'American Crime' Actor on His Criminal Past and What Hollywood Gets Wrong about Gang Life

American Crime S01E06 Still - H 2015
Van Redin/ABC

American Crime S01E06 Still - H 2015

Richard Cabral survived addiction and prison before transforming his history into an acclaimed — and inspiring — performance.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Emmy season offers no better example of a "breakthrough" performance than Richard Cabral's on ABC's American Crime. In the dark crime anthology created by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Cabral played Hector Tonz, a troubled young Latino wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a white man in Modesto, Calif. Like his character, who ultimately is exonerated, Cabral too was given a second chance after joining a gang at age 13, getting addicted to crack at 15 and being sentenced at 20 to three years in prison for attempted murder. 

Since his 2006 release, Cabral, 31, has aligned himself with Los Angeles' gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries, where he was discovered for a role on TNT's Southland, an event that set him on a path he never had imagined — one he hopes can show the way for others, as he tells THR.

Playing Hector was an opportunity to dive into myself, into the secret chambers I never knew existed. Each week I learned something new, which meant I'd learn something about Hector, too.

As an artist, I draw from my own life, and that is where Hector and I met. Hector is a soul, a spirit and a man who faces and questions his obstacles: Who am I? Why am I here? Why do I carry this pain? As a child from a low-income community and broken home, I am all too familiar with pain and suffering at an early age. The subconscious is where the torment rests. That's where I had to go for me and Hector to become one.

Being from of a world of gangs, I can tell you that Latin gang members have never been depicted truthfully until John Ridley gave Hector life. We are sons, uncles, fathers. We love, we cry, we ask the same questions the rest of the world asks. We are no different from the next human being. This was my chance to show the world the dimensions of these men Hollywood loves to use but never gets right. Because of my communication with my friends who are in prison, who also grew up in gangs and broken homes, there's a huge responsibility.

There is never an opportunity to become an artist where we come from, let alone become a Hollywood actor. I'm living a life and dream we never knew existed. They tell me this brings joy to them. They tell me how they smile when my name comes on opening credits; men who will probably die in prison because of their life sentences. The actions that brought them there are a different story. But who hasn't fallen short of the glory? They tell me they live through my eyes.

I can't expect people to understand the destruction we are born into. It's true that not all turn to gangs, drugs and violence — but the majority do. The cycle that's been there will sadly be there after us. This is why I am determined to be the light in the "hood," where we never had it, and to my friends sitting in that lonely cell where I once was. There is a deeper meaning to my art, and I'm grateful for John Ridley and the route he takes with his storytelling to reveal the sad truth of where we are as a society. I want to enlighten myself so I can enlighten others.