How Former Gang Member Richard Cabral Went From Prison To Prime Time

Sep 16, 2015
Originally published on September 21, 2015 10:35 pm

Richard Cabral's neck, chest and arms are covered with tattoos. They depict Mexican gang culture, his friends, uncles, even his daughter Bella. Cabral's intense look and his powerful acting have landed him a lot of TV roles, but his path to Hollywood wasn't easy. Not long ago, Cabral was a gang member in prison, facing a possible 35-year sentence; this Sunday, he's up for an Emmy.

In the ABC drama American Crime, Cabral plays a former gangbanger implicated in a drug-related murder. Cabral's character dreams of a new life with his wife and daughter, away from trouble. His story is remarkably similar to the 31-year-old actor's.

Cabral says he grew up in East L.A. without a father. He joined a street gang, and got addicted to crack and meth. When he was 13, he stole a wallet and was incarcerated for the first time.

"That was it," he recalls. "The breaking point to getting those cuffs behind my wrists, and just realizing: This ain't all that bad. Because all my male mentors had done that before, so I kind of knew it wasn't that bad."

Cabral says he went from juvenile hall to jail to prison for various crimes. Behind bars, he says, he found a sense of belonging. "There was men that I could share stories with," he says. "I knew where I was going to get my next meal at, where I'd rest my head at."

Cabral earned his GED and discovered storytelling. He began writing poetry, and rapped under his gang name, "Baby Jokes." On the outside, Cabral recorded his music and became a father. But at 20, he faced a life sentence for shooting a man.

"We were out there drinking ... " he says. "It was just ... some machismo BS. I just happened to have a gun on me that night. We got into that incident, and we end up just fighting. I remember bringing out that gun — and then I shot."

The man survived, and Cabral served time for violent assault with a weapon. He was 25 by the time he got out of prison. He had no outside work experience, but he was desperate to change his life.

His friends recommended he check out Homeboy Industries, an L.A. gang-intervention program whose motto is "nothing stops a bullet like a job."

Cabral found himself in the Homeboy bakery, doing everything from washing dishes to baking muffins. Homeboy Industries had a connection with Central Casting, so Cabral would bake in the mornings and then head to auditions.

"I remember my first thing was CSI: Miami," he says. "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."

It wasn't long before he started getting speaking parts in shows such as Southland, and the film A Better Life. His performances brought complexity and three-dimensionality to some tough characters.

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

Boyle says Cabral's portrayals of gang members are sensitive and authentic: "Not a single false note. He's really good."

Salvador Sanchez, an ex-gang member who is now a photographer for Homeboy Industries, agrees. He says Hollywood glamorizes and overemphasizes gang life. "It's kind of cheesy almost," says Sanchez. "Richard brings the real. It's the truth. I lived it, and so I know. He's acting, but he's not."

Sanchez and Boyle say they hope Cabral gets to play roles other than gang members. But Cabral says it's been important to represent his reality, as he did on American Crime.

"It was just showing the pain we go through," Cabral says of his performance, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. "And this is not like, oh, yeah, I lived it, so" — he snaps 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."

Up next for Cabral: a role in a Mel Gibson movie, the second season of American Crime, and his own one-man theater show.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's meet a man who's facing the exciting possibility of winning an Emmy at this Sunday's awards. It's actor Richard Cabral, who once faced a life in prison. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this profile of a gang member turned actor.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Richard Cabral's neck, chest and arms are filled with tattoos depicting Mexican gang culture, his friends, uncles, his daughter Bella. His intense look and his powerful acting land him a lot of TV roles, including one for which he's nominated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")

RICHARD CABRAL: (As Hector Tonz) You know why you shot me? Because you don't give a damn about me.

DEL BARCO: In the ABC drama "American Crime," Cabral plays a former gangbanger implicated in a drug-related murder. Police shoot him in the leg and ask him to testify against another suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")

CABRAL: (As Hector Tonz) I don't snitch. Not for nothing, I don't snitch. So come on, I ain't playing. I told you I ain't playing. Let's go.

DEL BARCO: Cabral's character dreams of a new life with his wife and daughter, away from trouble. The 31-year-old actor's story is remarkably similar. Richard Cabral says he grew up in East LA without a father. He joined a street gang and got addicted to crack and meth.

CABRAL: I got incarcerated for my first time for stealing a wallet at 13 years old. And that was it - the breaking point to, like, getting those cuffs behind my wrist and just realizing it. Like, this ain't all that bad because all my male mentors, if you want to say, had done that before, so I kind of knew it wasn't that bad.

DEL BARCO: Cabral says he went from juvenile hall to jail to prison for various crimes. Behind bars, he earned his GED and discovered storytelling. He began writing poetry and rapped under his gang name, Baby Jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

CABRAL: (Rapping) The boys and me banged a 2-1-3. Everybody rhyming, but I'm the right-timing. Ain't a vegetable, but call me Jolly Green Giant.

DEL BARCO: On the outside, Cabral became a father. But at 20, he faced a life sentence for shooting a man.

CABRAL: We were out there drinking, and some guys, you know - it was just that machismo BS, and I just happened to have a gun on me that night.

DEL BARCO: Cabral says the man survived, but he served time for violent assault with a weapon. When he got out of prison, he was 25 with no outside work experience, but desperate to change his life. His friends recommended he try Homeboy Industries, the LA gang intervention program whose motto is nothing stops a bullet like a job. Cabral worked in the Homeboy bakery, where he often visits.

CABRAL: This is where it started, yeah - the muffins and janitorial and everything, even washed dishes.

DEL BARCO: He baked muffins in the mornings before auditions. Homeboy Industries had a connection with Central Casting.

CABRAL: I remember my first thing was "CSI: Miami." I was a Cuban gangster, and that was it. And 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, you would say.

DEL BARCO: Cabral started getting speaking parts, always playing homeboys. In this scene from the TNT drama "Southland," his character literally digs his own grave, begging for his life while a police officer stands over him with a gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTHLAND")

CABRAL: (As Leprechaun) I stopped doing dirt a while ago, ese. You've obviously been following me. I got a job. I got a life. I got a kid on the way. I want to see my son get born.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

DEL BARCO: Father Greg Boyle, known as Father G, founded and runs Homeboy Industries. He's a fan.

GREG BOYLE: Richard pulls off this thing where the audience member has this reverence for how complex this character is, you know? He's able to kind of convince the audience, what if compassion was the response?

DEL BARCO: Father G says Cabral's portrayals of gang members are sensitive and authentic. Fellow ex-homeboy Salvador Sanchez agrees.

SALVADOR SANCHEZ: Sometimes Hollywood, they not just glamorize it, but they overemphasize it. They're really, like - it's kind of cheesy almost. And Richard brings the real, you know? It's the truth. And I lived it, and so I know. You know, he's acting, but he's not, you know?

DEL BARCO: Sanchez and Father G both say they hope Cabral gets to play roles other than gang members. But Cabral says it's been important to represent his reality, as he did on "American Crime."

CABRAL: This is not like, oh, yeah, I lived it, so I got this. No, man, it was a sacrifice. And I had to really go to a deep, dark place, but I'm honored that I showed that other side.

DEL BARCO: Up next for Richard Cabral - a role in a Mel Gibson movie, the second season of "American Crime" and his own one-man theater show. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.