Sure, he's played the Super Bowl and the World Cup, and sold out Staples Center three nights in a row. But the Black Eyed Peas' Jaime "Taboo" Gomez still has a sense of humility.
"When you saw the Peas, you knew, 'That's Fergie, that's will.i.am — I may not know that guy's name, but that's the long-haired guy — and then there's the guy with the mohawk,' " he admits with a grin.
Gomez is, of course, the long-haired guy. As a sophomore at Rosemead High, he grew his hair out, and he's kept it that way for 22 years. It was his signature look as one of the few Mexican-Shoshone b-boys in East L.A., and all throughout the stretch when he had to prove to his mom and grandmother that he could make it as a musician and actor while playing shows for free pizza and commuting an hour and a half each day to scoop Clydesdale manure at Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade.
It's this hardscrabble past that drew him to his role as a violent inmate named Guillermo in Trevor White's independent drama, Jamesy Boy, available on-demand and screening at Hollywood's Arena Cinema this week. Gomez lobbied for the role — opposite James Woods, Ving Rhames and newcomer Spencer Lofranco — because the Peas were on hiatus, and Gomez had time to work on his identity, his three sons and the acting career he'd put on hold when the band became a full-time job in the '90s.
Gomez's past also infused his work with the Peas, even as they were dismissed as phony pop. Disney made him wear a light-up vest, just as he'd later sport during the Super Bowl halftime show, and the band's coordinated outfits spring from his love of the well-heeled mariachis at El Mercado de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights. The Peas' emphasis on the three p's — positivity, party and pow — are the deliberate antidote to the rote rapper trope of guns, money and anger. There's enough gloom in the 'hood.
"In the Latin community, a lot of us don't get the opportunity to see outside our neighborhoods," Gomez says. "They never venture out, they've never been on a plane." It's why kids like him don't dream of success, and the rare ones who do make it out are desperate to convince the rest to follow. Not that it always works. While Gomez toured the world, his older half-brother Eddie, a member of the Primera Flats gang, spent most of his life in prison before dying of a heroin overdose last January.
For Eddie, prison was just an extreme version of the neighborhood myopia his younger brother had escaped. "He didn't know the other side of those bars," Gomez says. "As time went by, that's who he was — that's his life."
Even during the stretches when Eddie was out, he felt caged by his facial tattoos: the teardrop under the right eye, the gang lettering on his cheeks. "He was, like, 'No Jimmy, I can't go outside. You see my tattoos on my face? I'm a walking billboard for violence — people are scared of me,' " Gomez says. "He had created a hard exterior, but that was his insecurity."
At Eddie's funeral, an aunt came up to him and said, "Thank your mom from us, because this could have been you." Then he noticed that his father wasn't introducing him as "my son Jaime" but was introducing himself as "Taboo's dad."
"He didn't live with me, I didn't know him. All he knew of me was what he saw on TV," Gomez sighs. "It kind of messed my mind up because this is my family — this isn't the stage."
The role in Jamesy Boy reminded him of Eddie. "Guillermo, he's such a bully and antagonistic because he was insecure, too," Gomez says. But while Guillermo's the villain of the film — we're meant to root for Lofranco's pretty white boy to get paroled before the scary gang member sticks him with a knife — Gomez plays him as so raw and wounded, we start to think it's unfair that the film doesn't also root for his redemption.
"I'm like the Wizard of Oz, you know what I'm saying?" Gomez says. "He was trying to be a badass, but then you take off the jackets and the mean face and he's a scared kid." And when Gomez forced himself to do a serious career re-evaluation, he realized Jamesy Boy was also his story.
"I kind of had a mask, too," Gomez says, thinking back to his last two decades with the Black Eyed Peas, much of which he spent high or drunk before getting sober six years ago. "The mask was the long hair, the glasses and the mean face. When I had long hair, it tainted me — I thought I was bigger than life. I was thinking that I was a rock god."
So before Jamesy Boy started shooting, he did something drastic: He went to his backyard and shaved his head.
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"If I would have went and done this movie with the long hair, it would have been the guy from the Black Eyed Peas," he explains. "I was, like, 'Holy shit! I'm going all in!' "
The razor was his sign of commitment to bringing Guillermo, Eddie and the guys he grew up with in East L.A. to life on screen.
But what happens when the Peas reunite and the guy best known as "the long-haired guy" comes onstage bald?
Gomez smiles with a shrug, "I'm going to reinvent myself."