As season three of the FX series Mayans M.C. begins, troubled gang member Johnny "Coco" Cruz (Richard Cabral) is on a downward spiral of drug addiction and pain, tackling demons that have haunted him since he killed his mother in season one.
"Coco will go through the depths of hell," Cabral says. "Some will say he would rather die than continue to suffer as he does."
Cabral can relate. His real-life rise to stardom from the streets of East L.A. is remarkable even by Hollywood standards. Raised without a father, he was a gang member at 13 and a crack addict by 15, then spent a dozen years in and out of prison. When he was 20, Cabral faced a 35-year sentence for attempted murder.
After a plea deal led to his release at age 25, Cabral vowed to change his life. "I didn't want to die in prison," he recalls, "and I didn't want to die in the street."
Cabral knew he had an innate facility for telling stories. "As a kid, I used to write poetry and raps, even during my incarceration," he says. "Acting was just another form of storytelling."
Homeboy Industries, which helps reformed gang members find jobs, took Cabral under its wing. The organization's leader, Father Greg Boyle, paid for acting lessons. Through a connection with Central Casting (a leading provider of background actors), Cabral began going on auditions.
In 2009, he landed his first series role on the NBC police drama Southland (and appeared on the show after it moved to TNT). In 2015, he scored an Emmy nomination for his work as an ex–gang member implicated in a murder on ABC's American Crime.
By the time showrunner–cocreator Elgin James called him to audition for Mayans M.C. — the Sons of Anarchy spinoff about a Mexican motorcycle gang — Cabral felt like he belonged. "There's very few who have lived the life that can actually bring the story to life," he says.
The wiry, heavily tatted actor infuses Coco with a feral intensity and streetwise authenticity. To capture the character's emaciated state in season three, Cabral had to fast for four months and drop 30 pounds. He calls it the "hardest role I've ever done in my career."
Cabral is engaging and open about his gangster life, which he vividly recounted in Fighting Shadows, a one-man show he starred in and cowrote with Robert Egan. But his greatest accomplishment, he says, is his four children, the eldest of whom was five when Cabral got out of prison.
"I became a gang member because that was the love I was seeking," he says. "I told my son, you don't have to go down that road, because the love is in your home now."
Season three of Mayans M.C. is now airing on FX and streaming on FX on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2021