Thugs on Film
|Photos by Gregory Bojorquez|
Manuel "Manny" Jimenez is one enterprising cholo. A wiry, 30-year-old Chicano of small stature and king-size ideas, he looks deceptively youthful in a Tribal Wear jersey, baggy denim shorts and Skechers. With his elbows planted on the table, chin resting in his palms, you can almost hear the gears turning behind his calculating eyes.
With an audience of 10 barrio bangers of varied affiliations listening pensively, Jimenez cuts to the chase. "We made it out of a fuckin' life, that . . . we seen death, you know?" he says, his presence overshadowing his diminutive size. "We been in places that Hollywood will never fuckin' understand. We're not ex-gangsters trying to forget where we come from. We're not forming another gang. We're businessmen. Entrepreneurs."
Jimenez is holding court in a meticulously maintained, three-bedroom house in the flats of Lincoln Heights, a working-class Latino neighborhood just east of downtown that was once host to the world's largest alligator farm. Stella (one name, like Cher), a razor-sharp, "sisters-are-doin'-it-for-themselves" Latina, adjusts her fuzzy pink pillbox hat and peers over the top of her vintage cat-eye glasses. The Ozzie Dots, Chicana-kitsch factor inside the house is really high, and I begin to suspect that "Suspect Central" doubles as Stella's domicile. Even so, this is the belly of the beast, the headquarters of a multifaceted talent agency/production company called Suspect Entertainment.
Following the pep talk, Jimenez, "the shot caller," looks happy. He leans back in his chair and smiles widely. His hard work is paying off, and his vision of the future is rosy. But that wasn't always the case, not back when he was in the life. He says his inspiration to change came in a flash.
"After I got finished fighting my home-invasion robbery case that I beat, I got a job at Toys R Us working with kids and women," he says. "I tripped, cuz I got employee of the month. Later, I was watching Quentin Tarantino on Jay Leno, and he said anyone could come to Hollywood. They don't care if you have felonies as long as you show up and do their thing. I said, 'Fuck that!' The light bulb went on."
Jimenez had already done time and didn't want to waste any more. "I had my pregnant girlfriend drive me to Hollywood and drop me off, and I would try to get into movie studios. I would say, 'What do I got to do?' Finally, some guy gave me a number. The guy said, 'They're looking for Mexicans. You got any friends?' And they gave me a job. Free food, hotels, women. They don't take your fingerprints. I said, 'Fuck it. I'm going to work in the movies.'"
Nowadays, Jimenez doesn't just work in the movies, he's carved out his own lucrative slice of the industry's pie. Call it gangster chic, but in the fast and furious climate of "cholo cinemania," where studio execs know that authenticity equals dollar bills at the box office, Suspect Entertainment provides the real thing. It's a growth business, for sure, but one that has some influential Latinos wondering whether it perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Suspicious minds. Manny
Jimenez and his Suspect crew.
From left to right: Sal
Sanchez, Noel Guglielmi, Estevan
Oriol, Danny Venegas (with
Jimenez), Gabby Medina, Luis
They met by chance about a year ago, when both spoke on a panel for a nonprofit entertainment-industry mentoring program called "Streetlights." Though Jimenez had already earned a reputation as a guy who could deliver cholo culture in quantity from lowriders to tattooed "gangstors" Suspect Entertainment became a formal business shortly after he and Stella hooked up. Suspect's first venture was an antismoking "truth" commercial in urgent need of 350 Latino extras. Stella didn't bat an eye. "Manny can fill a stadium with gangbangers, but they need all types of Latinos," she says. "We went to the park in Montebello, called friends and family. Most Mexican families are really big, so it was easy."
Jimenez's phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. He worked as a consultant on Training Day. More recently, Suspect supplied 25 people as background talent for the yet-to-be-released Clark Johnson film S.W.A.T., starring Samuel L. Jackson. Mario Aguilar and Maria Galvez, talent from Suspect's roster, got two speaking parts, and more are reportedly on the way. The Suspect lineup also provided talent for small roles in the forthcoming Charlie's Angels sequel. Small though they are, these speaking parts represent a shift in Suspect's services away from providing extras and scenery (in the past, Jimenez culled together all the street-racer cars for The Fast and the Furious) to more essential roles in the movie and television business. FX Network's hit show The Shield cast Suspect actors Mario Aguilar and Cesar Garcia as day players and employed Jimenez himself as a stunt player on the show.
Suspect's ghetto-elite clientele have worked on the biggest with some of the best. They have appeared in roles opposite Denzel Washington, Jennifer Tilly and Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Wagner and Faye Dunaway. They've worked on a slew of commercials for the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Pennzoil, Pep Boys, and Jack Daniel's Hard Cola. Their music-video credits include Snoop Dogg, Dru Hill, Cypress Hill, Mary J Blige, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.
Other services offered by this Eastside ICM include script and dialogue consultation, gangster-characteristic coaching, locations (neighborhoods and alleys), lowrider cars, lowrider bikes, vintage cars, artists, wardrobe, graffiti, temporary tattoos, murals, specialty casting, kids, seniors and, of course, their meat and potatoes, a ready supply of stigmaphiliac inmates and gangbangers.
Manny Jimenez may call the shots, but it was Stella who initially trained the troops. It is a job that is not without challenges: A significant percentage of Suspect Entertainment's talent has only recently been released from prison. Some are still on parole and are earning a legal living for the first time in their lives. Stella's upbringing, though, had her well-prepared for micromanaging the world's largest roster of camera-ready thugs. She is the youngest of 11 siblings, the rest of whom are all boys. Plus, she worked as a demolition engineer in her family's construction business for 17 years. When Stella speaks, the Suspects listen.
"When I was a demolition engineer, we would sit on the tailgates of the trucks and have safety meetings," Stella says. "We have these same tailgate meetings at Suspect, but here they're called etiquette meetings. Everything from don't spit on the set. Don't piss on the set. Don't drink from the orange-juice carton at the craft-services table and then put it back like you were at home in your underwear. Don't try to pick up on the wardrobe lady. Don't tell the script girl that she's hot. Don't double-dip at the catering line. We have to teach because we don't want people to think, 'Oh, here come the Mexicans. The dirty. The Suspects.'"
In addition to Stella's bad-boy charm-school basics, the curriculum also includes technical information a novice might require for his first day on the set. "We teach them the technical terms they need to know. They got to know what a mark is, what are the sides. What is first team, second team?"
Business is almost too good these days. It's hard to get Jimenez on the phone, but his homeboy, actor Noel Guglielmi (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, crazy/beautiful, Road Dogs), remembers his and Jimenez's humble Hollywood beginnings.
"We snuck into the 2000 Academy Awards . . ." he snickers. "What we did was . . . you know, when they set up for the Academy Awards, they take one week to set up? Me, Jimenez and another friend of mine, Enrique, we went there like two days before, right? We pretended that we were, like, homies from the neighborhood. So we met this guy, and we were like, 'Eh, can we get a picture with you to prove to people we were here?' We were bullshitting him just to take a picture of his pass. And my friend, who was taking the picture, was just zooming in on the pass so we could counterfeit it at Kinko's, and shit. We got in suits and all dressed up and stuff. Just chillin' at the Academy Awards. Anyways, we snuck into the Academy Awards. We were just ghetto with it, you know? Then we ended up at the DreamWorks party with Steven Spielberg. We just did the damn thing."
Guglielmi's extensive body of work has transcended the day-player world of "gangstors," and in that respect he is a role model for young Suspects. He has managed to retain his street credibility while incorporating a sophisticated schmooze sensibility. When given the chance, he even passes on the opportunity to bust on the obviously more milquetoast co-star of Training Day (in the movie, Guglielmi's character participates in the notorious "Have you ever had your shit pushed in?" scene).
"Ethan Hawke is cool as fuck," he says. "I tripped out on that motherfucker. I accidentally cut his neck when I smashed a bottle over his head on the last take of a scene in Training Day. I was thinking to myself, 'Oh fuck. Now I'm gonna get fired.' I apologized like 15 times. He goes, 'Hey, man, calm down. I ain't trippin'. Don't worry about it. I ain't a little girl.' He was cool."
To fill out Suspect Entertainment's talent roster, Jimenez has tapped into a wide cross section of cholo culture, ranging from Young Turks bent on ruling the world to old-school veteranos who simply see Suspect as a bridge to a progressively better life.
Gabriel "Gabby" Medina is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, leather-faced, 43-year-old native Angeleno who sits up straight with his hands folded in his lap. He speaks in hushed tones through a world-class mustache (currently put to good use in the Jack Daniel's Hard Cola print campaign). Medina approached Suspect Entertainment when they were working on a Mercedes-Benz commercial under the Fourth Street Bridge. He'd seen them filming Gregory Nava's film Mi Familia there in 1995 and knew it to be a popular filming location.
"It was like 3 o'clock in the morning," he recalls. "They were under the Fourth Street Bridge, filming. I seen like a bunch of lowrider cars and stuff. So I walked up and asked them, 'Hey, what are you people doing around here, eh?' Cuz they always film under the bridge right up the street where I live. So I figured, if Hollywood ever comes back to the bridge, I'm gonna keep comin' back to the bridge. I'm gonna keep hittin' up the bridge, and sooner or later, I'm gonna get hooked up with these people. It was like a prayer answered. I was kinda depressed. I had barely started working at Farmer John's. It's a slaughterhouse where they slaughter pigs. It was kinda like a dead-end job. They make bacon and ham and all that stuff, you know? I was depressed. I prayed to God."
Medina finally had his prayers answered. These days he's making his living as an actor and, surprise, a model. He's come a long way from the slaughterhouse.
Luis Moncada, a 25-year-old, hypergroomed former gangster, is the Jim Carrey of the Suspect stable. Big, bold letters spelling out the word Aztlan form a sort of Elizabethan collar around his neck. Sly and engaging, Moncada was recently released from prison and is an imposing presence. But as soon as he opens his mouth to speak, it's all fun and games. Like many Suspects, he didn't necessarily see himself embracing a career in the interpretive arts, per se.
"I grew up in L.A., and in prison. I got out in, like, March. I was working in some movie doing, like, security for this movie. I was working for, like, a month, eh? I used to look at Manny and these guys, like . . . eh, I'm a gang member. I used to mad-dog 'em. I thought, these fools, and I wouldn't even talk to 'em. And then, one day, he [Jimenez] came up and said, 'You wanna be in the movie?' And I said, 'No!' And he said, 'What?' I said, 'No.' And he just took off, and some other fool came and he said . . . 'Cash. We're gonna pay you cash.' I said, 'Let's go!' I been with this fool Manny, what? Five months? Six months? Something like that. I been working right now a lot. He gave me more jobs, more money. Hey, I been trying to stay out of jail. He helped me a lot. This is cool, being out."
I ask Moncada where he sees his acting career going.
"I wish I was I was the main man or the main gangster or the main lawyer," he says. "You want me to be a lawyer? I'll just cover this shit up." He's referring to the tattoos on his eyelids: fuck on the right, you on the left. "First time I stepped in front of a camera, I went, 'This shit is cool! This is for me.' In [the Damian Chapa film] El Padrino, I played Jennifer Tilly's bodyguard. That was fun. I was just shooting people left and right. Kicked down two doors. I was in heaven."
Of the Suspects I met, you'd bet Daniel Venegas would have a shot at being a bona fide movie star. Venegas is a strikingly handsome 25-year-old parolee with chiseled features. His practiced, steely-eyed prison-yard stare wavers only when interrupted by the ringing of his top-of-the-line, late-model Motorola cell phone. "Sorry. Business," he apologizes.
When I ask him where he's from, he says, "18th Street." I don't mention that I'm inquiring about where he grew up rather than his gang affiliation. Prominently featured in an intricate mosaic of tattooed images on Venegas' jail-honed pecs is "Yolanda," for Danny's mother.
Venegas heard about Suspect Entertainment shortly after his release and contacted Jimenez directly. He started booking for Suspect almost immediately. His acting credits include three episodes of the network TV series Robbery Homicide Division, a bunch of music videos and a recently completed national spot for Nike. He's also produced his own public-access TV show, the idea for which occurred to him while he was incarcerated.
"I put together my own show, called Latin Active," he says. "It's about Latin hip-hop and R&B that isn't getting recognized in the industry. When I was upstate [in prison], and I would watch TV all the time, I watched Caliente [a Spanish-language music show]. The women are fine, but the music sucks. Then you watch Soul Train, and the music's cool, but there ain't a lot of Latinos up in there. So I was, like, instead of complaining, why don't I just go out and do it?"
Then, Venegas caught a lucky break, of sorts. "A friend of mine . . . rest in peace, his mom had a show on public-access television. I got in touch with her, and he had told her about my idea, and she was like, 'You know what? When you get out I'll be ready for you.'"
Venegas copyrighted his ideas while in prison, and when he was released two and a half years later, his friend's mom was true to her word. "She was like, 'On this certain day, we're gonna start filming. So you have like three months to get everything together.' I was like, 'All right!' I held auditions and everything. I had dance auditions. I had rap auditions. Once you meet one rapper, you meet more and more and more. It's like dominoes. You go to clubs. You network. I did two episodes already. I got big producers from all over the country just to come and check out my show. Got big sponsors. I wanna be the next Latin Don Cornelius [he laughs]. I want to produce my own TV shows. I want to hit the national syndication with Latin Active. Then, after that, I want to produce, like, the Latin 90210-type show. A drama series. This is just the starting point. The acting thing? I wanna do that, too. I got a love for it."
Like Jimenez, Venegas sees the current gangster vogue as a portal. It is an opportunity to get in the door and then, presumably, kick that door off its hinges.
Though most of the Suspects have no show-biz priors, that's not exclusively the case. Anthony DeMarco, a.k.a. Lepke, is a throaty, 40-year-old "renaissance veterano." A writer/actor/pintero (prison vet), Lepke is big (over 6 feet tall), bad, and running on finely honed instinct. He tends to stand too close to others in an effort to intimidate.
"You come down here a little light, homey," he tells me. Lepke's "all business" demeanor is ironically offset by some really expensive-looking, rectangular-framed Chanel glasses. There's something kind of arty about him.
In addition to his "onscreen gangster-personality" career, he is a prolific writer, finishing a book called Set's on the West: Portrait of an Original Gangster. Oddly enough, his acting career has spanned four decades. "My first acting job was a Kool-Aid [commercial] when I was 9 years old," Lepke says, and then launches rapid-fire into his résumé. "My name is Original Gangster Lepke. I'm from Soul Assassins, Suspect Entertainment. The previous movie I just did was featuring Robert Wagner, Jennifer Tilly . . . El Padrino, by Damian Chapa." He also appeared in several music videos, including some with Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg. Lepke is on a roll, but it's unlikely he will be moving to Brentwood anytime soon.
"Money to me is no big thing. You only can drive that Porsche for so long. One day you're gonna have to lay to rest," he says. "I keep mines real. No plastic coating." Lepke recommends that the kids "stay in school. The bangin' ain't no good."
The commodification of gangster culture is clearly not a revolutionary notion. White people have been making money depicting disenfranchised, ethnic subcultures in film and television for years. Rick Najero is a writer/actor/dramatist who was included in Variety's latest "50 most creative people to watch" list. His play Latinologues was nominated for an American Latino Media Award (ALMA). A regular guest on National Public Radio, Najero has emerged as an authority on the subject of Latino and Hispanic representation in the media. He speaks regularly to Hispanic and Latino organizations, including the National Council of La Raza.
"I have no problem with Suspect, who are taking real gangbangers and putting them on camera. These people, smartly enough, are saying, 'We have something to sell to this media. It's ourselves and our stories. We could have our stories told or go to waste. And we can be involved in this giant machine and get a piece of the pie.' And there's nothing wrong with that." But Najero does have a problem with the media's one-sided portrayal of the Latino story.
"You have to show their humanity. You don't see the Latinos that are going to school and paying taxes. Latinos are the most highly decorated minorities fighting in the war in Afghanistan. We're also the solution. We [America] do more trade with Mexico than Germany, France and England combined. Mexico is one of our top five trading partners in the world. People from there come here, work, send money back, and those people there buy products from America. It's what makes us a rich country. We're also the solution."
Stella has had her share of confrontations with what she terms "these so-called Latino self-empowerment groups." She says, "Established Latino organizations like Nosotros do not like Suspect Entertainment. They want nothing to do with us. We've been asked, on stages and on podiums, to basically be quiet and leave because, according to them, all we are doing is perpetuating stereotypes. [Nosotros did not return calls asking for comments.] What we've said all along is, the reality is that there are Mexican people who rob and kill. There are gangs. We can't pretend that it doesn't exist. However, we don't want to glamorize, we want it to be accurate. We're sick and tired of seeing it portrayed inaccurately. We need to have specifically Mexican writers, Mexican producers and . . ." Stella interrupts herself.
"Do you know how many production designers that we have worked with that are German? From Germany? From Berlin? I'm tired of walking into what they call 'gang houses' that look like something that came out of IKEA. The flip side is that it doesn't always have to be gang-orientated. I wasn't a gang member. No one in my family was a gang member . . . For now, we have found our niche. Our guys are coming out of the prison system. We're literally picking them off the street. They're not actors. They're real people. They're getting in front of a camera. They're learning. Manny said to one of these groups, he said, 'Look, I can play a gangster on film, or I can go and rob you. Pick your poison.' And we have."
Puerto Rican-born writer-director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) knows that it's very difficult for Latinos in the industry. "There is an expectation that you will do one of two things," he says. "You'll either be involved in things that are not so positive, one-dimensional portrayals of, like, gangbangers or maids, or, if not, then you're going to go all the way to the other side and be fighting stereotypes, like a Stand and Deliver. It's always a problem when people try to put you in a category and don't give you options. I think what's important as a Latino filmmaker is to fight those expectations and burst out of those categories. The audience is ready to see any kind of Latinos. More Latinos working is good. The more opportunities you get to express yourself in a personal way . . . you should go for that. That means not putting any artistic limits on anyone. That means not saying you can never play a gangbanger. That's silly. It's better to be working than not working."
Behind his translucent, semihard veneer, Sal Sanchez is all heart. Fresh-faced (by Suspect standards), Sanchez, 23, wears crisply pressed chinos complemented by a freshly laundered, XL white T-shirt, over a wife-beater. His right arm bears a colorful, full-sleeve tattoo. Sal is in constant motion, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, dragging compulsively, "James Dean-style," on a Newport, while making sporadic, squinty-eyed contact. When completing a thought, he follows up with a "yup, yup, yup," as if dispersing small bursts of kinetic energy that his compact frame cannot contain. When Sal's name is spoken, he snaps to attention with a kind of counterfeit respect that he can now add to his arsenal of marketable postures as a young, Hispanic actor.
Sanchez found his way into the Suspect fold a few months ago "through family," after telling his cousin's father, Estevan Oriol, he wanted to get into the acting game. A photographer, video and documentary director, and CEO of a popular streetwear clothing company called Joker Brand, Oriol has directed music videos for Cypress Hill, D12 and GZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan) that featured some Suspects. He is responsible for the impressive, newly launched Suspect Web site, and, as a bridge to "the industry," he has a lot of juice with Jimenez.
Stella's tailgate tutelage has clearly paid off with Sanchez. His straightforward, good-to-go, professional attitude, accompanied by a firm, confident handshake, attests to that. Sanchez is eager to please, with a natural ease. He recently completed his first acting job, a Burger King commercial, less than three weeks ago, and is still basking in the experience.
"I grew up here in Los Angeles, city of Norwalk," he offers with pride. "[This] is my first gig, so I'm looking forward to working with interesting people. At first I was doubting myself a little bit, then I just one day decided that, you know, that we're not really promised tomorrow unless we step up to the plate."
Sanchez is conscious of the constant tug of on-camera thug status. "We're always reminding ourselves that we're under the 'scope, you know? Little things that we do that are watched more than others." Sanchez will likely be a big booker for Suspect Entertainment.
"Before," he confides, "I was into selling drugs a little bit . . . transporting. My father, he's been doing it for a while, and I kinda looked up to him. Then, I experienced a little bit of the repercussions that kinda business and lifestyle can bring. I realized that my dreams and everything that I want to achieve is possible. So I just stepped up. I'm here now. Trying to grab that star . . . yup, yup, yup." Anthony "Lepke" DeMarco is all business. Fortunately, business is good.
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