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This Ex-Gang Member Used To Run The Streets Of L.A., Now He’s An Emmy-Nominated Actor


This Ex-Gang Member Used To Run The Streets Of L.A., Now He’s An Emmy-Nominated Actor

Summit Entertainment and Jason Merritt / Getty

Richard Cabral’s life story of reformed gang member turned Hollywood star is so remarkable and rare that if you saw it in a movie you’d be like,”Come on, that sh*t ain’t real.” But it’s for real. He went from nearly spending his life in jail for trying to kill a man to earning an Emmy nomination for his work on a critically-acclaimed TV drama. Make no mistake, his success didn’t come by chance, it came by choice.

Cabral’s story starts in East L.A., where he was born to a single mother in the early ’80s.

Cabral’s pops left his family early on, so Cabral found himself growing up with no one to guide him.

As a teenager, Cabral looked to gangs for a sense of belonging.

Cabral told Indiewire: “You’re trying to find yourself, are getting ready to go to high school and as this world teaches you, you must ‘belong’ to something.” Cabral’s family was involved in gangs since the ’70s, so when he joined a gang at 13, he says the lifestyle was completely familiar to him.

Like many young people who get caught up in gang life, Cabral spent his most of his teenage years in and out of jail.

His first arrest for stealing a wallet happened when he was just 14 years old. By the time he was 15, Cabral was dealing crystal meth and became addicted to crack.

At 20 years old, he shot a man for no good reason.

Out of jail and up to no good, Cabral asked a random guy he saw hanging out in Montebello, CA what gang he belonged to. When the guy answered, “I don’t fucking bang,” Cabral punched the dude and they started fighting. The fight was broken up when someone yelled that the police were coming. It could have all ended there, but Cabral was carrying a gun. He ended up shooting the other guy who, thankfully, survived.

The day before Cabral was supposed to go to trial for attempted murder, he accepted a plea deal.

He was facing 35 years to life. Not wanting to spend most of his adult life behind bars, he pleaded “no contest” to assault with a deadly weapon.

He served 27 months in jail, where he got…

…lots and lots of tattoos.

When Cabral was released from jail, he was ready to change his life.

Homeboy Industries

His friends directed him to Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program with the motto, “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Soon, he went Hollywood.

Homeboy Industries hooked him up with some auditions via Central Casting for background roles in TV and movies. Cabral says, “I remember my first thing was ‘CSI: Miami,’ 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.”

Cabral eventually went from playing background roles to earning speaking roles.

His first speaking role came in 2009, on the show “Southland.”

Maybe you remember him as the guy from Bruno Mars’ video for “Grenade.”

Richard Cabral in Bruno Mars video

Or as Demon in the movie “End of Watch.”


Eventually, Cabral landed the perfect role in “American Crime.”

Credit: ABC Television Network / YouTube

Cabral was tasked with playing Hector Tontz, a character described as a “young man who has lived life on the fringes of society and has made bad decisions just to survive.”

Cabral’s performance was so nuanced and convincing that he was nominated for a 2015 Emmy.

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Emmys here we come!! #AmericanCrime

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Here he is, lookin’ sharp with his wife, on the red carpet at the 2015 Emmys.cabral-wife-emmys

Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty

The accolades and success are nice, but, more importantly, acting allows Cabral to be a voice in his community.

Acting has provided Cabral with a platform to help and inspire others who may be growing up under similar circumstances. He says, “There’s so many ways to be a voice and that’s what I’m figuring out. Being an artist, being an actor, it’s about telling stories that could heal, that could open up discussion that could make the community better. There are many (Latino) stories that need to be told and haven’t been told right. If I could help be that voice then that’s what I’m going to do, because this is a reality for me.”

And the community is listening to and proud of Cabral. He even has a burrito named after him.

A friend who owns a Mexican restaurant called Cabral to let him know that he was so proud of Cabral, he was naming a burrito after him. “It’s nothing like changing or helping a person find themselves, but who would’ve thought that I would make it to a point in my life where somebody would be naming a damn burrito after me,” says Cabral.

Playing several roles as a gang member may not seem like a stretch – it could even be interpreted as typecasting.

Credit: Tommaso Boddi / Getty

But Cabral brings an authenticity and depth to his roles that keeps them from being the same old stereotypes we’ve seen time and time again. Cabral has evolved as a person and he’s now poised to evolve as an actor.

READ: A Mexican Artist Made Bear Rugs Out of Gang Members from MS-13

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