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One on One: Roberto Sanchez’s long journey from the streets of Little Havana to Hollywood

By Eliana Alcaraz Esparza

(LL Editor’s Note: Article originally appeared on Herald de Paris)

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) – In the fall of 2002, while working as an armed officer for the Miami Metro System, Roberto Sanchez received a serendipitous phone call that would forever change his life. Only moments earlier, he had encountered a belligerent passenger who refused to stop smoking on the evening commute. The phone call was from his agent.

Respected film director John Singleton had just cast him as one of the leads in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the second installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. Roberto went on to co-star along side of actors Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson and Eva Mendez. John Singleton had tapped into that special something that told him this handsome, unknown, charismatic Latino had that rare gift of being a natural-born actor.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Roberto grew up stateside in Miami’s well-known Cuban community “Little Havana.” Unfortunately, Roberto was forced to make this journey without his father who had been detained by the Cuban authorities — and as a result, he and his brother were raised by a single mother with a new language, in a new world.

It would be 16 years before he saw his father again. He distinguished himself in the Navy as a Desert Storm veteran, was a Virginia Beach military police officer and competed professionally in the highly touted European league as a Naval basketball player. He then became a successful print model and eventually an actor.

Taking advantage of his role in 2F2F, Roberto packed his bags, purchased a one-way ticket to Hollywood, California and has never looked back. Today, Roberto is one of the busiest Latinos in the industry having worked on over 80 projects. His roles include work on TV pilots, recurring roles in series such as The Young and The Restless, Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful, and countless episodic guest appearances, from Desperate Housewives to Prison Break, and most recently you’ve seen his work on Law and Order: LA, and The Bridge.

Roberto is an actor of multiple layers who can easily transform from his stage role as the flamboyant transvestite Lorraine in “Hollywood & LeVine” or the bookish journalist Paul Varrall in “Born Yesterday” to the tango dancing bad boy on TNT’s Leverage. Look for him in his upcoming role as Lucho Cruz in FX’s new drama series, Gang Related, which premiered May 22nd.

Herald de Paris guest contributor, Eliana Alcaraz Esparza recently ran into Roberto at a Toluca Lake, CA coffee shop and two hours later, was blown away by his inspiring acting career and some intimate details of his personal life:

Your big break came when you were cast in 2 Fast & 2 Furious in 2002. How and when did it finally sink in that you were part of something special?

RS: I’d say our first day on the set is when it hit me. That day we shot in “Little Havana,” an area where I grew up, at the restaurant “Versailles.” There were so many people taking pictures and trying to get as close as they could to Paul [Walker] and Tyrese [Gibson]. Even though I was in this $80 million dollar film, it took those great fans that day to help me realize that this was a game-changer.

Tell us about the day you got the call from your agent?

RS: I was working as an armed officer on the metro rail system in Miami. And this is how fifteen minutes changed my life: I had just come on my 5PM night shift and was on a train in the downtown area. I’d been at this job for a few months now, working 12-hour shifts six sometimes even seven days straight. I was tired of the long hours and not in a friendly mood on that day. I noticed this man smoking on the train. He was about 6’4,” looked unkempt, and was apparently having a worse day than me. I walked toward him and said politely, ‘Sir, there’s is no smoking allowed on the train.’ He looked at me, took a puff and said, ‘Fuck you!’ and continued smoking.

Now the whole section of this train is looking at me like ‘what u gonna do mister security man?’ I am now faced with the dilemma of having to physically remove this guy from the train. Not that I mind tussling with folks every once in a while, it’s part of my job. But I just gotten my uniform out of the cleaners and I wasn’t in the mood! I call the incident into the upcoming stop and told the guard that I may need assistance in removing someone from the train.

As I am taking my watch off and putting it in my pocket, my cell rings. It was my agent almost yelling at the other end. Saying something about ‘booking 2 Fast 2 Furious!’ and that I would possibly have to take a leave of absence from my current wonderful job because I was going to be working in film for next two to three months!

Oh, boy, I remember saying ‘you shitting me right?’ The train is now pulling into the station, phone still on my ear, and the big 6’4” guy is still smoking! Decision time! I told my agent to hold on and looked at the smoking violator and said ‘You can smoke that whole pack for all I care!’ I got off as the other officer was running in, and I jumped on the opposite train heading to our main office. Walked upstairs and gave them my two-week notice!

How was John Singleton able to get the amazing performance you delivered?

RS: John had a wonderful way of directing me in terms that were not technical. I think he quickly realized that I didn’t have any experience as an actor. So he was able to break it down in ways that I could relate and make it my own.

How did the untimely death of Paul Walker affect you?

RS: It was totally shocking. I was having dinner with a friend and people were texting me about the news. At first I thought it was a hoax of some kind but then I saw the headlines on CNN. It was very sad because he was such a sweetheart of a guy and always extended himself toward helping others. It was a harsh reminder that we are here but for a moment, we are not promised a tomorrow.

You’re one of the busiest character actors in the industry, yet when you started you had never acted professionally! Had you any type of training?

RS: Sure, I’d taken a “Meisner” class early on (I believe that’s my foundation as an actor) to learn about the acting side of things. I even took a couple of improv classes in case I ever got a chance to do a commercial.

What has been your biggest challenge working in an industry that rejects actors on a daily basis?

RS: The rejection thing doesn’t bother me because I don’t see things that way. It’s a journey of ups and downs and if you are in this game long enough your time will come. The thing that took me awhile to get used to is the ‘not knowing when you’ll work again’ thing. I am confident in my abilities as an actor and I know that I will always work. I believe that. It’s the ‘not knowing when’ part that took me a little while to get comfortable with.

While in the Navy, you were stationed in Europe. What was your favorite your favorite country? And, why?

LLA2RS: I really enjoyed Spain for obvious reasons but the one place I truly loved was an island off the coast of Greece named Rhodes. I remember lying on the beach as the sun was rising and it felt like you were at the edge of the earth. The sun was as big as I’d ever seen it. It was beautiful.

You also played on the “All-Navy” Basketball Team. How did this experience impact your life?

RS: Many times there were language barriers between us and the other teams. But our mutual love for the sport allowed us to communicate and bond on the court. I realized that although we were from different cultures and spoke different languages, sports could still unite us.

Starting an acting career at 38 is nearly unheard of. What do you say to someone who says to you, ‘it’s too late for me?….”

RS: If I listened to everyone that told me “NO” or “You are too old” I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. It is never too late to pursue your dreams. If you want it, go for it! You’ve got but one life to live, so live it!

What’s next for you?

RS: I have a five projects coming out this year and in 2015. Lake Los Angeles, I also have The Night Crew with Danny Trejo, Bokeem Woodbine, Luke Goss; and Visions with Isla Fisher, Anson Mount and Eva Longoria will soon follow.

You’re also in two upcoming episodes of the new FX drama Gang Related. Talk about that experience.

RS: Really enjoyed it. It’s a great cast and crew on Gang Related. I’m glad to see fellow Latinos like Ramon [Rodriguez], Jay [Hernandez] and Emilio [Rivera], getting to show their stuff on a fun and exciting show like GR. Those guys killed it!

You will also see several members of the Fast and Furious family on this show. I play the father role of Lucho Cruz and his son Benito [Victor Manso] puts them in a precarious situation.

In June, you star in Mike Ott’s indie film, Lake Los Angeles, which will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Tell us about your role?

RS: Francisco is the quiet unassuming man who left Cuba years ago in pursuit of a better life for him and his family. His family, whom he left in Cuba until he could get them to the U.S., has spent years separated from him. He loves his family and is a hard worker, sends them money… but something happened to him. The dream [that brought him to America] had never truly materialized. He now works at a holding house and Cecilia, a 10-year old Mexican girl traveling alone ends up there with no family members to protect her. Though they are perfect strangers and are on opposite ends of this “pursuit of a better life” journey. They find a common bond.

What personal joys or tragedies did you use to develop Francisco’s character?

RS: Unfortunately more pain than joy. I can totally relate to Francisco. Although I have been truly blessed in my life journey, I see him through my mother’s eyes. The separation of families among Cubans is a sad, common reality. I witnessed my mother struggle in this country with two boys and unable to speak the language. And, I witnessed my father, who helped us get out of the country, being held back in Cuba! I didn’t see him for 16-17 years! So yes, I can totally relate. There were times during the shoot that were difficult for me. However, as with every painful tragedy in life, one can always find a silver lining.

Lake Los Angeles focuses on recently arrived immigrants who end up in small towns. Your own childhood experiences parallels the theme in the movie. What would you say to kids separated from their parents by the current immigration system?

RS: I will share with you on a personal level that the system we have needs to be reformed and everyone should have an opportunity to come here, if this is where they want to live and raise their families. I am all down for that. Unless you are a Native American, we all came here from somewhere else so we should not deny anyone else that opportunity.

However, I am against people of any country sneaking into the U.S. illegally. My view on this issue comes from a military background. I believe in order, structure and doing things the right way. My family did things the right way, we did the paperwork required, waited the time that we needed to wait and then came to the U.S. when we got our Visas.

We struggled in Spain for a year and a half before being allowed into this country. Could we have snuck in illegally? Perhaps, but we didn’t. We need reforms ASAP but until then, you gotta do things the right way.

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