Mexican-American actor Richard Cabral is best known for playing a series of gang members on films like A Better Life, End of Watch, Blood Father, Snitch and Peppermint over the last decade but he knows who he is and what he wants out of this industry.
“I know where my power is,” Cabral tells Remezcla during a recent interview. “I didn’t grow up in Manhattan or in Pacific Palisades. I grew up in the barrio, and those stories are valuable.” For Cabral, a former gang member, drug addict and ex-convict, acting has never been about cashing a paycheck. He’s always searched for three-dimensional roles. When he earned an Emmy nomination in 2015 for his supporting role in the anthology series American Crime, Cabral’s self-confidence grew even more.
“That kind of set the tone for me,” he says. “But the reality of the Hollywood industry is that there’s not always writers and creators that want to go in depth like that. Not only am I waiting for that, but I’m asking for it. My bar has been set and I want collaborators at that same level.”
Cabral says he’s found that with Mayans M.C. Currently in its third season, Cabral makes the most of his recurring role as Johnny “El Coco” Cruz, a Marine vet and member of the Mayans Motorcycle Club who is currently battling a heroin addiction—a development in the story that Cabral was ready to meet head-on.
My time and my energy mean more to me than a paycheck.
“As an actor, all you can really ask for is that your audience is on this journey with you,” Cabral says. “Now, we are here with this drug addiction and the audience is with me. When [Mayans M.C.] creators said we were going to go down this road, I was willing to sacrifice everything for it.”
During our interview, Cabral talked about roles he tries to avoid and criticism that comes with playing what some would call stereotypical characters.
Can you give me an example of a role that you would say no to if it came across your desk?
Stuff that’s a quick buck. Romantic comedies are not my thing. [Laughs] Shoot ’em up, bang-bang [movies] serve their purpose, but I believe I’m a true actor. Not everybody is Emmy-nominated. If we can’t meet in the middle, then I don’t want to be a part of it. My time and my energy mean more to me than a paycheck. I want an opportunity to merge and collaborate—creatively and in a spiritual way. Not everyone works like that, but those are the people I want to work with.
What do you say to people who think you play stereotypical gangster roles in all your movies?
I grew up in the barrio. I know this world. I know the beauty and the pain of it. People who say that wanna talk about a lifestyle they’ve never experienced. If I’m giving critically-acclaimed performances telling gangster stories, then what’s the problem? All [Martin] Scorsese did was gangster movies. Any other culture, they don’t say nothing. A Latino does it, and people want to say something.
When you first started acting, did you think these were the types of roles you’d be playing?
I was already tatted up on my neck! What was I gonna do, Shakespeare?! Play the doctor in The Good Doctor?! What am I gonna do, Friends?
Did you think you’d be an Emmy-nominated actor?
Not at all. I was working in a bakery and Southland [casting] came and were looking for gang members. All I ever wanted to do was do something that I liked—that I would find out that I loved—and provide for my children. It was never a thought that I would be a star. I knew there was competition out there. I wanted to be the best.
Is there someone in the industry that you’d like to emulate in terms of their career trajectory?
I’m on my own path. I know that God has given me a very specific power and certain understanding that only I have gone through. I was sitting in prison from when I was 13 to 25 years old. I believe my voice is very authentic. I admire the ones that have been here for 20, 30, 40 years like Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard—people who got better as they got older. That’s what I want to do. I want to get older, and I want to get better as a storyteller.
Anytime there is a diversity report that comes out these days, Latinos don’t seem to be faring too well when it comes to representation on screen. From your perspective, how can we change this?
I feel that we have to create our own content. I think a lot of [Latinos] want to be in front of the camera. But we need to have the same amount of people that want to be in front of the camera, behind the camera. We are moving forward, but we really need to start creating our own stories to tell them the way we want to.
Are you a creator yourself?
Yeah, I wrote a film about a year and a half ago. I got my director, Ben Bray Hernández (El Chicano). We got a legit producer on it. It looks like it’ll be going probably this year. I did a one-man show maybe four years ago about my life. That’s the inspiration behind [the film]. I truly want to tell the most authentic barrio story ever told. I know to this day that story has not been told because the people who have tried to tell it have never experienced it. I feel like [my film] is going to relate to the barrios throughout the United States.
We are moving forward, but we really need to start creating our own stories to tell them the way we want to.
Since you’ve worked in a bakery, what are the five things you’d order if you walked into a panadería today?
Conchas, champurrado, atole, a tamal de queso y rajas and maybe a little sandia lollipop, and I’m out of there!
OK, let’s say in the future you decide to take the lead role in a romantic comedy. Which Latina actress do you want to play your love interest?
[Laughs] Ah, man. What are you trying to do right here, man?!
Oh, wait, are you married?
I just got a divorce! I’m enjoying my freedom and you’re trying to cuff me up! I can’t call it. I can’t. There’s too many beautiful Latinas to choose from.