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Frame Grab: A real gang member seeks 'A Better Life'

June 27, 2011 |  2:55 pm


The tattoos run up and down his neck, arms and torso like an overgrown vine. With close-cropped hair and dark, piercing eyes, Richard Cabral looks like bad news. Then he smiles. And the menace gives way to bright, white teeth and dimples indenting each cheek.

This incongruous mix is part of what makes the gang member-turned-aspiring actor so compelling. After making his big-screen debut  in Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life” playing gangster Marcelo Valdez, Cabral hopes his acting career will kick into high gear and make his old life an even more distant memory.

Growing up in East Los Angeles with a single mom, Cabral says he was in a gang by 13, made his first trip to jail at 14 for stealing a wallet, and by 15 was addicted to crack cocaine. His teenage years were a blur of trips in and out of lockup.

“It was real crazy at that time,” says Cabral, now 27. “I remember being 13 and coming out of school and shots being fired. There are just so many gangs. I was chased. I was run over. Gangs and shootouts, there was nothing unordinary about it. That’s just how we got raised.”

At 20 Cabral was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he was involved in a gang shooting. He went on the run for three months before turning himself in to the Montebello courthouse a week before his 21st birthday. He spent a year in jail while he awaited trial. If convicted, he was facing a sentence of 35 years to life. He started to despair as he saw others in jail get handed sentences of 50 years, 80 years.

The day before his trial was to start, Cabral made a plea deal: five years in prison. It was a long but doable sentence, he believed, that would still give him a future. (He served 27 months.) “Going through that experience was tormenting,” he says. “There are so many people in Los Angeles fighting life [sentences]. And we’re all young: 18, 19, 20. I just knew I couldn’t do this no more. I knew I needed a change.”

On his way out of prison in 2006 Cabral was shown the documentary called “Champion” about Danny Trejo that depicts the actor’s journey from being locked up in San Quentin on drug and robbery charges, to becoming clean and sober through Narcotics Anonymous and securing a career in Hollywood. “Danny came from the same background as me,” says Cabral. “I thought if he could do it, why can’t I?”

Cabral found support with Homeboy Industries, Father Gregory Boyle’s L.A. charity that offers ex-gang members jobs as an alternative to gang life. Cabral answered phones at the front desk, took Narcotics Anonymous classes and worked in the bakery for close to two years.

When Central Casting came to Homeboy looking for extras for a “CSI: Miami” episode, Cabral raised his hand. He then landed his first speaking part, one line in TNT’s “Southland.” “Right there, I was hooked,” says Cabral, sipping coffee in the Homegirl Café adjacent to Homeboy Industries. “The pay was pretty good. I got an agent.” From there Cabral began studying acting, taking classes and spending time at the Samuel French book store soaking up technique from legendary acting coaches. “I started reading [Lee] Strasberg, [Sanford] Meisner, [Constantin] Stanislavski,” says Cabral. “That’s where I got open.”

WeitzThe preparation apparently helped, because when Weitz met Cabral during an audition at Homeboy Industries, he was impressed. “He had an effortless quality,” says Weitz, grandson of a Mexican silent film star who turned his sights on the issue of immigration and Mexican-American culture following the blockbuster success of his last film “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.”

“There was also a sort of melancholy to him. I think it’s true of a lot of the guys who go to Homeboy. They’ve decided to make a change in their life, but in doing so they’ve given up a support structure. There’s a lot of pride in that, but there is also a lot of sadness.”

Since finishing filming on “A Better Life,” Cabral has shot a few more episodes of “Southland,” played a store clerk on the upcoming David Milch/Michael Mann HBO series “Luck” and auditioned for “Savages,” Oliver Stone’s new film about two pot growers who must face off against a Mexican drug cartel.

Although he’s primarily playing gang members these days, Cabral is hopeful he can expand his roles. He’s in the process of removing the ELA (East Los Angeles) tattoo from next to his left eye but says it will be too painful to take off all the ink that covers his upper body. Rather, he’s invested in a pricey airbrush kit to cover his tattoos when he goes on auditions.

Now acting full time, Cabral is married, has a 2-year-old daughter and lives in Whittier; he also has a 9-year-old son from a previous relationship. Although he’s determined to put his gang life behind him, he wants to maintain some connections to his old friends and maybe show them an alternative path.

“No one cares about you when you’re in jail. I know how that feels so I stay connected to them,” Cabral says. “My little cousin just called me from jail: ‘Hey Richard, why am I in my cell and I just saw you on TV?’ It’s mind-blowing. It keeps me going.”

-- Nicole Sperling

Photos, from top: Richard Cabral is a former gang member who got a role in 'A Better Life' and is now pursuing a full-time acting career; director Chris Weitz at Homeboy Industries last year. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times