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From prison to hit TV show’s set

Luis Moncada did time, then got a job as a security guard on a movie shoot. And before he knew it, he was on ‘Breaking Bad.’

April 27, 2010|By Josh Gajewski, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Every time Luis Moncada blinks, he curses, thanks to the unprintable expletive tattooed onto his eyelids at age 18.

A gang member at the time, he was convinced he wouldn't make it to 21 and wanted to deliver this angry message to the world when he was gone.

Fourteen years later, Moncada is telling a different kind of story with his eyes. He and his brother Daniel have recurring roles on AMC's "Breaking Bad," where they've spent much of this third season playing silent-assassin types — cartel members from Mexico who've come to kill Walter White ( Bryan Cranston).

For Luis, now 32, it's one of a long string of acting gigs that began in 2002, when a director spotted his tattoos and asked if he wanted to be in a film. For Daniel, 30, it's his first acting role.

"I tell my wife all the time, ‘Wow, look at how far we've come,'" Luis Moncada says, with Daniel sitting nearby.

The journey included a few key stops, such as Luis' prison sentence for driving a stolen vehicle. "I'm not thankful I went to prison," he says, "but after going to prison, that's when you really, really, really think, ‘Wow, what a waste of time.' I had to change."

Also crucial was a beautiful girl who happened to be a parole officer ("No, not my parole officer," Luis notes with a smile), along with a move away from the Hollywood and Echo Park neighborhoods where Luis and Daniel sometimes associated with the wrong crowd. Leaving his gang on good terms, he moved with his brother to Studio City. Luis married the parole officer and they have a 2-year-old son; Daniel lives in their spare bedroom.

The acting career was an accident. Luis was a security guard on the set of a small film, "El Padrino," when director Damian Chapa spotted the gang tattoo around his neck and asked if he wanted to play Jennifer Tilly's bodyguard. "I was getting off in 10 minutes so I said, ‘You know what, sir? No thank you. I don't know if I can do eight or 12 more hours."

But Manuel Jimenez stood nearby. Jimenez is an ex-con who created Suspect Entertainment, a talent agency that turns reformed gang members into actors; Hollywood often utilizes Suspect when it needs to fill the role of a bad guy.

Jimenez convinced Luis to take the role and then signed him to the agency. A slew of other parts followed — "Gangbanger," "Carjacker," "Thug," his IMDb credits read. "Would you be cool with me if you saw me in an alley?" he asks. "No, you'd probably be scared of me. So I'm the bad guy. For now."

And then came "Breaking Bad." "We knew we were going to have these very scary, very silent Mexican cartel assassins in our third season, so we put the word out and needed to find these guys," says Vince Gilligan, the show's creator. "We needed a couple of guys who were very charismatic, whose expressions and eyes told us a lot."

The Moncadas stood out; Luis had initially caught the eye of the show's casting directors, but since the script called for brothers, they asked that his brother audition too. "They exuded a certain authenticity," Gilligan says. "They don't have to glare at you to scare you."

Cranston directed them in last month's season premiere, which included a sequence in which the brothers coolly walked away from an exploding truck. Daniel even remembered Cranston's note that, "If you feel like it, it would be cool if you casually lifted your cigarette to your lips and take a puff like you're walking in the park."

Afterward, "I just threw my arms around them," Cranston said. "It was perfect."

After several more weeks of shooting, their work was done. "Whenever it's the last scene for an actor in a season, the [assistant director] will make an announcement and people will applaud — especially if we like them," Cranston says. Here, the applause from the cast and crew grew especially loud and long. "These two guys, their lives could have gone a very different way and our industry somehow showed them an avenue of alternatives, and they took them."

And those eyes? The emotion of the moment, Cranston says, actually made Luis Moncada cry.

Asked about it now, Luis says with a laugh, "Come on, Bryan — why put me on the spot like that? You can't call it crying if a tear doesn't come down. But," he adds, "OK, my eyes got a little watery. It was a beautiful experience."

calendar@latimes.com

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