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Former Mexican Gang Member Richard Cabral Reveals How He Left Streets to Star in ABC’s ‘American Crime’

First Posted: Sep 17, 2015 03:35 PM EDT
Richard Cabral

Photo : ABC - "American Crime" Cast Promotional Photo

On Sunday, former Mexican gang member Richard Cabral could win an Emmy for his portrayal of Hector Tontz on ABC's "American Crime."

In the ABC drama "American Crime," he portrays a former gangbanger accused of a drug-related murder. Hector Tontz's dreams of a new life with his wife and daughter are remarkably similar to the actor's.

In a Wednesday interview with NPR, Cabral told the story of how he went from committing crimes on the streets of Los Angeles, California to acting in Hollywood.

Cabral grew up East Los Angeles without a father. As a preteen, he joined a street gang. Soon, he was addicted to meth and crack. At age 13, he stole a wallet and was sent to juvenile hall.

Over the years, he committed more crimes and went from juvenile hall, to jail, to prison. Incarceration gave him a sense of belonging.

"There was men that I could share stories with," he said. "I knew where I was going to get my next meal at, where I'd rest my head at."

Cabral earned his GED. While a free man in his teens, he discovered a love for writing, especially poetry and rap lyrics. He rapped using his gang name, "Baby Jokes." He recorded music, became a father and continued gangbanging until age 20 when he served time for shooting a man -- violent assault with a weapon.

He was released from prison at age 25 with no work experience -- desperate to change his life.

Friends recommended he find work visit Homeboy Industries, an LA gang intervention program. There, Cabral worked in the Homeboy bakery washing dishes, baking muffins and more. Through the program, he learned about Central Casting. He baked in the mornings and tried out for auditions in the afternoons.

"I remember my first thing was 'CSI: Miami,'" he said. "I played a Cuban gangster. And that was it. I was like, 'Wow, I don't have to clean toilets.' I could actually dress up and get paid equivalent to that. So that was my introduction into the Hollywood industry."

Soon, he landed speaking parts on "Southland" and in the film "A Better Life." Acting came naturally to him. His gangbanger experience gave authenticity to the tough characters he portrayed.

"Richard pulls off this thing where the audience member has this reverence for how complex this character is," Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, told NPR. "He's able to convince the audience, 'What if compassion was the response towards this character?' And that's quite different."

Cabral believes it is important to represent the reality of gang life.

"It was just showing the pain we go through," Cabral said of his performance on "American Crime," of which he has been nominated for an Emmy Award.

"And this is not like, oh, yeah, I lived it, so," he snapped his fingers, "I got this. No, man, it was a sacrifice and I really had to go to a deep, dark place. But I'm honored that I showed that other side."

The 31-year-old actor has an upcoming role in a Mel Gibson movie, the second season of "American Crime" and is working on a one-man theater show.

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