Richard Cabral On Getting Out of the Hood, His Pancake Fear, and Why He Wants to Play a Gay Latino

By now, Richard Cabral should be on all of your radars. After popping up on a few scattered episodes of the L.A. cop drama Southland from 2009-11, he landed some small parts in film and television until finally getting his due as a series regular on season one of American Crime. Of course, even if you haven’t had a chance to see the critically lauded ABC crime drama, you probably still caught sight of him on the red carpet at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards, where he was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.

We say “probably caught him” because it’s pretty hard to miss the wiry, tattooed, chicano ex-gangbanger among the sea of propriety that is an industry awards gala. But just because he fits the “L.A. cholo” archetype so coveted by Hollywood casting directors, doesn’t mean that Cabral isn’t much more than that. If anyone needed proof, a recent conversation at the annual Next Up Brunch at the Sundance Film Festival (presented by Paper Planes Collective and Variety Latino) showed a small but enthusiastic crowd of Latino media influencers just how real, generous, and deeply intelligent the 31-year old East L.A. native truly is.

Richard Cabral in conversation with Carlito Rodriguez
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Over one hour, Cabral sat down with television writer and interviewer extraordinaire Carlito Rodríguez of Empire for an informal chat that ranged in scope from prison life, to giving back to your community, and the healing power of art. The lively and informal chat broke through stereotypes and sensationalist headline fodder about gang life and drug addiction, giving Cabral the chance to share some of his deepest feelings about life, art, spirituality, and success.

Cabral was feted at the event not only for his recent accomplishments, but also for his work championing diversity in American film and television. Anyone who had the chance to listen in certainly left with no doubts that Cabral is going to be an important voice for Latinos in mainstream media for years to come.

Check out some highlights from the conversation below.

On Homeboys with Vision and Breaking Out of the Hood

It’s a fear, it’s a definite fear. It’s a fear of not knowing what’s on the other side. The hood tells you that you can’t. You’re in a box, like this is what you’re supposed to do. Your only shot out is working at a warehouse or going to a community college. And you’re doing good if you’re a manager at KFC or something. I was really blessed to come from a neighborhood where I had older friends who had a vision, and were like “Yeah, Richard, you can do it.” It’s a lonesome journey, but you can do it. Thank God for homeboys.

On Casting and Court Dates

The last audition that I had there were three white people, and I was like, “The only time that [I’ve been in front of] three white people has been in court.” That shit was real. I started going to jail when I was 13, and whenever there was a white person in front of me, or a couple of them, I was like “I’m goin’ to jail.” The cops get behind me and I’m like, “Oh my God,” and my wife’s like “Why are you getting nervous?” You’re self conscious, that shit is grooved in us. Yes I try to meditate it out and work it out, but that shit is real.

On His Fear of Pancakes

I cannot eat pancakes. I was at this prison that served pancakes like four times a week, and to this day I can’t eat pancakes.

On Hollywood Lies and the Real Gang Culture

There has been no movie that has ever portrayed gang culture in the right way.

The real gang lifestyle has never been talked about. What really happens. We cry, we’re fathers, we’re sons, but we’re just dealing with the fuckin’ circumstance. Who’s ever written about that? Nobody’s ever wrote that. There’s a lot of classic films where people say “Oh, yeah, that was Los Angeles… Mexicans.” No it wasn’t. It wasn’t. And my uncles, my family has been involved in gangs since the 1970s, so I know my history. I know where the fuck this gang culture comes from. And there’s been no movie that has ever portrayed it in the right way.

On Slinging to Pay the Bills

The first time I started selling crack was to give to my mom. And no one talks about that, no one talks about how that woman felt, how my mom felt. I was 15 years old and I gave her a couple hundred dollars. And she looked at me, and she knew that it didn’t come from the right place, but she took it. She took it because she had to. And I haven’t seen my mom’s character portrayed.

Richard Cabral at the Next Up Brunch
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On The Joy and Pain of Being a Hood Vegetarian

It’s so horrible, it’s like if I go back to the hood… I’m a vegetarian. Like, who the fuck is a vegetarian? Like for my dad it’s like I married a man. My dad’s like “What the fuck do you mean? I’m bewildered, son. What do you mean you don’t eat carne asada?” I’m like, “You know, it’s clarity. I’m in my meditation.” He’s like, “What the fuck is that?”

On Acting

It’s a career if you want it, but most of all it’s regaining who you are, healing through these wounds, and being able to be vulnerable in a safe place. That’s what we do, that’s what we strive for. And for me it’s like, wow, where we come from 10 years ago I would never shed a tear in front of nobody. But little did I know that tapping into the arts, and being an artist, shedding a tear it translates, but it heals. It’s healing me and healing you and letting you know that you’re not the only one suffering. That’s what we strive for.

Richard Cabral on ‘American Crime’
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On Wanting to Play a Gay Latino Character

Because it goes against everything I was taught in the hood. In the hood, the gang culture, and then the Latino culture… And that’s why I wanna go for it. Go hard or go home.

On Healing and Positive Conversations

The only way to heal a community is having conversations about it. We suppress so much shit in the hood, but I believe that it comes out in one way. It’s gonna come out in a negative way or it’s gonna come out in a positive way, but conversations get it out in a positive way.

On Knowing Where You Came From

I would be empty inside if I turned my back first on my family and then my friends. They’re lost, it’s not their fault. They grew up screwed up. This is the reality: broken community, drug-dependent parents, gangs, everything. You are born fucked. You are set up for failure. So that is why I come back.