Profiles about Richard Cabral, the Emmy Award–nominated Mexican-American actor, tend to focus on his past. And with good reason: As far as Hollywood actors go, this native Angeleno has a pretty unique background. At a young age he became active in the gang culture of his East Los Angeles neighborhood, getting into petty crime and developing a drug habit before ultimately spending five years in prison in his twenties for shooting a man (fortunately, he only wounded him). Eventually, when Richard got out, he was ready for a change. He returned to L.A. and became involved with Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to help former gang members and give them greater opportunities. Through the organization, Richard found his way to acting, and as his career developed and his reputation grew, he landed ever more notable roles. He’s on the TV show Lethal Weapon, and has appeared in movies like Blood Father, with Mel Gibson and William H. Macy. But his most acclaimed performance so far—the one that garnered him that Emmy nomination in 2015—was on the topical anthology series American Crime, as Hector Tonz, a multifaceted East L.A. drug dealer who shares definite similarities with the man playing him.
But as interesting as it may be to dwell on Richard’s past, looking at what he has ahead can be just as rewarding. On March 12, American Crime returns for a third season, with Richard back in a fresh role. As with a theater company, the show’s cast play different characters in new narratives each season. The program is so well received, Richard explains, because of the depth of its storytelling. From one season to the next, he says, “the circumstances might be different on the outside, but these characters are three-dimensional. That stays the same.” This time the action moves from California to the agricultural expanses of North Carolina, where Richard plays Isaac Castillo, a farm boss in charge of a migrant-labor camp. “The story is about the immigration system, and how our country is just blind to the horrible circumstances that these workers are dealing with,” he says.
Despite Richard’s success as an actor, his creativity isn’t limited to just that field. He’s been writing since he was a kid, beginning with poetry. This can be a spiritual act for him, Richard says—almost like meditation or a form of prayer—but there’s a diaristic aspect to it, too. “Some people document life through a lens, through photography,” he says. “I documented mine through my poetry.” Late last year, as his film and television activities wound down for the holidays, he took time to work on projects of his own. So he went through the verses on his laptop, which he’d written over the previous half-decade, and collected 200 of them, producing Vida, a 240-page volume set to come out this month.
Another big undertaking in 2016 was staging Fighting Shadows, a one-man show he starred in and co-wrote with the theater director Robert Egan, whom Richard had met when he was starting out as an actor. In 2013, Egan invited him to participate in the Ojai Playwrights Conference—a prominent seminar the director holds each summer—so that they could work on the play. Last year, the actress Jami Gertz helped to produce the piece, with Egan directing, at the Rosenthal Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. “It was my life story, wrapped up in poetry, and for an hour and fifteen minutes me pouring out my heart and soul,” Richard says.
A number of acting jobs loom on the horizon, but Richard has ideas for several other projects, as well. He has a collection of stick-and-poke tattoo art, done on handkerchiefs, which his friends in prison have sent him over the years. As he explains, he keeps in touch with them in part because he remembers what it was like on the inside. “Everybody kind of forgets about you,” he says, “especially when you do long stints. So I told myself, When I come home, I’m going to stay in contact with my friends.” He’s made arrangements to get them whatever they need, whether it’s books or writing materials or food, and they send him art in return. In the eight years he’s been out of prison, he’s amassed a decent collection this way. In the future, he says, he’d like to hold an event to exhibit it all, combined with poetry and music, and get somebody to talk about prison culture and the work’s significance. “You could see it with your eyes,” Richard says, “but if someone is there to tell you the history of it, you’ll appreciate it that much more.” Another plan, which he’s been hoping to see through for a while, is to take Fighting Shadows eastward. “As a storyteller,” he says, “my calling is to go with it to New York because I know how theater is received there—it’s totally different from how it is in any other city.”
On a recent visit, Richard got to see Broadway audiences appreciating theater firsthand. To celebrate his son’s fourteenth birthday, he took him to New York. In addition to checking out the typical tourist sights, like Times Square, Coney Island, and the Statue of Liberty, they caught Hamilton and The Color Purple. “But New York is not just one thing, it’s the energy. The whole thing is intoxicating—like, being in the subway is amazing,” Richard says. “My son doesn’t live with me, so for me to be able to nurture him and be with him in New York, and to show him—and let him soak in—the world was a really beautiful thing.”
In spite of Richard’s fondness for New York, and his goal of eventually taking Fighting Shadows there, his roots are important to him, and the city that holds the greatest significance remains his hometown. These photos, taken in Downtown and East L.A., near where Richard grew up, are a testament to that. He describes the shoot, in which he wears clothing from the Todd Snyder spring 2017 collection, as a collaboration between himself, the photographer James Mooney, and the stylist George McCracken. They scouted locations together, and selected some that had figured prominently in Richard’s life. “Every single place that we took photos at had a special place in my heart,” he says. For instance, they used the church where he’s been going since he was a kid. In that sense, this serves as more than just a fashion portfolio. It’s closer to a personal photo essay: an ode to the Los Angeles that Richard came from, and that has made him who he is.