It's a mere half-hour drive from the South L.A. neighborhood of Hyde Park to Hollywood. For actor Richard Azurdia, it's been a 20-year journey that almost didn't begin at all.

When Azurdia's Cuban-born parents moved the family from an apartment in the Westlake district to a house in South L.A., the new area had some of the worst gang violence in the city.

“We had a couple of shootings during the football games,” Azurdia remembers of his time at Crenshaw High School. “One football player was wounded in the leg during the game. And there was always someone getting stabbed a block away.”

The actor quickly discovered that getting to school meant he had to cross a neighborhood controlled by Bloods to reach a campus dominated by Crips.

“A lot of my friends from junior high actually ended up being in the Rollin 60s Crips,” Azurdia says. “So I started getting pressure from them, like, 'Why don't you just join our gang?' And it was very, very difficult for me during that period. I don't know what would have happened to me had I went that route.”

Azurdia instead avoided his old friends by skipping P.E. at the end of the day to go home early and immerse himself in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ionesco. That led to studying acting at Santa Monica College and, when he landed a touring production of West Side Story, a professional career.

Today, the 40-year-old Azurdia, who looks like a younger, handsome, Latino version of British star Alfred Molina, moves comfortably from audiences of several thousand at Griffith Park's Independent Shakespeare Company to intimate, experimental work with Echo Theater Company and Son of Semele.

In between, he's a mainstay of the Latino stage community. In addition to tackling roles for local companies such as Company of Angels (where he is also a producing director) and for regional powerhouses like Center Theatre Group, he is increasingly a role model for young Latinos, speaking to them about what it takes to make it as an actor in a town whose studios notoriously overlook the region's ethnic majority.

For Azurdia, that means a lot of criminal and comedy parts on the likes of Weeds and Southland. “I'm like the go-to guy for, like, the funny immigrant,” he says, laughing. “And I've been playing a lot of bad immigrants lately, too. But I guess that's my niche, you know? The guy whose English is really bad. But it doesn't feed the soul.”

Not like the time at the Denver Center Theater when he met the real-life girl whose undocumented father he was playing in Just Like Us, Karen Zacarias' nonfiction play about immigration.

“She gave me a big hug, and then she started crying,” Azurdia remembers. “And she whispered in my ear, 'My dad got deported two months ago. And I miss him. And you're the only thing I have right now that's close to him.'”

What TV does do is pay the rent. He just wrapped the recurring role of Tito for the first season of Grace & Frankie, the new Lily Tomlin/Jane Fonda series premiering May 8 on Netflix.

“What do I play in it?” he grins. “The funny Latino ex-convict.”

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People Issue 2015. Check out our entire People Issue online.

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