Interview with Manny Montana, Gorgeous Avid Surfer-Undercover FBI Agent on USA’s Graceland, 10PM Thursdays
By Elia Esparza
If you’ve watched USA’s Graceland, you know it is about a house in Manhattan Beach that serves as an undercover hub for agents from the FBI, DEA and Customs. For cop-detective-undercover-lawyer loving TV fans, then with Graceland, you’ve hit the trifecta!
It’s impossible not to get addicted to this show with so many lean and good-looking actors portraying undercover agents from various agencies and all living under one roof. The house also is a key component with its own legacy… According USA the story of the house — called Graceland because it was seized from a drug dealer who had a very big thing for Elvis — is “inspired by” an actual house that the government took over in 1992.
Graceland caught my attention because of actor Manny Montana who is one of the gun-totin’ housemates-surfer dudes who along with Aaron Tveit, Serinda Swan, Vanessa Ferlito, and Brandon Jay McLaren fight the bad guys. Also in supporting roles are Courtney B. Vance (Revenge) and Jay Karnes (The Shield).
Manny Montana’s role is that of the fun-loving, prankster FBI Agent Johnny Turturro, who like himself is a California born Latino raised in Long Beach, California. Manny got his start in the award winning short film El Primo and then went on to make television appearances including E.R., Cold Case, Lie to Me, CSI: NY, and most recently Cybergeddon.
With Graceland premiering to super impressive ratings of 3.317 million viewers, we just had to get all nosy and pin Manny down for a fun and insightful Q&A session! People… get ready to fall in love!
Latin Heat: Tell us about the process of you getting cast on Graceland?
Manny Montana: Getting cast on Graceland was one of those rare occasions where everything just goes right. And anyone in this business knows how that’s almost NEVER the case. I was reading the script and all the pictures in my head were so vivid, every detail. The way Johnny walks, talks, how he covers his emotions behind humor, etc. Everything just made sense. And when you feel that strong about a project you know there’s something special there and you better work your ass off to get it!
LH: What about the show and your role excited you the most?
Manny: What excited me most about the show and my character were the endless possibilities of the story lines, and the different paths every character could take. All of the housemates are so different! Different backgrounds, different hometowns, the way we approach work, etc. So it excited me because I thought to myself, ‘the audience will never get bored of anyone because there’s so much going on.’ Our writers, directors, actors and creator push the envelope every episode — I am extremely grateful to be a part of it!
What excites me about playing ‘Johnny’ is all of his different layers. He keeps things light and funny but he’s also very serious about his career and has the biggest heart. He wants the people in this house to treat each other like family and he gets hurt when it’s not always like that. Plus it’s just so fun to be able to laugh and joke all day on set! It makes my day go by so fast.
LH: Is Johnny Turturro Italian-American – what’s his backstory?
Manny: Johnny is Mexican-American. He just happens to have an Italian sounding last name, for whatever reason. He grew up in the streets, was never a gangster but most of his friends were. He was the one that was able to overcome adversity and made different choices than everyone else. He saw a bigger world.
LH: Do you know where the first season will take your character?
Manny: I love where they take Johnny this first season. He will always maintain his light heartedness, however, he’s going to have to grow up as the season progresses. I was initially worried about him becoming the ‘side kick’ that’s only there for comedic relief, but the writers and network made a very conscious effort to make sure that did not happen. He’s a man. He’s going to learn that things can’t always be fun, and that he can not trust everyone he assumes is his family. Like I said before, I love how many layers he has. He’s soft but tough, funny but serious. He’s a complete contradiction in so many ways.
LH: In another life, could you see yourself as an FBI agent?
Manny: Honestly, I could never really see myself as an FBI agent. I’ve never really been good at separating my work life from my personal life. However, Johnny and I both share a big heart. I’m super sensitive when it comes to protecting people I love and it’s hard for me to just leave it all at work. Inevitably, it all finds its way into my personal life. And that’s why I say it would almost be impossible for me to be an FBI agent. If I were not an actor, I’d be a football coach, fireman, or a police officer.
“A gifted athlete, Manny earned a scholarship to California State University Sacramento… but multiple injuries derailed his dream of playing college and professional football.”
LH: Your career goals started out as an athlete but later circumstances led you to radio and that led to acting. Did you ever have any idea in your childhood that acting was in your future?
Manny: Yes and no. My whole life acting was always that dream in the back of your head that you tell yourself is unattainable. That you say to yourself, ‘that doesn’t happen for people like me.’ But like football and radio, when you start from the bottom and look around and find yourself in this world that you only dreamed of, you start realizing how tangible the dream actually is. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy!
Playing football my whole life, I learned how to be disciplined, how to take criticism, how to work with a team and most importantly how to win and lose. Because of my life experiences, I feel I was prepared for the harshness of this business.
LH: There are many young students in college with dreams of becoming sports superstars whose dreams are derailed by inevitable hurdles… injuries, etc. and many just give up. You didn’t do that. What or who inspired you to move into a different direction?
Manny: The day I stopped playing football was one of the worst days of my life. Driving alone from Sacramento to Long Beach, I cried myself all the way home and had NO idea what I was going to do next. As cliché as it sounds, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I transferred to Long Beach State and an old dream I buried in the back of my mind resurfaced – I started taking acting classes, doing student films – and the rest is history. My family was a huge supporter of my dream!
I was also inspired by watching 2pac, Mos Def, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, and the list goes on… they inspired me in so many different ways. I could never look at myself the same way if I didn’t at least try to make this dream happen. And trust me, not a day goes by that I don’t realize how lucky I am to be living this dream.
LH: Had you ever had any acting training before your first role in the short film, El Primo?
Manny: I was about a month into my first acting class when I booked El Primo. That movie changed my life, and I’ll forever be grateful to everyone involved. At one of our screenings, a man came up to me, introduced himself as Tony Sepulveda and handed me his business card. I looked down and the card read ‘Senior VP of Casting, Warner Bros.’ My face lit up. He laughed and told me to give him a call next week. We met and the rest is history. This man is my angel. He introduced me to every major studio head in Los Angeles, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc. He introduced me to my manager (who I love dearly), and set me up on my first ‘real’ TV audition. He saw something in a little ghetto kid from Long Beach and I will never forget all he’s done for me. To this day when I ask him why he did it, he nonchalantly says, ‘I just like helping people out.’ Till the day I die I will forever pay this forward.
LH: You’ve been busy with independent films—do you enjoy working on this medium more than TV?
Manny: I love working on TV and Film equally but for different reasons. I love the fast paced, back-against-the-wall-have-to-get-shit-done style of TV. To make a great character, it’s a lot of hours of work off set/at home that people will never see and you’ll never get paid for, but when you see the finished product and it’s something that makes you want to hold your head up high it makes it all worthwhile.
And with film I LOVE how it takes acting back to its roots. You have time to work and collaborate with your director. You have time to do multiple takes in an infinite number of ways—to be creative and experiment with bold choices. Most films only do about 3-4 scenes a day, so there’s time for the actor to play. As opposed to a TV series schedule, which is about 6-7 scenes a day with a 7-day episode turn around. As you could imagine, there isn’t much time to mess around.
LH: You’re a local boy from Long Beach, CA, how does your family feel about you being in the spotlight? Are you Latino?
Manny: I’m first generation Mexican-American, with a lot of Spanish, Native American, and Irish blood in me. At first my family didn’t know what to make of my career choice. They were always supportive but would always say things like, ‘Make sure you have a side job or make sure you have a back up plan.’ As the years progressed that slowly changed to, ‘oh OK, keep it up maybe one day you’ll get a break.’ Now if you ask anyone in my family what I do for a living the answer is a simple, ‘he’s an actor.’ And that is something I’m extremely proud of.
My family just treats me normal. We rarely talk about my career. We’re more concerned about all the kids in our family and making sure they all have what they need and are getting to experience things we were never able to as kids.
LH: When you head back to your old neighborhood, what advise do you give kids to inspire them?
Manny: Well… I still live in the neighborhood I grew up in. I coach football at my old high school so I’m always around kids from around my way. There’s not ONE thing that I tell kids. It’s so much bigger than that. I’m never going to be the guy that goes to charity/community events to talk ‘at’ kids. Being part of the community and trying to make it better requires so much more than that. I’m with my kids EVERY day! They’re in my car, they know where I live, they ask me questions about girls, college, my career, etc. Our relationship is so much bigger than advise. I want them to see that they can do WHATEVER they want because someone who is just like them, who came from the same place as them, who had no money like them is now living his dream. I don’t want to talk about it, I just want them to see it.
Thank you, Manny! Watch him on Thursdays on Graceland, 10PM on USA.
Graceland — Terrific Crime-Thriller TV Drama
Creator: Jeff Eastin (White Collar)
Cast: Daniel Sunjata, Aaron Tveit, Manny Montana, Serinda Swan