Video: Gangsters on the screen

updated 7/8/2004 11:47:12 AM ET 2004-07-08T15:47:12

About seven years ago, Manny Jimenez left life on the street to start a talent agency that keeps it real: Suspect Entertainment helps turns former gang members into Hollywood actors, and offers an alternative to the “thug” life.

Former gang members-turned-actors get a day's pay for a day's work (the standard actor's day rate is about $675) by using what they already know. From their tattooed arms, to the slang they speak, Suspect actors have an authenticity that Hollywood actors just can't easily adopt.

Suspect Entertainment also provides casting directors with low-rider cars, clothing, gangster consultations, and in one case, a group of Latina grandmothers. And in a true sign of Hollywood validation, Suspect Entertainment now has it's own agent: They are represented by ICM.

What made a former gang member think he could break into show business? One night, in 1997, while watching "The Tonight Show," Jimenez saw director Quentin Tarantino talking to Jay Leno about the fact that anyone can make it in Hollywood, even if one's been in jail. Jimenez had always been interested in Hollywood, but didn't think with his background he'd be accepted.

It's an altogether different motivation for some of the other talent who joined the agency: “I was one of the bad guys, and I was involved with gangs,” says Mike Manso, a Suspect Entertainment talent. “Eventually, I opened my eyes and realized that once you die, you die. I don’t want my kids to grow up without me.”

Courtesy of Suspect Entertainment
One of the head shots in the Suspect Entertainment book. The agency quickly realized that there was a demand in Hollywood for actors with bald heads and tattoos.
These days, you’ll see them in films, commercials and music videos. Recently, Suspect actors have appeared in movies such as “Training Day,” "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," and "S.W.A.T.," as well as the Blink-182 video “Down.”

Frank Alvarez, one of the actors the company represents, says that they are very professional. “We go the set on time, and we make sure our guys know their lines,” he says.

For Jimenez, life on the street and life in Hollywood isn’t all that different. “Everybody’s back-stabbing each other too," he says. "There’s drugs, scandals, and alcohol.”

So Suspect actors stick together. “It’s kind of like brothers and sisters,” says actress Margarita Reyes. “Everybody is there to help and support each other.”

“We take these smaller roles to show them what we can do. We surprise them,” says Alvarez.

Playing criminals is also not about glamorizing the gang life. For them, they’d rather do their “bad guy” roles on the screen instead of in real life.  And they haven’t forgotten their roots either. Manzo says they try to reach out to kids in juvenile detention centers and runaway shelters. “We tell them that there’s a better life out there than drugs, gangs, and violence," Manzo says. "It’s a good, positive message, and it feels good.”

Jimenez is mindful that his former life is inescapable. “I think that’s something I have to live with that just haunts me.”  His focus is still on the future, though. His real goal? To direct.

Until then, Hollywood better listen up: The gang’s all here.

This was the No. 2 story on Tuesday's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

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