Mr. Criminal sounds like the moniker of a lifelong man of crime, but these days, that’s firmly in the past for the Chicano rapper. A businessman for sure, Mr. Criminal’s current hustle is giving voice to his Latin community, showing that you can become something even if you come from nothing. In his case: an actor in the new Amazon film “The Tax Collector” starring Shia LaBeouf.
Growing up Roberto Garcia in Whittier, California, Mr. Criminal described an “unstable” upbringing without a father. “Honestly, I got into a lot of trouble,” he says. “I was a bit unruly, so I spent a lot of my juvenile life in custody.”
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Between the ages of 11 and 18, Garcia was in and out of the correctional system, getting in trouble for break-ins and robberies that resulted in nine different terms.
“I’m more proud of the story of leaving it behind,” he says today at his gorgeous home in Marina Del Rey where Variety caught up with the actor whose credits include George Lopez’s “El Chicano” and David Ayer’s “Bright” alongside Will Smith. “The Tax Collector,” also an Ayer film, opened on Friday (Aug. 7) and generated $317,000 at the box office debuting in 129 theaters in the United States.
What got you through your time behind bars as a kid?
The most I did as a youngster was two to three years. That s–t killed me because I was a real hyper, young kid. I wanted to get the f–k out. What always kept me sane behind there was rapping other people’s lyrics. I’d go through a Too Short’s whole catalog, from the intro all the way through. Go through every album, my whole day would go by. I leaned music a lot.
What was the final straw?
I had my first son at 15 years old. He’s in college now, I’m real proud of that. I grew up without a father and always knew in the back of my mind if I had some guidance, I wouldn’t be in half the amount of trouble I was in. It’s hard to tell a 16-year-old gangbanging kid to be focused. Obviously I still went back and I slipped up but for the most part, that’s when the change happened in my brain.
At what point did the music thing become real for you?
Being locked up at 16, I started to try to rap myself instead of rapping other people’s lyrics. My homies picked me up fresh out and we’d go party at Pico Rivera, Whittier, East LA. Straight up beats in the backyard like “Ain’t No Fun,” “Black Superman,” and the homies challenged me. “My little homie can rap better than all you fools!” They put me on blast. Next thing I know, I’m rapping.with 400 people screaming, it was a good feeling. I never got any reinforcement, never did anything right. I didn’t get good grades. I did something good for once.
You dropped a collection called “The Virus Quarantine Album.” Did you find isolation inspiring?
I just got back from vacation, I did a world tour right before. I was all over: Brazil, Japan, Beijing, Chile, supporting my Wiz Khalifa “Elevate” single. I got back and needed a break. In early March when the world started shutting down, all these beats came in from my people. It felt right at the time.
I always put a chapter of my life in my music. “Criminal Mentality” was my first album, fresh out in 2001. I still had the criminal mentality. “Only the Strong Survive” in 2008 when the economy was going bad, everyone’s falling off. “Evolution,” I tried to make my change. “Redemption,” I tried to get back. “The Virus” gives a contribution to the history of the music. I can look back 20 years from now, the whole world was changing.
How did Shia LaBeouf end up casting you for his new film, “The Tax Collector?”
The director, David Ayer, discovered me. I was on the tour bus in Texas, I hardly had service. I kept seeing this email come in: “Will Smith director wants to get a hold of you.” I denied that s–t for two weeks. Two weeks later, I see that f–king email come through again. I’m smoking a blunt thinking, “There has to be something to this.”
I click it, they’re selling themselves to me. “Please call us. This is David’s history: ‘Training Day,’ ‘Fast and Furious.’” Made a phone call, they said, “Criminal, we’re so happy to get a hold of you. David’s a big fan, he wants you in his movie.” I said, “What movie?” They said, “We’re about to shoot for Netflix with a $90 million budget, it has Will Smith.” I was in the dressing room two days later for “Bright.” David’s telling Will Smith, “You gotta hear this f–king dude’s music, it’s the s–t!”
Had you acted before that?
Never in my life, that’s my first time ever. It’s a life-changing experience. … To be honest, the fact [Ayer] was a fan made me feel at home. If I had to go try to impress them, I might f–k up.
Did you spend time with Will?
F–k yeah, I was boxing with him. Everybody’s on the side, me, Will, and David chopping it up in the middle. I’m talking to David and he’s asking me questions about the music. I heard “doof doof doof.” I turn around and Will’s acting like swinging on me. He’s like “I caught you slippin’! How you gon’ let the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air knockout Mr. Criminal?” Will’s cool as f–k, felt like I was at home.
David Ayer hooked up with Shia LaBeouf and they were talking about writing “The Tax Collector.” He asked, “Do you have somebody who can play the role of a pimp in my movie Honey Boy?” They called me, we went back and forth five times. I met Alma Ha’rel, she’s an Iranian director. I read with her and FKA Twigs, who plays the dancer. Basically, I had the role. How Hollywood is, the very last minute they said, “We want to switch this role to an older lady.” They wanted to try something different.
I was kicking it two months later on set for “Tax Collector” with 50 people in the room. All of a sudden I hear, [Shia’s voice]: “Mr. Criminal?!” He took me aside like a big brother, “You want to read? Let’s read.” We start reading. My first role in the scene is me and him going at it. We’re practicing. We go outside, 10 minutes later he says, “You know I freestyle, right?” We started freestyling, David Ayer’s recording. I always tell him to send me that footage, but he never did. He didn’t want to send it to me because I ate Shia’s ass up. [Laughs] He’s cool, but he’s not f–ing with Criminal.
How was it seeing yourself on the big screen?
It’s trippy honestly, I’m still not used to it yet. The other day I’m kicking it at the crib, Showtime was playing “El Chicano,” my movie with George Lopez. My first time seeing that! It’s a dream come true.
Tell us about your community activism…
One of my homies from the neighborhood got out of prison after a lot of years, and we’re putting together a program where we go to all the juvenile halls, give back to facilities I was in and speak to the kids. I don’t use it for photo opportunities, I know a lot of rappers do. I’m going in the hood and buying them bikes. I don’t bring the camera crew. If you’re trying to record, it’s not real.
You were once that kid, what are you going to say to get through to them?
Talk to them about the struggle they face, because it was mine. Our youth are easily influenced. If everybody instills the mindset of them being leaders instead of followers, we’ll have a way better generation and way better communities. Even I was a victim of that. I followed big homies and realized too late that wasn’t the path to follow. If someone paints the feeling and shows them the consequences younger, instead of glorifying it, we have a responsibility. We’re not changing the world, but know the influence you have and know how to teach.
What would you say is the key to your success?
Consistency and persistence. Being real, I don’t know one person on this earth I’ve personally met that works harder than me. I record videos, I shoot movies. The people I work with, we got futures. I had a studio, I recorded Lil Flip, Layzie Bone, Compton’s Most Wanted, MC Eiht, Dogg Pound. They’re coming to me even before this movie s–t. Layzie Bone almost lived at my house for two weeks — 20 motherf–kers in my studio, falling asleep under my pool table and next to my fish tank.
I’ll never forget, Layzie looked at me and said “you’re the hardest working motherfucker I’ve met. It’s 10am, you’re still going.” I looked at that fool and said “this is a dream come true.” Those are my favorite rappers. I pushed a little harder because of the consequences I was facing before. I was supposed to do 11 years and 9 months right when I got my record deal. By the grace of God, it didn’t go that way. The judge found favor in me, I never looked back. I always said I’m [going to] make the most of this, not get in any more trouble.
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