he says. “Obviously, we talk about a lot of important topics and we give visibility, but it’s still a show and everything is super extra. But I feel proud to be a part of Elite.”

There’s a campiness to Elite that has always felt in keeping with the stylings of Pedro Almodóvar. Though the show’s color palette is far less gaudy, it shares the director’s unbridled approach to queer sex. Season five pays tribute to the filmmaker’s oeuvre when several couples consummate their relationships during a drive-in screening of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Ríos says he is a fan, not least because he and Almodóvar were both born in the town of Calzada de Calatrava.

“I love Almodóvar,” he says. “He’s always been one of my references because I grew up in the same town as him; that’s super special to me. It was amazing to see someone do these types of films and talk about these topics at a moment where it wasn’t possible.” In terms of a favorite Almodóvar flick, Ríos has trouble choosing just one: “I like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I love that movie so much. All About My Mother is amazing, too..”

After performing in musicals as a child—Ríos once played Gavroche in Les Misérables—the actor is eager to return to music. “I was actually working on an EP before the show, but when I started shooting, I couldn’t find the time or the energy to do both things. I wanted to focus on the series,” he says. “But it’s something I want to do in the future. I’m already talking about it with my team and we’re trying to make it work in the best way. I’m excited to be able to release music and work on the visuals as well.”

Ríos has said in the past that he’s a far cry from the irreverent and reckless Patrick. “At the beginning I was kind of shy and before shooting the show we had to do rehearsals, crazy exercises to get out of your comfort zone,” he says. “So, it was a little bit hard on me at the beginning.”

But the actor also stresses that he and Patrick aren’t wholly different. “I mean, it’s not like I’m not a carefree type of person,” he says. “But if I’ve learned something from him, it’s to act a different way in certain situations because he’s really impulsive and not a good role model.” He agrees that Elite’s strength lies in its refusal to box its characters in; not one character is, objectively, a good role model. “I think that’s what’s super interesting about Elite. With all of the characters, it’s not that they’re a bad person or a good person,” he says. “They have both shadows and light, and I think that’s what makes them so real.”

After previously finding himself as the wedge which divides gay power couple Omar and Ander, Patrick is more liberated in the fifth season. “I feel like you definitely know him more personally than in season four,” Ríos says. It’s unsurprising given the positive response Patrick received from the show’s fan base, though Ríos admits he was initially fearful of stepping into the role. “I was so scared at the beginning because I knew I was getting into something. People loved Omar and Ander, and I was scared they were going to hate me or hate the character because he gets between them,” he says. “It can be overwhelming sometimes but people love the character. I read a lot of comments that they want to see more about Patrick and get more in depth about his feelings.”

In typical Elite fashion, Patrick organizes a head-spinning party-rave-orgy early on in the new season. “It was fun [to shoot],” Ríos says. “You know, this time I had fun because I’d already shot one season before, so I knew how things worked. Also, Patrick this season is more chill—he’s more focused on love, but he is, obviously, still Patrick. It was fun to be in touch with a different part of him.”

Patrick’s party is a pure distillation of Elite’s brand of horny chaos, with dozens of minimally-clad European bodies packed tightly into a club and indiscriminately making out with each other. But filmed in the throes of Covid, it took on a greater importance for the young cast, a chance to recoup certain highs stolen by the pandemic. “Since we couldn’t go to parties in real life, to be able to dance for even 15 seconds with a lot of people was close enough to a real party,” Ríos says. “It was nice to be in that moment with everyone—even for 15 seconds.”