The sun is setting low over the smoggy palms of Lincoln Heights, the tired front yards ringed in chain-link fence, filled with yapping mutts and shrines for the Virgin of Guadalupe. It's the home-security system of working-class L.A.: a dog and a prayer.
In front of a peeling stucco house, a dozen men gather in the twilight. The place looks like a drive-by shooting waiting to happen. The only thing missing is yellow crime scene tape.
Wearing a mix of crisp chinos, long shorts, tank tops, oversize sports jerseys or no shirts at all, the men are just busting out with tattoos. Florid ink jobs depict Aztec gods and Mexican revolutionaries; chests and bellies are covered with cryptic numerals and signs, marking neighborhoods of origin; forearms bear the portraits of homeboys under six feet of dirt -- shot, stabbed, overdosed, gone. And their heads? That's the giveaway: Their heads are shaved clean and smooth.
Unusual talent agency
Every one of these men was a gangbanger. Almost all spent time in juvenile camps or jail or prison, for manslaughter, robbery, auto theft, drug dealing, home invasion, weapons possession. They are graduates of the one of the most feared and loathed (and idolized, too) subcultures in urban America.
A reporter parks his car, walks up the driveway, and can't help but eavesdrop. What were they just talking about? How to get into the Screen Actors Guild. "Hold on and we'll find Manny," one of the men says. "He's running around here someplace with the producer."
Manny is Manuel Jimenez, founder and president of Suspect Entertainment, one of the most unusual talent management and production companies in Hollywood.
For the past few years, Jimenez and his Suspect crew have provided actors, stuntmen and extras for films, television shows, commercials and music videos that require thug life verisimilitude, or as one Suspect office worker described it, "mean-looking Mexicans with bald heads."
Suspect Entertainment manages about 30 aspiring and established actors and another 100 or so extras. The talent has portrayed L.A. gangsters in movies including "Training Day," "The Fast and the Furious" and "S.W.A.T." They've appeared in dozens of episodes of TV law-and-order shows, among them "The District," "The Shield" and, appropriately enough, "America's Most Wanted." They've done Spanish-language commercials for McDonald's and Burger King, and public service spots against gun violence and tobacco use. Plus music videos for Christina Aguilera, Cypress Hill, Justin Timberlake and, on this evening, the rappers Lil Scrappy and Lil John.
Jimenez and his company will also provide consultation for appropriate gang dialogue and character motivation; they'll bring lowrider cars and tricked-out bicycles, scout locations, spray graffiti and bring all the extras any filmmaker could want: worried moms, young wannabes, old gangsters, junkies, thieves, victims, predators.
"I remember this one producer was saying to me, 'I want this guy or that guy and a pit bull for a scene,' " Jimenez recalls. " 'Okay? For the same price.' Can you believe it? I told him, 'Bro, the guy is one price, okay? But the dog, the dog is extra.' "
Jimenez says that a day or night on a set can net a gangbanging extra anywhere from $50 to $1,000, depending on the job and whether the work is union-sanctioned. An actor with a speaking role in a film or television show can earn much more. Sometimes, Jimenez brings a dozen gangster extras to a set for one price and lets a director or producer pick the ones with the looks they want.
Mimi Webb Miller, a Los Angeles casting director who has used Suspect Entertainment actors in commercials for Burger King and Doritos and in anti-smoking spots, says, "I've had rooms filled with casting people just go silent when Manny and his guys walk in. They're just like, uh oh, here come the gangsters. You know, they look real because they are real."
Miller says she believes the Suspect actors exude "this strength and intimidation that comes from their former lives." She says sometimes it is attractive -- and sometimes frightening. Miller, though, says she's never heard of any of the Suspect crew causing any problems on a set. "Manny usually shows up himself. They keep everything in line."
Jimenez, 31, is a hyperkinetic hustler, bantamweight, never stops moving, cell phone always purring, pager beeping, with a chrome dome of his own, mustache, soul patch. Tenth-grade dropout. In several meetings, he alternately says that he plans on being the next Robert De Niro or Russell Simmons or Martin Scorsese.
He envisions producing and directing. Suspect Entertainment (which has four full-time employees, plus Jimenez) is currently shopping scripts and taking meetings on a TV pilot, a documentary, a book the company wants to develop. They're represented by the talent agency ICM.
"I understand power," Jimenez says. "Power because of the freedom of it." Later on he adds, "I'm going to have my own helicopter someday. I'm going to be a millionaire."
He's not the first person in L.A. to believe that. But he does have management abilities. "I was always a leader, even in the gang," he says, a gang he does not want named. He repeats several times that the schemes and scams of Hollywood are "just like life on the streets -- only in Hollywood, they've got the money."
Pop, and hip-hop culture in particular, is filled with men and women acting tough. Even former boy-band crooner Justin Timberlake cops a street attitude now. It's a pose. Gangster chic.
Jimenez has actual scars to bolster his claims -- that once he was shot near the crotch and spent three days drinking beer before going to the ER, that he was hit in the head with a tire iron and cut on the back with a knife, that when he was a little kid, growing up on the outskirts of L.A., his father, a heroin addict and alcoholic, used to beat his mother in front of him. Jimenez refuses to describe his own criminal life in any detail. Part of the reason, he says, is that while he was arrested and tried several times -- and spent years in juvenile offender camps and county jail -- "they kept busting me for the wrong thing. Don't get me wrong. I did other stuff I got away with."
After 13 years as an active gang member, Jimenez got a job at Toys R Us. One night, sitting on the couch and watching Jay Leno yuk it up with his guest, director Quentin Tarantino, he heard Tarantino say, essentially, that Hollywood doesn't care about a person's past. "You can be a criminal! That's what he said and I thought, 'That's me. I'm going to get a job in the movies.' "
At that point, Jimenez didn't have a driver's license or a car, so his girlfriend drove him around Los Angeles, looking for movies or television shows shooting on location. He eventually got a break. His first job as an extra was on the asteroid disaster film "Deep Impact."
He met his business partner, Jesse Acosta, on the set of "The Fast and the Furious," the 2001 film about a ring of L.A. car thieves. They realized they had something to sell: real-life thugs.
"We could offer the producer the package deal -- dogs to donkeys," Acosta says. He remembers that the set designer for a music video for the British rapper-comic Ali G. wanted a canary yellow 1965 Chevy Impala lowrider with white interior. "We know people, you know? We found the car in three hours."
There are strict rules for a Suspect talent and extras. Jimenez knows that one bad day on a set could reverse his progress. So no stealing, no drinking, no hitting on the makeup artists. The 30 actors under Jimenez's management are also forbidden to discuss with the outside world their specific former or current gang affiliations -- though some of them have it tattooed right on their chests. "We got actors from a dozen different neighborhoods," Jimenez says. Neighborhood is the code word for gang. Some of the extras that Jimenez uses are fresh out of prison.
"A lot of people know my face," Mike Manzo explains later. He is a reformed thug. Sweet as pie now. But you look at Manzo and you think: Before -- A traffic altercation? A wayward stare? Bad idea. "So far nothing has happened. But in this part of town, see a bunch of bald guys? Gang mentality is still, they did this to my homeboy. I did a lot of bad things. You got to watch your back."
At the music video shoot this night, the plot is that rapper Lil Scrappy plays a rookie cop learning the mean streets of L.A. from veteran officer Lil John, the rapper known as the King of Crunk. It's a takeoff on the film "Training Day," where those roles are played by Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington. One of the scariest scenes in the film has Hawke entering a gang's party house. As Hawke approaches, he is met by the cold, thousand-yard stares of a group of serious felons getting high. Those were Suspect actors.
Now it is time for the Suspect crew to move from the production trailers where they met for casting call and head to the shooting location a few blocks away. Jimenez and two actors and a reporter get into a Cadillac driven by photographer Estevan Oriol, who has made his name documenting thug life and tattoo culture.
Into the Caddy, put down the windows and Oriol cranks up the music. It's deep, booming, menacing bass. They roll, then stop for a traffic light. Suddenly a pint-size hatchback appears to the right, driven by an elderly Asian woman. She stops, too, and then turns her head to look into the Cadillac, and for just one moment, an outsider gets to appreciate the raw and obvious fear that these gangsters instill in civilians. Jimenez and the crew don't even notice her; she looks terrified.
At the location, a production assistant is calling out, "All gangsters! All gangsters! Please gather on the lawn!" And a dozen Suspects assemble. Up and down the street, members of the real Los Angeles Police Department are holding up traffic for the scene, and lights come on and the cameras roll -- action! -- as Lil Scrappy and Lil John run into the party house, and the extras who a minute ago were smiling and chatting assume their poses. Good to evil in a heartbeat. Glowering. Fists wrapped around paper bags holding props of 40-ounce malt liquor. Arms waving, throwing gang signs, taunting "What are you looking at, fool?" Aaaand: Cut!
Frank Alvarez, 29, who did parts in the movie "S.W.A.T." and TV show "24" and is a talent coordinator for Suspect, is standing on the lawn afterward. It's 11 o'clock on a school night, but a bunch of kids and their families are watching the shoot, and the children are begging for autographs from the gang, especially Pete Vasquez, who has been in dozens of TV shows and movies, mostly playing a hood, memorably the smart-aleck gangster in the 1988 Sean Penn and Robert Duvall cop movie "Colors."
Alvarez isn't sure what he thinks about this. "These little kids look up to us, because we're dressed like this? Role models? We tell them we're acting. Stay out of gangs. Stay in school. But I don't know if they get it."
It is the inevitable question: How do these reformed criminals feel portraying and reinforcing the negative stereotypes of the worst of the worst of Latino L.A.?
An honest living
Sitting on a rickety chair in the back yard of the house in Lincoln Heights, Cesar Garcia is slim, muscled, young-looking for his 32 years, with soulful eyes. He is an actor learning his craft. "I've seen people die. I've had to defend myself with weapons. There is a lot of stuff I regret," he says. "When I was little, I never thought about stopping, growing up. I thought if I went to prison, that's what I was supposed to do. Die? I was happy to die for my neighborhood. That was my thinking."
His forearms bear tattoos of his deceased brother (overdose), a cousin (shot, broad daylight, at a Jack in the Box) and a homeboy (run over by a police cruiser). Like a lot of the Suspects, he no longer drinks, drugs or smokes cigarettes; indeed, some of them now speak of their commitment to a higher power or the Lord; there is a 12-step recovery feeling in a lot of the conversations.
"People can say I'm making money glorifying gangs," Garcia says. "I can say I'm making an honest living." He talks about learning the craft of acting, and if portraying gangsters gives him entree, so be it. "I'll play the street now and later I might play something else -- a doctor, a lawyer, even a policeman."
He smiles when asked what he thinks of playing a cop. But then he says, "Jail was my first home. I lived with that my whole life. I know the motivation of the police. And now I'm alive and I'm free, and I can be something, too."