'Mayans MC': How Richard Cabral Carries a 'Sons of Anarchy' Tradition Forward

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the actor about bringing the emotional journey of Johnny "Coco" Cruz to life.
Prashant Gupta/FX

[This story contains full spoilers for season one of FX's Mayans MC.]

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter about the Mayans MC season finale, in which Happy Lowman (David Labrava) from Sons of Anarchy made his deadly arrival, creator Kurt Sutter offered great insight into his own writing process: he finds the story as he moves.

"It was not planned," said Sutter, speaking about how he arrived at Happy's role in the overall Mayans mythology during the scripting phase. "I love when shit happens organically like that, when it's authentic. It allows me to continue doing what I love as a storyteller, which is making people's heads explode."

Sutter's storytelling instincts as he explains them are seen throughout Sons of Anarchy, and the way in which that first mythologically driven biker drama unfolded. From the start, much of the action centered on four core players: Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), his lover Tara (Maggie Siff), his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) and his step-father and fellow club member Clay (Ron Perlman). As the seasons unfolded, the various Sons themselves stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight at various points. Some examples: Juice Ortiz, played by Luke Cage alum Theo Rossi, was a relatively minor character before a brutal season four storyline catapulted him into the forefront; Tig Trager (Kim Coates) was best known for his violent streak, before his killer instincts resulted in a personal tragedy at the outset of season five, easily one of the most excruciating scenes in the entire series.

"There's always so much limited screen time for what ended up being such a powerful and authentic ensemble," Sutter said, regarding how characters were developed over the course of Sons of Anarchy. "Every episode, we had Jax's journey, which was so potent and drove the show. And then we had the other characters. I love who Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) became, and his relationships, or Tig (Kim Coates) and his relationships. We would see some of that stuff. We got to see Bobby's relationship with his ex-wife and his daughter. We got to see Tig and what happened with his daughters. We got to see Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) and what happened with his family when he went to Ireland. There were times when I got to organically reveal layers of other characters, and it was so much fun to do that, because I had such great actors."

The Sons of Anarchy context is important when considering Mayans MC, co-created by Sutter and Elgin James. Over the course of its first season, the story centered largely on the Reyes family: EZ (JD Pardo), his brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas) and their father Felipe (Edward James Olmos), with strong plots for others in EZ's immediate orbit, such as his ex-girlfriend turned cartel wife Emily (Sarah Bolger) and her ruthless husband Miguel Galindo (Daniel Pino). When it comes to matters of the Mayans club itself, however, most of the character development came in the form of subtle performances and physical acts, rather than stories fully dedicated to any one member of the charter.

Well … with one very notable exception to that rule.

Enter: Johnny "Coco" Cruz, the heavily tattooed member of the Mayans played by Richard Cabral, best known to viewers for his Emmy-nominated turn in ABC's American Crime. Cabral, who spent years of his life in the gang scene and eventually prison, has been incredibly open about his past experiences, even expressing them in the form of a one-man play, Fighting Shadows, which just concluded a run in Los Angeles and is next heading to New York City in 2019. 

Outside of EZ and Angel Reyes, no member of the Mayans club received more attention in the first season than Cabral as Coco, at the center of some intense family drama. Not only did he begin rebuilding a relationship with teenage daughter Leticia (Emily Tosta), who grew up believing her father was her brother (it's complicated), Coco went on to murder his own mother Celia (Ada Luz Pla), fueled by a lie from his own child. In the eighth episode of the season, Coco and EZ Reyes sit across from each other with the deceased Celia lying between them, leading to one of the most emotional exchanges of the series thus far.

"If I see this as a fuck-up, something horrible? I'll lose my truth," Coco tells EZ, eyes wide with unshed tears, his body vibrating with adrenaline. "I have to trust that all of this shit is supposed to happen. Mistakes are more important than getting it right. They're supposed to happen. It all leads to the next right thing."

Who knows where Mayans will head next, by Sutter's own admission — but if it follows the path set forth both by Sons of Anarchy and this past season? It will likely lead to other shocking moments of character growth, just like Cabral's compelling turn as Coco. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter over the phone, calling from a hidden path on the Big Island of Hawaii, Cabral shared more about the influences of his past, the journey of his character and why working on Mayans reminds him of his old life for all the right reasons.

Outside of the Reyes brothers, Coco was the most visible member of the Mayans this season. What has the response been like?

The response has been amazing. It was just an honor that we could bring up this world of Kurt Sutter and Elgin and the rest of the writers, just bring it to life like that, and I guess you do the work, but you don't know how it's going to come out until the audience responds. I'm just really glad that they responded in a good way. 

What was your audition like?

I had run into Elgin James a couple months prior to the casting of it and he had told me about it, but you know how it is in Hollywood. You hear about a lot of projects, but not everything manifests. I heard him out and we had a great relationship and stayed in contact. And sure enough when the casting started happening, they brought me in and that was the initial way it kind of took off. So we all went to it: me, JD, Clayton, we were all in it together in the beginning, because Kurt really didn't know where everybody was gonna land. We kind of just went for all the parts, and that's how it started.

Why do you think you were chosen for Coco?

I think Kurt and Elgin really wanted to bring what everybody brings to the table: their natural capabilities. What do they really see in Richard, and what can they pull out of Richard and bring to Coco? I believe that's really where something started. Because in the beginning, you kind of see Coco, and he's not fleshed out and you really don't see too much of him. It seems like a two-dimensional character. But I think as time went on and we got picked up, that's really when Kurt and Elgin started getting to know who I truly was, and were able to bring Coco to life like that. I always remember that they always wanted to come inside and into a Mayan member's life, like what they do outside of the club, and that's what they brought to Coco. 

It's a wild ride for Coco this first season, between the relationship with who we come to learn is his daughter, and eventually killing his own mother. What was the process like for you, learning about Coco's journey? 

I was blessed that I was becoming great friends with Elgin. Elgin would have these talks and he would be like, "Dude, what we have in store for you, it's going to be amazing to watch. Just watch, just wait and watch." I was kind of just sitting patiently as everything started unfolding, and we all knew was that something was gonna happen. I mean, this is Kurt. This is Sons of Anarchy. This is what Kurt does: He blows your mind while bringing the most heart-wrenching bloodbath you can imagine, but in a beautiful way. We all knew it was gonna happen and we were waiting, and then it happened. It happened with my daughter, and then it happened with my mother. We all knew it was gonna happen, but I didn't think it was gonna happen in that way. I was completely shocked. I had no idea that it was going to go down like that. 

In speaking with him the other day, Kurt was very open about how he plots his stories, not always knowing exactly where he's going next — whether it's what's happening now with EZ and Happy, or with you and Coco.

That's the beauty of it. I think as long as it fits, he doesn't worry. That's the genius of Kurt: As long as it works in this moment, that's all that matters and we'll figure it out after. That's all that mattered, and we figured it out after.

As an actor, are you comfortable in that space, not necessarily knowing where things are going to go for the character? 

You know, this is my second series regular [role]. My first one was American Crime, where I had John Ridley as my showrunner, and that's when I got nominated for my Emmy, and that was the same way that we worked over there. I think that there's a power in that sense, because why use your energy somewhere else when all you need is what's happening right here and right now? For me, I'd rather have it that way and not know, and not have anything come into my mind and distract me. I'd rather have nothing distract me and just focus and pour all my power into what's happening at this moment. I think for me as an actor, that's how I bring my greatest performances to life. 

What is a day like on set with this cast, standing around the Mayans clubhouse, wearing the cut?

At the end of [shooting], it just becomes like this sense of being in a real club. I can speak from my personal life. I was a gang member, bro. And when I say a gang member, I say it in the sense of brotherhood. I know the gang members world from the sense of brotherhood, and in that brotherhood, there's something so strong about it. It's just a bunch of friends, a bunch of solid men, hanging together. And that is the sense that toward the end of the season, that's really what we had become: not gang members in that sense, just strong men that would do anything for each other. It can't get any realer than that. Then we have all the other guys, the other background guys that have been part of the Mayans … and there's this mesh of actors and storytellers who have an authenticity, so it just became real. The writers and Elgin were writing these authentic scenes, and it just becomes a real world where sometimes you're like, "Damn, I gotta take a step back, because this isn't real." That's really what it was, it had been a long time coming. For the last episode, we had already worked with each other for a year and a half. We had been through so much with each other, it becomes this organic friendship, this organic brotherhood. I've never done anything like that before, and this has been one of the most special projects that I have been on.

There's an oddly beautiful scene late in the season: Coco and EZ sitting across from each other, with the corpse of Coco's mother lying between them, killed hours earlier by Coco himself. It leads to a powerful monologue in which Coco tells EZ all about life, and how whatever is meant to be, is meant to be, and how mistakes lead to the truth.

That was one of the most powerful monologues that I have ever brought to life. I tip my hat to our writers of that episode [Andrea Ciannavei and Kurt Sutter] for bringing those words to life like that. I didn't really see Kurt's work as that deep, bro! That monologue blew my mind. It puts everything into perfection in this ugly world. That's how I say it: it puts everything into perfection in this ugly world. And it was true, bro. It just hit home, bro, it home on so many levels. I also think it gave people of this world, it gave them a true sense of why we do what we do, why people in this world do what they do. I couldn't be more honored to bring that scene to life.

Entering the season, Coco and Angel are already close. Coco's friendship with EZ is the one that's a surprise. At the outset, Coco hazes EZ: "Start digging, prospect." By the end of the season, you get the sense Coco would do almost anything for EZ.

For sure. I think that all unfolded when EZ and my daughter [met and had to hide a body], when he does everything for her. That's where everything touches me, that's where everything turns, because I tell him, "Nobody has ever done this for me. Nobody at the club would have ever done this for me, but you did." It touched me in a way that turned the whole dynamic between me and EZ, and towards the end, we get stronger. I think it's not even in the way that [we] talk about. It's something between EZ and Coco's eyes: "I got you," you know? Action speaks louder than words.

It makes me excited about the possibilities for season two, especially as EZ has just identified Happy as his mother's killer. You have to imagine Coco will have EZ's back on that. What are your hopes for season two?

I hope that we continue to go down the path of what is happening to our characters — whether it's Happy's character, whether it's whoever from the club — and really tackle these stories as they did with Coco and his daughter, really going down deep. I don't like to use my energy for hoping for much in this world, because from one episode to a next, things just change. But that's all it is: that we continue to bring beautiful authentic stories to life. That's all I could really hope for. 

You're on a well-earned vacation right now, not only having wrapped on the first season of Mayans, but also on your one-man show, Fighting Shadows.

Yeah, I went straight from wrapping up Mayans and straight into my one-man show. This is my third go-around [with the show]. It's pretty much my life story, told in a beautiful way. It's a love story of growing up in the streets of East Los Angeles and [being a] second generation gang member from a broken home, a broken community, but the sense is love: how love is part of me from my birth until I get out of prison and I have my children. It's raw. It's one of the most real pieces I've ever done. It was received just in a great way. We sold out the last two weekends. We had great people come in, and now we're moving forward with it and my next [move] is to go to New York in January.

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