OK, gang, we need you on the set

Special to The Times

AS a kid in Whittier, Manny Jimenez was raised on a steady diet of Hollywood. “Growing up, I loved watching ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ -- the old ones with Adam West and George Reeves,” he says. “I wanted to be in movies. But I never thought I could be a part of that. It just seemed like a whole other universe.” Nothing in his hardened neighborhood reinforced his dream, so the self-described thrill-seeker fell into the criminal life his heroes battled on-screen.

Sitting in his business partner’s office in Santa Ana, a now-reformed Jimenez tells his unlikely story. “I’m short; I’m a Mexican; and I’m a former gangster,” the 34-year-old says, tapping his fist into an open palm after each sentence for emphasis. “How am I going to make it in Hollywood? You think you have to be tall, white and good-looking?”

Jimenez, who has an exhaustive criminal-arrest record dating to 1991, parlayed what should have been a career-killer into steady work, playing bit-part bad-guy roles prevalent in crime shows and movies. He soon began recruiting others, and in 2003 created an unusual talent-management company, Suspect Entertainment, which represents former (and mostly Latino) gang-bangers in Hollywood. Now he’s trying to morph yet again, this time into a production company.

If you’ve watched movies such as “Training Day,” “Gridiron Gang,” “Collateral,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Ali G Indahouse,” then you’ve seen tattooed talent Jimenez has represented.


Suspect went in search of anyone who had a bruising “urban” look to fill Hollywood’s plethora of thug roles, sometimes recruiting outside the Los Angeles County Jail. Prior acting experience wasn’t required.

“In the beginning everyone was former gang-bangers,” Jimenez says. Now, it’s 25%, but what remains at the core of this business is the message of hope. “If I can inspire the people where I came from, that’s the greatest thing,” he says. “And I think that’s the most important part of this whole journey.”

Jimenez, who has a roster of about 30 actors, quickly learned he couldn’t help everyone looking for a break.

“I had guys do everything from steal clothes on set, write their gang’s name in the restroom, or shower in an actor’s trailer,” he recalls. “It started hurting me, man. Little by little I started screening people and cutting people loose.”

As CEO of Suspect, Jimenez is an unlikely executive, dressed in baggy black jeans, layered T-shirts, unblemished tan worker boots and sporting a shaved head and coarse mustache. He was born in Huntington Park and raised in Whittier, where he became involved in gangs at 15.

After almost a decade of gang-banging and criminal activity -- with convictions for such acts as falsely representing himself as a police officer, misdemeanor battery and possession of a controlled substance -- his life-changing epiphany came July 18, 1997, during a pre-trial hearing for a residential robbery charge, of which he was one of three defendants. Jimenez maintained his innocence but he had been fingered in a photo lineup, and Jimenez’s attorney told him only a “miracle” could save him.

When the victim took the stand, “He looks at me and says, ‘You know, your honor, I think I made a mistake. I don’t think that’s the guy,’ ” Jimenez recalls of that day, which his lawyer substantiates. “I truly felt that was a miracle. What are the chances of that?”

Court records show the case was dismissed by the judge and from that day forward, Jimenez peacefully left gang life for a job at Toys R Us in Rosemead. His new life was fine, but he began thinking about his future. He considered joining the Marines, but his thoughts returned to his love for TV and cinema.


He recalled meeting a fellow “homeboy” who was approached by a producer for work as an extra. Then, he saw director Quentin Tarantino on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and his words of advice took hold.

“He said anyone can make it in Hollywood,” Jimenez recalls. “Even if you’ve been in jail.”

That was Jimenez’s cue. His girlfriend drove him around Los Angeles looking for TV or movie sets. He would jump out and try to hustle his way onto the production as an extra. A fellow actor finally gave him the phone number to Central Casting and Jimenez was in the business. His first real acting job was as an extra in the crowd scene at the end of “Deep Impact.”

“I remember walking on set like a kid at Disneyland,” he says. “It was the happiest day of my new life.”


Later, on the set of the “The Fast and the Furious,” Jimenez would meet an extra named Jesse Acosta, who was never involved with gangs, and together they would form Suspect. On the same set, he also met Frank Alvarez, another actor who would join Suspect and become one of Jimenez’s busiest actors.

During the shoot, the two started talking and when Alvarez told Jimenez where he was from, Jimenez said: “Don’t take this hard, but we jumped one of your homeboys once and he pulled a gun out on us.” To his surprise, Alvarez, now 32, replied: “Yeah, that was me!”

“Choosing not to shoot him was the best decision of my life,” Alvarez says. “I’d be in prison right now. And now, he’s my boss.”

Alvarez, who had a recurring role as a taciturn, tattooed dishwasher on the short-lived Fox show “Kitchen Confidential,” says he remembers losing six “homeboys” to gang violence in one year. And though he too left the gang life, there’s always that chance of your past coming back to haunt you. So, Alvarez, inked to his elbows, keeps the tattoos covered in public. “For my own peace of mind,” he says.


An image problem

JIMENEZ knows there are those who think his niche of the acting business perpetuates an undignified perception of Latinos.

“A lot of people -- Eddie Olmos, Esai Morales -- started like this in their career,” Jimenez says. “Every Chicano/Mexican actor had to play the cholo, but they move on.”

Suspect has plans for its own upgrade. Last year, the company reorganized and took on three additional partners -- Jimenez’s mentor and defense attorney Shirley MacDonald Juarez; her husband, Albert Juarez, whose firm makes promotional products; and Seth Isler, former vice president of development at Greystone Television and Suspect’s head of production.


Instead of solely representing talent, Suspect is transitioning into a production company, developing its own projects, including TV series, feature movies and documentary films that, Isler says, are more about redemption than the glorification of gang life. They also want to create a clothing line and video games, produce music and publish books. In other words, to take Suspect from obscurity to ubiquity.

They reason that Suspect was already performing production duties, without getting credit.

“We get our talent. We get our wardrobe. We get our vehicles -- everything a producer does, we do,” Alvarez says. “We do consulting on scripts to make them more authentic, so what we’re doing is writing without getting the credit for it. So why not do our own writing for our own projects for our own actors?”

Suspect has its believers, including a few casting directors and Hollywood producers who point to a burgeoning Latino population in the U.S. as reason for their optimism.


Some good reviews

FOR the 2005 film “Dirty,” which starred Cuba Gooding Jr. in a story of gang-bangers turned cops, casting director Shannon Makhanian used some of Suspect’s actors. On hearing Suspect Entertainment’s name, Makhanian quickly says, “Love them. I believe in what Manny’s doing. It’s a great cause. He gives them hope, and I totally support them.”

Sarah Finn of Finn/Hiller Casting, who has worked on movies such as the Oscar-winning “Crash,” “Mission: Impossible II” and the upcoming “Iron Man,” says although Suspect actors aren’t quite as polished as more mainstream actors, they are equally professional. “They’re great. They’re really hard-working and committed,” she says, having cast Suspect actors in “S.W.A.T.” and “Gridiron Gang.” “And you don’t have to tell them how to flash a gang sign. It comes built-in.”

Veteran producer William Green (“Ali G Indahouse” and “Idlewild”) is now teaming up with Suspect to pitch pay-cable channels a gritty TV series about gang life in East L.A.


“They’re as sharp as you get. That’s why I want to be in business with them,” Green says. “I think they have a great idea for a TV show.”

John Schneider, producer of “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” starring his brother Rob Schneider, worked with Suspect talent on the upcoming prison comedy “Big Stan,” to be released in theaters this year.

"[Jimenez] has something unique and exciting,” he says. “We had nothing but a great experience with them.”

Such endorsements, however, aren’t a guarantee of success in competitive Hollywood. Schneider says receiving steady work is “like trying to climb Everest over and over.”


Tough odds are something Suspect is used to. “We were already destined to fail from where we came from,” Alvarez says. “No one expected us to live past 21. And now we’re making movies in Hollywood.”